Learning from the legacy of St. Aidan | Jeff Nowers | Sept. 8, 2019
I have a particular fascination with church names. Protestant churches, especially in the U.S., sometimes have names that are rather humorous. In the tiny town of Halfway, Missouri, is a church called Halfway Baptist Church. North of Baltimore is a hamlet called Boring, where Boring United Methodist Church is located. If you visit Louisville, Kentucky, you’ll find a church called the Original Church of God. (With a name like that, you’d think it should be something of a worldwide tourist attraction.)
Churches in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox and Anglican traditions aren’t named after their specific geographical location. Rather, they’re named after—or for—a particular saint (often a saint that the original parish community identified with), or a particular doctrine. So, for instance, you will never find in Toronto an Anglican church with a name like Queen Street Anglican Church, or Scarborough Bluffs Anglican Church. But you will find many churches named after apostolic saints like James and John, and doctrines like the Trinity and the Ascension. In Anglicanism, geographical identification is less important than a connection to Christian history, whether an identification with a meaningful doctrine or with a saintly figure.
Some churches are named after less prominent saints—like this church that we’re in right now. How many other churches in the Diocese of Toronto are named after St. Aidan? Answer: one—the amalgamated parishes of St. Matthew and St. Aidan in Buckhorn, near the Kawartha Lakes. Our parish here in the Beach is the only church in the Diocese named for St. Aidan alone. That’s why today is very important—what we call our patronal festival. Our liturgical calendar sets aside August 31 for St. Aidan, but it’s such a significant day for us that we wait until everyone returns from the summer break to celebrate it. Today we remember St. Aidan and think about how his legacy might deepen our own Christian faith here in Toronto in 2019.
Who was St. Aidan? Many of us know his story. Aidan was a 7th century Irish monk. He was alive a mere 150 years after the pivotal Council of Chalcedon (in modern Turkey), which decidedly affirmed that Jesus Christ is a perfect union of two natures, fully human and fully divine. We don’t know much about Aidan’s childhood, but from a relatively young age he lived at the monastery of Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. At this time, the presence of Christianity in Northumbria (northern England) was giving way to a form of Anglo-Saxon paganism. King Oswald of Northumbria, a devout Christian, did not want to see Christianity die out. So he requested that the Iona monastery send missionaries to help spread the Good News of Jesus throughout the land.
Iona responded by sending Bishop Corman, who turned out to be a disaster. Corman engaged the people of Northumbria in a condescending, antagonistic and inflexible manner. It didn’t take him long to conclude that they were a lost cause, too steeped in paganism to be redeemed. He gave up and returned to Iona. It was Aidan who spoke up and told Corman that his approach was all wrongheaded. We don’t know if Aidan criticized Corman in order to volunteer himself to be sent or if he had already been chosen to go. In any case, Aidan was identified by the monastery as the one to accomplish what Corman had failed to do. How did Aidan embrace this mission? With eagerness? Did he have second thoughts? Did he imagine that his assignment would be short, and he’d return to Iona? Or did he simply venture into the unknown, trusting God to guide his uncertain steps? We can be sure it wasn’t an easy move for him.
Aidan and his small team made the arduous trek from Iona to Northumbria—Lucy knows that journey in reverse all too well—and he set up his home base on the island of Lindisfarne, where he built a monastery. He was very intentional about distancing himself from his predecessor, Bishop Corman. Aidan wanted simply to walk about among the people, engaging them as they are. He embodied St. Paul’s words in today’s first reading: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” He became much loved, especially among the poor, and this allowed him to establish churches, monasteries and schools, even though Northumbria never became completely Christianized. After ten years Aidan retired to Lindisfarne, where he had been made bishop. The remainder of his years were devoted to prayer and contemplation. He never did return to Iona.
We can learn much from Aidan’s legacy, but let me suggest a couple of things for us to contemplate. First, Aidan was a risk-taker. He was compelled to leave the comforts of Iona to share the Good News of Jesus in a land that needed to hear it. Leaving Iona was what following the Way of Jesus required of him—and it wasn’t easy. In the words of today’s Gospel, Aidan left houses and fields and family for the name of Jesus. In our day, in 2019 Toronto, following the Way of Jesus hasn’t gotten any easier. Sure, we might not be sent off to evangelize pagan lands. But following Jesus is a risky endeavor, and it pushes us out of our comfort zone. When I think about Aidan, I’m challenged to examine the comforts of my life. If I’m too comfortable in my daily existence, even too comfortable in my theological convictions, then I’m probably not embracing the risk that Jesus asks each of us to take.
What risks of faith are we prepared to take—today, this coming fall, and in the coming year? There are risks that we might take as individuals. Such as venturing into a wide open territory of ideas by laying aside cherished theological convictions that no longer make sense. Or perhaps leaving an unfulfilling job to embark on new kinds of work that focus more directly on love of God and neighbor. There are also risks that we might take as a congregation. We’re about to take a big risk with our building renovation project. A lot of questions must still be answered and details ironed out, but we’re nonetheless stepping out in faith.
A second thing we can learn from Aidan’s legacy is his total commitment to following the Way of Jesus. He was all in. He didn’t set off to Northumbria to satisfy a craving for personal fame. He went, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “for my name’s sake,” as a disciple of Jesus. I don’t know what Aidan would think about certain churches today, like our church, being named after him. I suspect he’d be rather ambivalent. That’s because Aidan would be concerned to see us follow the Way of Jesus, not simply claim the saint name of a church as the basis of our faith. If we’re going to leave everything and follow Jesus, as Peter says he’s done in today’s Gospel, then we need to remember that our faith transcends the name St. Aidan’s Anglican Church. The mission of this church, which you’ll find clearly stated on our website, is “to know Christ and make him known.” That’s why we’re here: to learn about Jesus, and then to embody everything about him so that our neighborhood and our city might be transformed. How might we as a congregation strengthen our resolve to do this? That’s another question for us to consider.
St. Aidan was a remarkable figure in Christian history. May we all find the courage and grace to take risks of faith, as he did. And may we remember that we risk for the sake of knowing Christ and making him known. That’s what matters ultimately.