03 December 2018

Holy Hierarch Berin of Dorchester, Apostle to the West Saxons

Saint Berin of Dorchester

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate Berin of Dorchester, a pre-Schismatic saint (either a Frank or a Lombard by birth; the sources are conflicted on this point) ordained in Genoa by the Archbishop Asterius of Milan, and sent to Britain by the controversial Pope Honorius to convert the West Saxons of England to Christianity. Saint Berin promised the Pope of Rome to, as Bede the Venerable put it, ‘sow the seeds of the holy faith in the most inland and remote regions of the English’. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the new bishop landed at Portchester in Wessex (now Hampshire) in 634, and, upon finding the folk living in the Thames watershed to be still mired in their heathen beliefs, decided to stay among them rather than going further inland. According to the legend, he healed a blind and deaf heathen woman at Portchester, who, grateful for gaining her sight and hearing, told Bishop Berin where he might find the king in those parts.

He came before Cynegils, King of the West Saxons, who lived at Cholsey in the Berkshire Downs. Cynegils, hoping to intimidate the Christian Bishop, told Saint Berin to teach the Gospel first at the barrows at Churn Knob outside Blewbury, which had been hallowed ground to the heathen for a long time. However, unfazed, Saint Berin preached the Gospel so that many West Saxons heard him and believed, and though he did not manage to convert Cynegils at Churn Knob, the king was nonetheless impressed by Saint Berin’s boldness and allowed him to preach throughout his writ. Staying then among the West Saxons, Saint Berin taught the Gospel, healed the sick, worked wonders, and brought many of the West Saxon folk into the Church.

Saint Bede, a true man of the English North, has a particular interest in the legend of Saint Berin: that Berin’s conversion of Cynegils intimately involved Saint Oswald, Martyr-King of Northumbria. At the time, Cynegils wanted to ally himself with Oswald against the Mercians under Penda, who were a threat to both Wessex and Northumbria. Oswald came southward to meet Cynegils (causing a holy spring to gush forth at Wokingham when he prayed there for water on the way), but the saintly king would not ally himself with a heathen. Thereupon, Cynegils assented to be brought into the Church by Saint Berin; and Saint Oswald was present at the baptism in 635 – the two kings thereupon became not only allies, but fast friends, ‘lovely indeed and well-pleasing to God’.

The newly-illumined Cynegils gave Saint Berin a bishop’s seat in the town of Dorchester-on-Thames from whence to do his holy works. The saint blessed the grounds for a cathedral, Dorchester Abbey, and proceeded to baptise great throngs of people in the name of the Holy Trinity – holding an especially large mass baptism of West Saxons at Bapsey Pond in Taplow (which is unfortunately now owned by a Japanese Buddhist sect). He founded several churches besides in Wessex, including the Cathedral at Winchester. Saint Berin baptised Cynegils’s son Cwichelm and his grandson Cuþræd, but Cwichelm died in the same year as his baptism and the kingdom of Wessex passed into the hands of Cynegils’s heathen younger son Cenwealh, who would not hear of Christ from Saint Berin’s lips. Cenwealh angered the Mercian king Penda by slighting the latter’s sister, whom he divorced to marry another woman – the subsequent war between Penda and Cenwealh saw the West Saxon king driven into the arms of the East Angles, whose Christian king Anna welcomed and sheltered him. It was in these straits, in East Anglia, that Cenwealh repented and received the Christian faith.

Bishop Berin reposed on the third of December, 649, and was buried at Dorchester. He was glorified as a saint almost at once. Though the move was not without controversy, his successor, Bishop Saint Hædde of Wessex, had Berin’s incorrupt relics translated to Winchester and placed in a state of honour at the cathedral there. These relics thereupon healed the illnesses and disabilities of many folk who came to visit them, and the relics of Saint Berin drew many pilgrims thence. Winchester Cathedral still has in its possession an Orthodox icon of Saint Berin written by the iconographer Sergei Fyodorov.

Holy Hierarch Berin of Dorchester, pray to God for us sinners!

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