Monday, October 10, 2011

The Holy 'also-rans' of God

A standing cross marking a site where St. Paulinus preached centuries ago.

Today is the traditional date for the commemoration of St. Paulinus of York, a date sadly missing from our current Episcopal Calendar. I say this not because Paulinus is a major figure being blatantly ignored in our country, but because he is a fairly minor figure who has something important to teach in our day.

Paulinus was part of the second wave of mission activity sent to England by Pope St. Gregory the Great in the very early 600’s. Unlike St. Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with the earlier and far more influential St. Augustine of Hippo in northern Africa), Paulinus did not enjoy a great deal of success in his missionary work.

After coming to Canterbury from Rome, he was sent north with the intention of basing his church-building efforts in the ancient (yes, by then it was pretty old) ex-Roman military base of York. This was the same city in which Constantine the Great was first proclaimed Emperor in the 300’s. It seemed a natural and poetic choice.

But ‘facts on the ground’ were very different when Paulinus arrived. The York of old was more a ruined memory than a Roman city. The environment was hostile and in constant turmoil. After vigorous efforts, he was able to make converts and ultimately did baptize local royalty and even a future saint (Hilda); but, the mission eventually ended in near total collapse after the death of his royal patron and resulting warfare. Paulinus had to beat a hasty retreat with the remnant of the royal family, leaving behind him a small contingent of locally-grown Christians to carry on the mission (and possibly to keep alive the story of his mission long enough for Bede to hear it and write it down). Even the pallium from the Pope, confirming his authority as Archbishop of the north in England, missed him ‘in the mail,’ so-to-speak. Forced to move south, he eventually re-established his ministry in Rochester, near Canterbury. It was as Bishop of Rochester, not Archbishop of York and all the North, that he died on this date. It has the feel and sound of near-disaster about it.

The seeds planted by Paulinus, though, would eventually mature into a much richer harvest through the efforts of the Irish mission to the north from Iona, via Lindesfarne—but this would not be until nearly a generation later. So, for a season, it looked like this mission had failed. What do we make of all this?

Paulinus shows us that missionary work is often slow, frustrating, and apparently unsuccessful. This can sometimes be the result of human failings: a poor choice for mission leadership, a failure to grasp the needs of a particular mission setting, arrogance or cruelty in how the Gospel is shared, brought, or (worst of all) imposed.

It can also be the result of bad timing, circumstances, or an outright attack of evil (we are not, after all, dealing with a “morally neutral” setting when we share the Gospel of Christ with the World). Paulinus and his mission seems to have suffered from some or of all of these.

There were a great many setbacks to his work simply because key people proved unreliable or all-too-human. Events and timing conspired against him on several occasions. The mission itself may simply have been set up in a way that was not flexible enough or grass-roots enough--a frequent mistake made by missionaries. The fact that Celtic Christianity a few years later was able to make inroads quickly and effectively suggests at least the possibility that the Roman and civic model Paulinus brought with him at the time was not quite the right formula. 

This is something contemporary evangelists in our part of the country need to think about. Celtic Christianity’s profoundly ‘authentic’ way of living the Gospel was both deeply mystical and deeply orthodox… but it was also very simple and not reliant on an enormous, costly apparatus. Its abbots and bishops were very close to the people, being evangelists and models of Christian intentionality far more than ecclesiastical legislators. We could learn from this.

Finally, Paulinus’ ministry shows us that we must above all be perseverant and patient as sharers of the Word. St. Seraphim of Sarov, when asked what the difference was between Christians who grow in holiness and joy in God and others who made no progress and slid more and more into sin said simply: “Only determination.”

It is easy in our immediate-gratification culture to discount ministries if they do not yield results quickly. But this is a great error on our part. Authentic ministry, wherever it is offered, plants seeds that will mature. Often they do so in unexpected ways, but since it is “God who gives the increase,” ours is not to try and control the outcomes. We are needed to provide the hand- and leg-work, the eyes, ears, and strong backs for the effort: that is enough.

The mission work of the Church in the United States is undergoing tremendous shifts. Lots of people think they know how it needs to look, but none of them really do. We are too early on in this to have reached a new synthesis. Instead, what is needed is a new faithfulness, a new suppleness of outlook, and a renewed simplicity, or better, humility. Then we will have the courage and vision to send out a new Columba, Aidan, Cuthbert, Augustine, Hilda, or any of the holy “also-rans” like Paulinus. 

In our day, the Church is being challenged to ‘get leaner’ not by discarding or watering-down the saving message of Christ, but by becoming more like Christ and his Apostles in its faithfulness, focus, and farsightedness. Re-introduction of mystery, sacramentality, and intentional community are needed. Institutional simplification and replacing bureaucracy with time spent in relationship-building and hands-on mission would be helpful, too. That is an adventure worth going on! It is also of such that the Kingdom of God is—and will continue to be—made.
O Lord our God, you call whom you will and send them where you choose: We thank you for sending your servant Paulinus to be an apostle to the Northern English, to turn them from the worship of idols to serve you, the living God; and we entreat you to preserve us from the temptation to exchange the perfect freedom of your service for servitude to false gods and to idols of our own devising; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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