In a piece published in the Telegraph at www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10458380/Christianity-at-risk-of-dying-out-in-a-generation-warns-Lord-Carey.html, we learn that a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, warned a Christian conference in Shrewsbury that the Church of England was “one generation away from extinction” and that all of its 43 dioceses across the world could be wiped out within 25 years. He was not alone in the Church of England when he predicted such catastrophe. The present Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, told his confreres in the Anglican synod that their church must “evangelize or fossilize,” and he called for a “re-evangelization of England” on par with the original evangelization under Cuthbert and Aidan. The synod responded to his challenge by voting to set up a committee. (It is comforting to find that in a changing world, some things never change.) One can only applaud the Archbishop of York’s zeal when he calls for a re-evangelization of his nation. The question remains however if his church still possesses the original Evangel as understood by Saints Cuthbert and Aidan. For what were the components of that Evangel? In a word, three things.
Firstly, certainty. The men and women who preached the Gospel to the pagans of Britain in the seventh century were absolutely certain that they were right and the mass of the population were wrong. They were prepared to tell their hearers that they were wrong about the gods they worshipped, the religion they practiced, and the kinds of life they lived. They did not shrink from denouncing the people’s sins and calling them to repentance. They did not care at all that most of society felt differently, and did not agonize over whether or not the people would think their message was “relevant.” If their proclamation of the Gospel alienated some people from the Church, that was fine; the hardened unbelief of man did not invalidate the timeless truth of God. These were men who were sure of the absolute truth of their message, and sure that God would help them proclaim it, come what may.
Secondly, urgency. Missionaries like Cuthbert, Hilda, and Aidan did not just want to carve out a little niche for themselves to practice their religion while they let others go their own way. They were determined to reach everyone on the island with the saving Gospel, knowing that Jesus alone could bring sinners from darkness to light, from sitting in the shadow of death to enjoying eternal life. For them the Christian Faith was The Way, not one among others, all of which were equally valid. The original missionaries did not, in fact, have a pluralistic bone in their entire bodies. One can debate the finer points of ecumenism and how God puts truth in all religions. They seemed to have left that debate to others. It certainly did not slow them down as they crossed hill and dale to preach the Gospel to anyone who would listen. Others could debate and dialogue; they knew their task was to preach.
Finally, asceticism. It is not surprising to find that the missionaries were also monks. Wherever they went they set up communities of rigorous asceticism and ceaseless prayer. The populace may or may not have hearkened to the evangelists’ message, but they had to respect the holiness which they saw in their lives. The word “moderation” was scarcely found in their monastic dictionary, and their purity and zeal lent them credibility in the eyes of those watching them. This last component is especially noticeable for its absence today. Since Henry VIII closed the monasteries of his realm, these monasteries have been slow to open. One doesn’t often find the words “asceticism” and “Anglicanism” in the same sentence.
God bless Lords Carey and Sentamu, and God bless their church. But the question before us regards not the evangelization of England, but that of America and Canada. British saints like Cuthbert and Aidan were steeped in the same Orthodox Christian tradition that we have inherited. They served God in their generation, and evangelized the land that lay before them. The only question for us is: will we do the same in ours?