St Wilfrid: First Bishop of York
Delving into the life and ministry of St Wilfred makes interesting reading.
Wilfred was a man of the time who generally got on well with others but not so well with those who held positions of power. Perhaps his face and manner didn’t quite fit with some but he soldiered on, true to his own sense of calling, despite the difficulties and challenges he faced and coped with. What follows is only a very brief account of his life but do read and reflect on and about his life and ministry and how you would rate him.
Wilfred was born in AD 634, the son of a Northumbrian nobleman. He was educated at Lindisfarne, the great centre of Celtic Christianity in the north of Britain at that time but while he learned much there ‘he despaired at the insularity of the place’. He was unhappy with the inward-looking ethos of Irish Christianity at Lindisfarne so he decided to take his leave and travel all over England and to France and then on to Italy.
He went to Canterbury to study and while there he developed a taste for the Roman practices of the church before going to France and then on to Rome. While in France he was ordained as bishop. He returned to England about three years later in about 660 and became a strong and persuasive campaigner for replacing the Celtic traditions with Roman liturgical practices and following the Benedictine Rule of fusing prayer and labour with community life.
The appeal of adopting Roman practices tended to upset many bishops and noblemen, especially in the north of Britain, and as a result he began to encounter fierce opposition, not least because of his age, as he was barely thirty years old. Many bishops objected to Wilfred being ordained as a bishop which perhaps stemmed from an ancient rule which much later was included in The Book of Common Prayer of 1662. It states with regard to the ‘Manner of Making, Ordaining and Consecrating Bishops, Priests and Deacons,’ “ everyman who is to be ordained, or consecrated Bishop, shall be fully thirty years of age”.
It seems that perhaps some bishops regarded Wilfred as too much of a ‘High Flyer’ or ‘Whizz Kid’ and felt threatened by him being too much of an entrepreneur and change-maker to get on comfortably with.
However, at the Synod of Whitby in 664 the pro-Roman party won the vote and Wilfred was appointed bishop of York but not for long as many bishops, especially those who stood opposed to adopting Roman practices, made life difficult for Wilfred. It seems, probably as a result of the resolutions of Whitby that Wilfred found himself being pushed from pillar to post, up and down and in and out of favour. Although he had received a first class education at Lindisfarne and was known to have eloquent and articulate oratory skills, he was also known to have a quick and quarrelsome temperament that upset many bishops as well as noblemen and the King.
As a result, he was deposed as bishop of York but about four years later he was reinstated. During his time as bishop of York he managed to acquire large areas of land and his diocese subsequently extended to the outer limits of the Northumbrian kingdom which troubled other bishops who perhaps thought Wilfred was becoming too much of an empire builder.
As bishop of York Wilfred enjoyed a life of affluence, prestige and comfort at least for a while until he upset and angered the King again over an issue concerning the King’s wife. Wilfred fell out of favour and was criticised by his enemies for having too large a diocese. They thought his diocese was an embarrassment and too powerful so a decision was made, without consulting Wilfred, to divide the diocese of Northumbria into four parts served by four bishops Smarting from that decision and the way he had been treated he decided to take his case to Rome and appeal to the Pope. He was apparently the first English bishop ever known to do so and he won his case.
During the years that followed Wilfred made at least two or perhaps three further visits to Rome to ask the Pope to intervene when he felt he was being unfairly treated. No doubt that angered some English bishops. Following one visit to Rome Wilfred, on his return, was accused of obtaining a Papal Decree through bribery to secure his See in Northumbria (a See being the office and jurisdiction of a bishop). That accusation resulted in him being imprisoned for nine months.
After being released he worked in Sussex helping convert the pagan Saxons to Christianity and while there he founded a monastery near Chichester. Five years later, in 689, the King of Northumbria, at the behest of the Pope, requested Wilfred be reinstalled to his Abbey in Ripon but after quarrelling with the King again he was banished from Northumbria. He then found favour with the King of Mercia who granted Wilfred the vacant See of Lichfield.
I think Wilfred, in his later years, perhaps came to adopt a gentle and compromising approach, especially out of a concern for his future in dealing with powerful people. Some bishops still wanted to remove him but a compromise was reached. He was invited to retire to his Abbey in Rippon but retain the See of Hexham. He did so.
Wilfred died about 709 at the age of 75 after a challenging life. But those were dark, difficult and dangerous times when it was unwise to upset or anger those who held positions of power who could influence and shape a future for better or for worse.
When I reflect on the life of St Wilfred I also tend to remember times in my own life when I was perhaps too outspoken or challenging about things and came away from meetings or situations or interviews smarting and thinking “I should have been more delicate or more politically or culturally sensitive in voicing my thoughts, feelings and/or objections about various matters”. Some might perhaps remember occasions when we felt pushed from pillar to post because perhaps our face didn’t quite fit. Perhaps some might remember regretting or saying or doing something that caused us to tumble from a life or a job or a relationship that we felt secure in and wish we could turn the clock back and undo things. I’m sure that is true for most or all of us in some way at points in life as I think it was for Wilfred also. But he got on with life and tried as best he could to temper his way and sense of calling that enabled him to do his best for God.
So, today, let us remember and venerate Wilfred as a saint of the Church who was loved and highly regarded by many as a man of God throughout northern Britain and beyond.