The ancient Irish church/Chapter 12

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For a considerable time the two Churches with their diverse usages existed side by side in England, not without considerable friction. Matters were at length brought to a crisis by the inconvenience of having two Easters in the house of Oswy, King of Northumberland. The monarch himself followed the Irish computation, as did most of the clergy in his kingdom. The queen had been educated by the Roman missionaries, and followed the rule that was propounded by them. The result was that while one part of the household was keeping the fast of Lent, another part was celebrating the feast of Easter. It was then proposed to get over the difficulty by having a public discussion of the question in the presence of the king, and whichever side brought forth the best arguments was to be followed by the whole kingdom.

It is remarkable that when the matter came thus to be argued, the speakers on both sides were from Irish monasteries. On the Romish side was Wilfrid, who had received his early education at Lindisfarne. After leaving that place he had travelled much, both in France and Italy, had been treated with great honour by the ecclesiastics of both countries, and had returned to England full of admiration for Romish ceremonies and altogether in sympathy with Romish ideas. The first ecclesiastical office which he held in England was that of abbot of a monastery from which the Irish had been ejected, because they, 'being left to their choice, would rather quit the place than adopt the Catholic Easter and other canonical rites according to the custom of the Roman Apostolic Church.' His opponent in the controversy was Colman, Bishop of Lindisfarne, who had been sent out from Iona.

The result of the discussion was a foregone conclusion. When the Irish had already been made to choose between conformity to Rome and expulsion from the king's dominions, it was not hard to guess to which side that king's verdict would be most favourable. He decided against the Irish use. Most of the Saxons who had been instructed in the Irish way were contented to abide by the king's decision. But Colman, with many followers, both English and Irish, chose to retire rather than conform. 'Perceiving that his doctrine was rejected and his sect despised,' he returned to Iona, and afterwards settled with his followers at Innisboffin, 'the island of the white heifer,' off the west coast of Ireland.

Meanwhile, an effort, though not a very vigorous one, was made to bring the Irish Church itself to the Roman way of thinking. Laurentius, who was successor of Augustine in the see of Canterbury, wrote a letter in the year 605 to the 'Lords, bishops and abbots throughout all Ireland.' Only the beginning of this epistle has been preserved. And it seems to have been altogether without effect, as indeed might have been expected. It was not by such easy-going efforts that the Irish would be induced to give up the usages to which they had been for so long a time accustomed.

In 634 Pope Honorius addressed a letter to the Irish, 'earnestly exhorting them not to think their small number, placed in the utmost borders of the earth, wiser than all the ancient and modern Churches of Christ throughout the world'; and a further letter from Pope John IV. was sent shortly afterwards, in response to a letter of inquiry from some of the bishops of Ireland. In all these the keeping of Easter was the principal—one might almost say the only—subject discussed.

The point was eventually settled by the Irish themselves. The contests between their missionaries and the Romans, both in England and on the Continent, and the travels undertaken by some of their most eminent men, made them aware that their practice in this respect was singular, and naturally led them to study the subject on their own account. The south of Ireland, where there was most of this foreign intercourse, was the first to conform to the Roman method of computation.

The chief mover in bringing about the change was Cummian, who had formerly belonged to Iona, but who afterwards joined the Romish party. He wrote an apologetic letter on the subject, which is still preserved, and which is a remarkable production in its way. It displays very considerable learning, and it tells us that, however much the doctrines of the ancient Irish differed from those of Irish Protestants of to-day, the spirit displayed then was very much the same as now. The fact that any practice was followed by the Church of Rome was enough to condemn it in their eyes, however innocent it may have been in itself. He represents the upholders of the Irish custom as saying, 'Rome errs, Jerusalem errs, Alexandria errs, the whole world errs; the Irish and the Britons alone think right.' His plea is one for mere toleration; and his words on this subject would be worthy of remembrance in more modern controversies: 'What I am saying is, I perceive, a burden to you; what yon say is also a burden to me, unless yon shall prove it by the word of Holy Scripture. Let us then bear one another's burdens, and so shall we fulfil the law of Christ. For if we wound each other's weak conscience, it is against Christ we sin.'

The conciliatory spirit displayed, and the excellence of the arguments brought forward, had their desired effect. The early years of the seventh century saw the whole of Munster following the Roman computation. It was not, however, until a century later that the north of Ireland and Iona followed, and that conformity was established all through the land. But as this result was brought about by the arguments and investigations of members of the Irish Church itself, the alteration was made without any surrender of independence. The change, too, was a gradual one; and while it removed one of the barriers which prevented the Church of Ireland and the Church of Rome from coalescing, and thus prepared the way for events that happened some centuries later, it is to be remembered that these further changes were as yet in the distant future. On the one hand, no serious effort was made on the part of Rome to bring the Irish Church into subjection; and on the other hand, the Irish Church, in admitting greater friendliness than before, had no intention of bartering her liberties, or of occupying any other than the independent position which she had held from the first.