Whitby: The Tide Turner

The forward momentum of the Celtic church in England was about to face sudden disruption. So far the truth had flourished under the watchful eye of ardent missionaries but that would soon change. The pivot upon which this change revolved was the Council of Whitby, convened in 663 AD, as a result of the machinations of Eanfled, queen consort of Oswy, King of Northumbria. Coleman, the successor of Aidan and Finan, had only been in office three years when the Council of Whitby was arranged. Up to this point, Whitby had been a stronghold of the truth, centering around the abbey, which had been set up as a training school for missionaries in 656 AD by the Abbess Hilda.

 

Whitby, UK

When the Council of Whitby was convened, the lines of division were drawn between two groups: the leaders of the Celtic church and the leaders of the Catholic church. The matter at hand for debate was the date for the observance of Easter. Representing the Celtic church was Coleman, who had a few factors working against him. Firstly, he had only limited experience in the field, secondly, he was not as

Whitby

well versed with the papal position surrounding the argument as his opponent and, thirdly, the strong influence of the Roman Catholic queen.

Representing the Papacy was Wilfred, chaplain of Queen Eanfled. Fresh from a four-year stint in Rome itself, Wilfred was well drilled in all the points of the papal argument and was also spurred on by a desire to see the Celtic Church brought to its knees under the authority of Rome. Wilfred wanted an open debate and Oswy acceded to his wishes, almost guaranteeing an outcome in favor of the Catholic church. Oswy presided over the debate with himself, his son and wife and two Roman Catholic priests on the side of Wilfred and Catholicism and Hilda, the Scottish clerks and Bishop Cedd on the side of Coleman and the Celtic church.

Wilfred was a master tactician and he brilliantly steered the argument toward the authority and supremacy of Peter, arguing that the Papacy derived its authority from none other than the apostle of the Lord Himself and therefore all other contenders in the sphere of Christendom were nothing but usurpers of the one true Church of Christ. Oswy, who was looking for an opening to rule in favor of Catholicism, capitalized on this train of thought declaring the arguments of Wilfred as binding and Coleman was defeated in open debate. The Celtic church acquiesced to the authority of Papal rule by adopting the papal date for the celebration of Easter, which opened the way for Romanism to take hold in Northumbria and to spread throughout England. It was a dark day for the cause of truth.

 

Whitby

Rome was victorious though not absolutely. The truth that had been so jealously guarded by the pious missionaries was stifled but not put out. It would lie dormant waiting for the fires of the Reformation to spark it to life.

There are times in our lives when we see the unmistakable tussle between two antagonistic forces striving for the mastery. 

We know we live in the midst of a great controversy. A cosmic war being waged between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Our little world is caught in the eye of this raging storm and moment by moment we feel its effects.

For an awful moment in time, it seemed as though the lifework of Aidan and his successors was about to be swept away by the tide of Roman Catholicism, but God was still sovereign. Momentarily incapacitated though it was, the truth would not be wholly extinguished. Shortly after the questionable defeat of the Celtic church at Whitby, the Danes swept through England bringing with them a wave of paganism that checked the widespread progress of Romanism.

There may be times when it feels as though the powers of darkness are gaining the upper hand and faithfulness to God is a futile exercise. It is then that we must remember the stories of those who went before us, telling us that though the truth may seem to take a beating, it will never be defeated. It will rise triumphant at last.

Whatever your struggles, know this: Jesus was triumphant on the cross and he is able to accomplish that same victory in your life if you are willing to surrender to Him. Hold fast that which thou hast, that no man take thy crown (Revelation 3:11).

Further Reading

  • Wilkerson, B.G. (1944) – Truth Triumphant