The Synod of Whitby took place in 664 in the Abbey of St Hilda in Whitby. St Cedd, whose feast day falls day, played a key role in the Synod. He was not only a Bishop, an Abbot and a trusted adviser to the King of Northumbria (in whose kingdom the Synod took place), but also a talented linguist, and therefore able to assist in the complex discussions between the participants, who would have had spoken a mixture of Latin, a nascent form of English, Welsh, Gaelic and perhaps other languages too. It is not unreasonable to conclude that he might have had a significant influence on proceedings.
While it had as its specific purpose the resolution of a small number of matters that we might today see as being of varying degrees of significance (the method of the setting of the date of Easter, and the method of applying the tonsure), the Synod of Whitby stands as a key milestone in the process of increasing the conformity of the practices of the Church in this country with the practices of the Church more widely.
Despite some rather wilful misinterpretations over the years (even to this very day in certain quarters), on a similar scale to the completely Brigadoon-esque fantasies of nineteenth century romanticisers of Scottish legends and "tradition" (eg Ossian, the clan tartan system etc.), it was not a case of an independent “Celtic Church” being subsumed into a territorially avaricious Roman Church. There was no proto-Church of England, let alone a proto-Church of Scotland, present at the Synod of Whitby. What was happening was an alignment of local and universal practice, using an argument (advanced by the “British”, not by the “Italians”) of Petrine supremacy and the universality of the Church.
The leading advocate of the argument for falling into line with the wider practices of the Church was St Wilfred. We have already commented in a blogpost earlier this month on our puzzlement at the choice of St Wilfred as a patron of a society for those dedicated to remaining in the Church of England rather than pursuing the option of the Ordinariate. When one looks at the reasons advanced by St Wilfred for alignment with the universal practices of the Church rather than following the practices on Iona (which, in any case, were under pressure from Ireland to conform to wider practice), as cited by the Venerable Bede, the reasons for our puzzlement become even clearer.
- it was the practice in Rome, where the apostles Ss Peter and Paul had “lived, taught, suffered, and are buried”;
- it was the universal practice of the Church, "even as far as Egypt";
- the customs of the apostle John were particular to the needs of his community and his age and, since then, the Council of Nicaea and established a different practice (the local Ionan or “Celtic” customs followed practices first established by St John the Apostle);
- Columba (the founder of Iona) had done the best he could considering his knowledge, and thus his irregular practice is excusable, but the Ionan monks at present did not have the excuse of ignorance; and
- whatever the case, no one has authority over Peter (and thus his successors, the Bishops of Rome).
Once these arguments had been presented, and all parties had agreed that they considered that, in line with what is stated in the Gospel, St Peter had been given the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and was the rock on which the Church was built, and that therefore he and his successors had recognized authority, the conclusion of the Synod was clear.
A short while after the Synod had concluded, St Cedd returned to the monastery he had established at Lastingham, and died of the plague later that year. Aside from his significance derived from the Synod of Whitby, he is variously known as the Bishop of the East Saxons and the Apostle to Essex (on account of his success in evangelisation there, even now several parishes and associated schools bear his name).
The church constructed by St Cedd, St Peter (what else?) in Bradwell-on-Sea, one of the oldest churches still standing in the UK, and now run by the Church of England, can still be visited today.
St Cedd, St Wilfred and St Hilda, pray for us.