Britain, Early Church in

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BRITAIN, EARLY CHURCH IN

The Christian faith was introduced into England and Scotland probably by commercial and military contacts between Britain and Gaul. Irenaeus in his Adversus Haereses (1.3), written c. 176, does not mention Britain in a list of Christian lands that includes the regions of the Celts. tertullian, writing shortly after 200, spoke of "the places of the Britons not reached by the Romans but subject to Christ" and adds that "Christ's name reigns" there (Adv. Judaeos, 7). This is the first concrete reference to the existence of Christianity in Britain, though Tertullian probably exaggerated the extent and social influence of the faith there at that time. The controversial legends of the Glastonbury mission of Joseph of Arimathea (allegedly in a.d. 63) and the request of King Lucius of the Britons to Pope eleutherius (c. 167) for missionaries are without historical value.

There is sixth-century evidence (Gildas, De excidio Britanniae, 10; 11; Bede, Eccl. hist. 1.4; 5.24, using Gildas) of a persecution of Christians either in the middle of the third century or at the beginning of the fourth century; but there is strong evidence against its being an integral part of the Diocletian repression, since both Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 8.13) and Lactantius claim that Constantius I as emperor of the West (293306) took no part in the diocletian persecution. The most famous martyr mentioned for this period is St. alban (Gildas, loc. cit.; Constantius, Life of Germanus ); he was already reverenced as a martyr in Britain in 429.

After the so-called Edict of milan (313) the Church in Britain developed in security and sent three bishops to the Council of arles (314): Restitutus of London, Eborius (probably quite simply his title) of York (Eboracum), Adelphius (of Lincoln or Caerleon). The conciliar decisions that bishops were not to invade dioceses other than their own and that ordinations were to be performed by a minimum of three bishops indicate that the British Church, like all those represented at Arles, was by this time a full-fledged episcopal and diocesan organization.

There is no conclusive evidence that any British bishops attended the Councils of Nicaea (325) or Sardica (343); but at least three attended Ariminum (360); according to Sulpicius Severus they were the only three to take advantage of Emperor Constantius' offer to pay bishops' travel expenses from imperial funds.

This same year (360) saw the beginning of the barbarian irruptions that were to involve Britain in the general decline and eventual collapse of the Roman Empire. The Picts and Scots attacked heavily along the northern frontier and in 367 were joined by the Saxons. Hadrian's Wall was breached and Britain's security rendered precarious. After a temporary containment of the barbarian invaders by theodosius i, the great Roman withdrawal began in 401 under Stilicho. By 409 the Britons had been told by Emperor honorius i to provide their own defense. In a barbarian raid by the Irish (c. 405) patrick was carried off to Ireland.

About the same point another young Briton, pela gius, began (c. 400) to teach a doctrine in Rome that developed into a denial of original sin. There is no record of the return of Pelagius himself to Britain after his Roman stay (405410), but Pelagianism was probably introduced into Britain by his disciples expelled from Rome in the reign of Pope celestine i (422432). A second-rate Pelagian, Agricola, son of the Pelagian bishop Severianus, fled to Britain and seems to have been the main instrument for the introduction of heresy into the Church there. The consequent laxity became so widespread within a decade that an appeal was made to Rome, resulting in the famous missions of the Gaul St. germain (429 and 447).

During the first three decades of the fifth century St. ninian preached to the Picts of Galloway and can be called the first known missionary to Scotland; after his death in 432 his converts among the Picts fell away from the faith.

The Anglo-Saxon invasions of the second half of the fifth century brought a heathen agglomeration into southern and eastern Britain, and the British Church ceased to exist as a hierarchically organized institution in the more densely populated portions of the country. The continental invaders slaughtered many British Christians; others fled to Brittany; and some were fired with missionary zeal and the desire for monasticism that could better be realized abroad. A remnant in the Welsh and Cornish mountains maintained close contact with Gaul.

This remnant welcomed the newly spreading phenomenon of monasticism. C. J. Godfrey's remark is cogent: " its fervent spirit was welcomed by the defeated and displaced Britons, who found in specialized 'religion' a compensation for their temporal losses." Important monastic foundations were that of Illtud at Hodnant or Llanilltud (c. 500), where a school was founded to train men for monasticism, but which also offered a liberal education; that of David at Menevia (c. 560); of Cadoc at Llancarvon; of Kentigern (Mungo) at a Strathclyde site named for his "dear family" of disciples, Glasgu (c. 580).

The Welsh Christians evangelized the pagan or apostate Picts and maintained constant spiritual commerce with Ireland and Brittany, but hated the Anglo-Saxon invaders for their crime of total dispossession to an extent that precluded all missionary activity to them. When au gustine of canterbury in his mission in 597 appealed to the Celts for charity to the Angles, the reply of Abbot Bangor was: "We will never, never, preach the faith to this cruel race of foreigners who have so treacherously robbed us of our native soil" (Patrologia Latina, 80:2124).

Bibliography: bede, A History of the English Church and People, tr. l. sherley-price (Baltimore 1955). a. plummer, The Churches in England before A.D. 1000, 2 v. (London 191112). m. deansley, The Pre-Conquest Church in England (New York 1961). h. williams, Christianity in Early Britain (Oxford 1912). s. n. miller, "The British Bishops at the Council of Arles," English Historical Review, 42 (1927) 7980. c. r. peers, "The Earliest Christian Churches in Britain," Antiquity, 3 (1929). c. j. godfrey, The Church in Anglo-Saxon England (New York 1962). gildas, De excidio Britanniae, 10. Patrologia Latina, ed. j. p. migne, 217 V., indexes 4 v. (Paris 187890).

[a. g. gibson]