Hilda was born in 614 of the royal house of Northumbria. Baptised in York at the age of twelve by the Roman missionary Paulinus, she was later an influential lay leader of the Church. She was encouraged by Aidan of Lindisfarne to become a nun, and subsequently established a monastery at Streanaeshalch (Whitby). This house became a great centre of learning and was the meeting-place for the important Synod of Whitby in the year 664 at which Hilda’s rôle was that of a reconciler between the Roman and the Celtic traditions. She is remembered as a great educator, exemplified in her nurturing of Caedmon’s gift of vernacular song. She died on 17 November in the year 680.
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
North East England is one of my favourite places for a quiet break, I love to read about the ancient Celtic saints, and to see the places where they lived. There’s something profoundly moving about knowing I’m standing where others have shared my faith for over a thousand years, and, like many other people I find this can be a time for spiritual renewal, re-reading the stories and following in the footsteps of some of those saints, including Aidan and Cuthbert.
So, when I visit Whitby I wonder how Hilda really felt at the time of the Synod. She was a gracious and caring hostess to all the visiting clergy, but the decision to establish Roman Christian practice as the norm in Northumbria, must have been disconcerting for this powerful abbess of a Celtic-practice monastery, maybe it stretched her humble patience almost to the limit.
It seems that Hilda responded to this different way of being Church with more grace than the monks from Lindisfarne, who apparently refused to accept the decision and withdrew to Iona. Hilda lived by the standards laid down in Paul’s letter to the people of Ephesus, a tiny passage from the letter is today’s reading.
In this beautiful letter, Paul talks about God’s intention to unite Jews and Gentiles in a new community, which is the Church, the body of Christ. Paul offers a description of early Christian life, and in this passage, he is urging Christians to live their lives being focussed, disciplined and humble – supporting each other in love, regardless of ethnic differences. The Message paraphrase says: “Everything you think and do is permeated with Oneness.”
It resonates over the millennia for the Church today. Some churches may need to look different if they are to share faith with people who have never even heard of Jesus, yet we are all called to travel in the same direction and stay together, both outwardly and inwardly.
We can’t guess how the Church will look in the future; just like in Hilda’s time, and in Paul’s time too, culture is changing and the Church can join in by listening to and immersing itself in that culture, loving and serving and thus sharing faith. There are already many new expressions of Church which exist alongside more traditional churches. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians chapter 12, we are invited to be part of the body, accepting of the other parts. Our place, is to accept that there may be changes and yet be “completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love”. 1,500 years ago, Hilda understood the significance of this message, now it’s up to us.
Compassionate God, We know that you call us to be one church, yet sometimes we struggle to grasp that this church may take many different forms. Help us to celebrate difference and understand that we are all working together to share the love of Jesus with people who may not be like us. Help us understand that this means sharing our faith in many different ways, and help us to celebrate new expressions of church as they bring people to Jesus – even if we don’t fully comprehend them. In the name of your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Linda Rayner is the URC Co-ordinator for Fresh Expressions.