12 May 2019

Holy Hierarch Æþelheard, Archbishop of Canterbury

Saint Æþelheard of Canterbury

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate Æþelheard – an archbishop of Canterbury who was often at odds with sæcular authority, who struggled against power-hungry princes and kings, and who insisted on the rights of the church in matters of conscience. Æþelheard was closely associated – as we shall see – with Saint Ealhwine of York, the great educator of the Franks, whom we also commemorate later this month. A great deal about Æþelheard’s life and career has present echoes in the situation of the Orthodox Church in the Ukraine, showing that the theopolitical and ecclesiological problems there are neither culturally unique to the Christian East, nor are they even particularly new.

As with many of the English saints of late antiquity, the circumstances of Æþelheard’s birth and youth are unkith to us, but political circumstances seem to indicate that he was of Mercian origin. He first appears in the church histories as a monk and as an abbot of a monastery at Louth in Lincolnshire; he was at some point after 759 appointed Bishop of Winchester. However, we do not know much of his ecclesiastical career until his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury nearly 35 years later.

This occurred under the auspices of the formidable Offa King of Mercia, who sought to weaken Kentish influence in England by having one of his ‘own’ bishops appointed to the see of Canterbury – this indeed was Æþelheard. The enthronement of Æþelheard as Archbishop was overseen, with the help and advisement of Saint Ealhwine of York, by a Mercian bishop: Hygeberht, Archbishop of Lichfield. (Offa had had Lichfield established, in violation of canon law and in pursuit of political gain, as a metropolitan see independent of Canterbury.) This indeed gives us further indication of the nature of this appointment. Indeed, this Anglian imposition seems to have been resented sorely by the Kentish and Saxon princes under the churchly sway of Canterbury.

On Offa’s death three years later, a new king rose to power in Kent: Éadberht III Præn – a former priest who promptly and unceremoniously overthrew Æþelheard as Archbishop of Canterbury, forcing him to flee for his life. This move led Saint Ealhwine to rebuke Æþelheard for fleeing his charge and flock; however, Pope Leo III seems to have seen the matter rather differently. Éadberht had then also unwisely and unjustly begun seizing church properties that had belonged to the Archbishopric for his use and that of his nobles. This consideration, as well as the fact that the new king of Mercia, Cœnwulf, had made a plea to him on his behalf, led Pope Leo to sympathise strongly with his deposed bishop Æþelheard. Pope Leo excommunicated Éadberht and gave permission to Cœnwulf to reconquer Kent, in light of the abuses committed by Éadberht against the church. This was accomplished in 798 – Cœnwulf had Éadberht imprisoned and his eyes put out, but spared his life. Saint Æþelheard was restored to his bishopric.

One might have expected, in the aftermath, with a Mercian king triumphant as brytenwealda, a Mercian bishop in Canterbury and a pro-Mercian Pope on the throne in Rome, that ecclesiastical power would have migrated smoothly from Canterbury to Lichfield. (Indeed, the correspondence between Cœnwulf and Leo indicates that the king was interested in politically neutralising Canterbury and moving the southern English see to London, and that the Pope was concerned with maintaining respect for his office in Britain.) But this was not the case. Once reenthroned in Canterbury, Æþelheard did bear correspondence between Cœnwulf and the Pope. But he not only refused to brook another translation to London; he vigorously began reasserting Canterbury’s rights over the properties the see had lost under Éadberht Præn; and he presided over a church synod at Clofesho (possibly the modern-day Brixworth in Northampton; the former bishop of Lichfield Hygeberht was present, though only as an abbot – he had apparently resigned in the interim) which oversaw the disestablishment of Lichfield as a metropolitan see and the reassertion of the primacy of Canterbury in the English South.

Saint Æþelheard therefore opposed the ‘tyrannical power’ of the kings Offa and Cœnwulf who had patronised him as well as that of Éadberht Præn who had oppressed him, and spoke and acted from an independent position within the Church. In this way, he bears a great deal of resemblance to the modern-day Metropolitan Onufriy of Kiev, who similarly seeks to advocate for Church rights independent of its relationship to sæcular power. Metropolitan Onufriy has used his omophor to advocate neither for Putin (his Offa), nor for Poroshenko (his Éadberht): and, what’s more, he has demonstrated a singularly Laurentian courage in staying with his flock amidst this persecution. It is indeed telling that the cult of Saint Æþelheard was regarded as subversive and therefore suppressed by Lanfranc after the Norman invasion.

At this point I have no way of knowing this for certain, since I am not and do not pretend to be an expert on the way the Orthodox Church has decided on the process of glorifying (or recognising) pre-Schismatic Western saints. It does not seem to be a straightforward or automatic process. However, the Greek website Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries claims Æþelheard as an Orthodox saint, and so does the blog of British ROCOR priest Fr Andrew Phillips, Orthodox England: both of which are good enough reason for me to so regard him. Still, I do have to wonder: many of these pre-schismatic English saints seem to indicate for us both a certain political activism and also a certain resistance to the political coöptation of the Church, either directly by the powers and principalities of the sæcular ordo, or indirectly by the logic and political calculus of those same powers – a logic which was as yet only nascent in the minds of the church leadership in the West. As such, British saints such as Æþelheard seem to indicate for us (in a negative way, granted) the ideal of Church-state symphony rather than the models which favour domination or separation.

At his blessed repose in the Lord, Saint Æþelheard was buried with all due honours inside the Canterbury Cathedral precinct, which became the focal point of his cultus in the two centuries of its flourishing. Holy Hierarch Æþelheard of Canterbury, bold defender and champion of the Body of Christ our God, intercede with Him for our salvation!
Archbishop of Canterbury and Abbot of Louth,
Champion of the Church in troubled times, O Father Bishop Æþelheard:
Teach us to guard the True Faith
And worship the Trinity, Holy and Undivided;
Pray to the Lord that our souls may be saved!

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