My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
I sometimes blog for two other organizations, the Canadian Baptist Historical Society and the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.
The views expressed in these blogs represent the views of the authors, and not necessarily those of any organizations with which they are associated.
Image of Bede is entitled "The Last Chapter" by J. Doyle Penrose (1902). Image from public domain.
I am embarrassed to admit it, but it took me twenty years as a professor of Christian history to finally get around to reading the entirety of the Venerable Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c. 731). But I did it this summer, and it was worth the wait.
There is much to say about the book, with its fascinating descriptions of saints and sinners, relics and miracles, missionaries and monarchs, and church divisions and unions. But what I want to address here is how the text stirs the imagination when it comes to post-Christendom missions and possibilities.
As a plethora of scholars have noted, contemporary England is far removed from the “Christian England” of even just a generation ago. And the trajectory towards a post-Christendom reality is currently shared by many western nations. But a telos of a disappearing church is not new.
By the fourth century, a well-established church existed within the borders of the Roman Empire in what we today call “England.” But the crumbling empire of the fifth century led to the withdrawal of Roman legions, taking away any means of defence.
The threats by the Picts from the north led to invitations for protection being sent across the North Sea by the Britons to the German Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. They came, but their aims quickly became conquest, migration, and permanent settlement. Over a few generations the original Britons were pushed westward into the mountains of Wales. The once thriving churches had been wiped out or pushed out by waves of pagan Germanic invaders and settlers. The Anglo-Saxons had arrived to stay.
The remaining churches of Britons were left cowering in the mountains of Wales, on the margins, out of sight, and barely alive.
As Bede chronicles, however, the story for the church was not over. And his Ecclesiastical History of the English People stirs the imagine when it comes to post-Christendom missions and possibilities.
Any surviving churches were simply too weak to carry out the re-evangelization of the land. But as Bede chronicles, help came from abroad. Bede describes how the church of Rome and the churches of Ireland invested enormous resources and personnel to the introduction of Christianity to a people unfamiliar with the faith.
Famous missionaries such as St. Aiden and St. Augustine established key mission centres in monasteries and churches at Lindisfarne and Canterbury.
The diligent instruction of the people led to a deepening of the faith among once pagan peoples.
Dramatic displays of martyrdom and miracles proved essential in convincing people of the truthfulness of the new faith.
The conversion of Anglo-Saxon rulers led to the protection of the church against attacks from its enemies.
And he shows how mission work was carried out with innovation, flexibility, and adaptability.
By the end of the fifth century, it looked like the church of the Britons had been wiped out, or, at best, marginalized as the leftover remnants of a defeated people hiding in the hills of Wales. The success of any missionary venture to evangelize the lost land also looked grim.
But reading Bede’s account demonstrates fresh possibilities and new futures.
The work he describes had been no easy task – Bede’s account provides ample examples of the trials and tribulations of the missionary enterprise – but the success of the priests, monks, and martyrs was clear. By the end of the seventh century, the Anglo-Saxons identified with the Christian faith. And that identity as a “Christian England” would continue for another 1300 years.
In conclusion, the temptation for a church in the midst of being moved to the margins can be a discouraging pining for the “glorious” past, a vexing waging of culture wars to recapture lost ground, and, to my point, a doubting that the future can bring anything good. But that need not be the only response to post-Christendom. On the contrary, Bede’s account can prompt a re-imagined future, one where the demise of the church is not the end of the story. In fact, it may be the beginning of a new beginning. As Bede stated when he wondered about the long-term impact of conversions, “what the results will be, a later generation will discover.”
 For one example, see Callum G. Brown, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation, 1800-2000 (Routledge, 2001).
 For the Canadian context, see Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald, Leaving Christianity: Changing Allegiances in Canada since 1945 (MQUP, 2017).
 For the conversion of Western Europe, see Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion” From Paganism to Christianity (University of California Press, 1999). For early Anglo-Saxon Christianity, see Paul Cavill, Anglo-Saxon Christianity: Exploring the Earliest Roots of Christian Spirituality in England (Fount, 1999).
 For instance, see Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 5. “It seems to me, brother, that you have been unreasonably harsh upon your ignorant hearers: you did not first offer them the milk of simpler teaching, as the apostle recommends, until little by little, as they grew strong on the food of God’s word, they were capable of receiving more elaborate instruction, and of carrying out the more transcendent commandments of God.”
 For instance, see Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapters 9-13.
 For instance, see Ecclesiastical History, Book 5, Chapter 10. “At the same time, he gave them the support of his royal authority so that none should molest them as they preached.”
 For instance, see Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, Chapters 27, 30. “It is doubtless impossible to cut out everything at once from their stubborn minds: just as the man who is attempting to climb to the highest place, rise by steps and degrees and not by leaps.”
 Ecclesiastical History, Book 5, Chapter 23. For more contemporary works on reimaging a post-Christendom world, see Lee Beach, The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom (IVP, 2015); Charles Fenshaw, Emerging from the Dark Age Ahead (Clements 2011); Jonathan R. Wilson, Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World: Lessons for the Church from MacIntyre’s After Virtue (Trinity Press International, 1997); Douglas Hall, The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity (Wipf and Stock, 2003).