From Be Thou My Breastplate, by Paul Wallis
Let the work of the church of God be in these hands. (Fursa’s Breastplate)
Fursa’s adopted country felt isolated in its haven between the warm North Atlantic and the cold North Sea. One-and-a-half centuries earlier, the withdrawal of the Roman Empire to Europe’s east had ushered in for Britain an age of fragmentary invasions and tribal feuding. Now, in Fursa’s day, a new generation of missionaries was arriving to reconnect Britain’s isolated Christians with the wider world of the church. In the intervening years, however, the landscape of this wider world had become strangely altered. Now the call of fealty was not to the Emperor, firmly established in his Byzantine Palace. In Christianity’s early days it was the refusal of such an oath that had cost so many of the martyrs their lives. With the new wave of missionaries, the call of fealty was to new ecclesiastical structures: to protocols and chains of command that stretched to the Mediterranean and to Rome’s last vestige of order and administration, the walled city on the Vatican Hill. The watchwords of this new world for the churches were uniformity and order.
In this new day, the chief focus was to be on establishing the new infrastructures of parish and diocese rather than the missionary community of the monastic household. Gone were the old ways of diversity, brotherhood, and the local autonomy of sister churches. Nor were these the only changes. Fursa’s peers were shocked to find that even the calculation of Easter itself had been subjected to change. In Fursa’s day each local community was still free to choose which calendar to follow, but only 15 years after Fursa’s death, the Synod of Whitby required all British Christians to submit to the new method of calculation. The decisive argument was that the monastic method of taking the date of Easter directly from the Gospel of John must surely weigh less than the pronouncement of the hierarchy’s most senior prelate.
To the Celtic Christian, this institutional world of rank and hierarchy was a foreign world indeed, for all these changes in the expression of church life had taken place while the Celts had faithfully continued in their more primitive expression of Christianity, innocent in their isolation.
Fursa’s world was the more primitive world where the strong center of a region’s Christian life was invariably to be found in small, residential forms of church. In his time, the properties farmed by monastic brothers and sisters were not seen as enclosures, shut away from the church’s mission. They were its lifeblood; the very source of its energy and manpower. Fursa’s was a world — as Bede reminds us (disapprovingly) — where bishops deferred to the monastic leaders — not vice versa, and where public services of liturgy were performed not at the center but at the fringe of Christian ministry, often by monastic brothers with a priestly license. Fursa’s was a world of small, local communities, bound together not by the cords of institution and protocol, but by the stuff of soul-friendship and a shared family history.
The Apostle Paul, in his letters of Ephesians and Colossians, and the Apostle Peter, in his letter to the diaspora, both lay out their revelation of how the kingdom of God was to come through the church of Jesus Christ. This apostolic revelation names the particular relationships that are key to making that vision a reality. Arrestingly, the relationships named are not the hierarchical relationships of institutional life but the relationships of husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves. In the apostolic vision, the household of God subsisted most authentically in the households of God’s people.
This was a vision with roots in the rich testimony of the Jewish way of worship, for in Passover, Sabbath, in teaching and prayer the continuing tradition of the Old Testament centers the liturgy of faith upon households of faith. For Fursa and his generation, protected by their long isolation, this was still the model and the infrastructure of the Christian church. Even as a team of celibate workers, Fursa’s band structured their ministry on households, living together as brothers. As we have seen, two of the brethren were Fursa’s own blood brothers, Foillan and Ultan, for his was truly a family household.
Historically, it is language that denotes the people-groups we now call Celts. In the language of Fursa’s people we still hear the echo of this very human grassroots expression of church life. Words meaning home and hearth, affection and family, brotherhood, sisterhood, and soul-friendship; to the Celtic ear these were the words that expressed their way of church.
Church programs today often segregate the ages and genders, fragmenting the community of the family: adults into groups for adults, children into Sunday schools, and young people into youth groups. Perhaps Fursa’s primitive world shows a better way.
Today as I speak this line of prayer, I will pray for the church in all its forms: congregational and monastery; institution and brotherhood; hierarchy and family. But to enter Fursa’s world and truly pray his prayer means to keep in mind before anything else the church of my own hearth and household, the church of my brothers, sisters, and soul friends. Holding them in my heart I will pray: “Let the work of the church of God be in these hands.”