Thursday, February 18, 2010

Archbishop Theodore and the Penitential System

Saxon church at Bradford-on-Avon, Wilts.In 668, four years after Oswiu's decision was taken, Theodore of Tarsus was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury at Rome by the Pope himself. When he arrived in England the time had come for the purely missionary stage of the English Church to come to an end. Hitherto the bishops had been few, only seven in all England. Their number was now increased, and they were set to work no longer merely to convert the heathen, but to see that the clergy did their duty amongst those who had been already converted. Gradually, under these bishops, a parochial clergy came into existence. Sometimes the freemen of a hamlet, or of two or three hamlets together, would demand the constant residence of a priest. Sometimes a lord would settle a priest to teach his serfs. The parish clergy attacked violence and looseness of life in a way different from that of the monks. The monks had given examples of extreme self-denial. Theodore introduced the penitential system of the Roman Church, and ordered that those who had committed sin should be excluded from sharing in the rites of the Church until they had done penance. They were to fast, or to repeat prayers, sometimes for many years, before they were readmitted to communion. Many centuries afterwards good men objected that these penances were only bodily actions, and (p. 051) did not necessarily bring with them any real repentance. In the seventh century the greater part of the population could only be reached by such bodily actions. They had never had any thought that a murder, for instance, was anything more than a dangerous action which might bring down on the murderer the vengeance of the relations of the murdered man, which might be bought off with the payment of a weregild of a few shillings. The murderer who was required by the Church to do penance was being taught that a murder was a sin against God and against himself, as well as an offence against his fellow-men. Gradually—very gradually—men would learn from the example of the monks and from the discipline of penance that they were to live for something higher than the gratification of their own passions.

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