When the King of Ancient Northumbria first requested a missionary from Iona to come and minister to his people in the 7th century, it didn’t go so well. The monk sent came to Northumbria ready to convert the hardened sinners, and, I guess, treated them as such. He soon found himself back in Iona reporting that the conversion of the Northumbrians was impossible – they were such a hard people.
Another monk, Aidan, then suggested that, perhaps, a softer approach was needed. Perhaps taking the time to walk amongst the people, learn from them (especially their own language), and to identify with them was the best way. Everyone agreed, and since Aidan suggested it, that perhaps he was the one to go.
And so Aidan was sent to Northumbria, to the lands ‘North of the Humber’. His method was to walk the lanes of Northumbria and speak to all. As he passed Lord or peasant on the road, he addressed them with courtesy and grace. He went everywhere on foot, so as not to appear as of high status. He even gave away his King’s horse to a poor peasant, much to the anger of the King. Aidan was know to say to the king, despite his anger, that even if the horse was replaced, that too would be given away.
It was said that Aidan would ask one question of those he met. He would ask them ‘do you know of Christ?’ If they said yes, he encouraged them deeper into relationship with him. If they answered ‘no’, he would teach about him and encourage them to submit their allegiance to Jesus.
Aidan’s method of incarnational mission, walking amongst the people, although clearly different culturally, religiously and socially, set England aflame as he trained the other brothers in the same methods. They would set up high crosses in the villages and towns, as places where people would gather for teaching and encounter, rarely building churches. This was the flow of life from the monastic base of Lindisfarne…missionary bands of brothers going out as peregrinati, wanders for the cause of Christ.
Part of my inspiration for ministry in Benwell and Elswick comes from this story of Aidan. And, in fact, before I decided on a more generic title for the project, ‘Community Connections’, I was playing with ‘Aidan’s Way’ in my mind. Nevertheless, his missionary stance to a largely non-Christian society largely untouched by the culture of Christendom, lets some vital missional practices, which is why studying Celtic Mission and Spirituality has been of such interest to me as part of my MA studies.
I’m not into 8 hour long Latin liturgies, or standing for hours in the North Sea as proof of my devotion to Christ (although I’d do it if I thought its what Christ was asking of me), but the model of missional monastery is a powerful one. It is a combination of gathered and scattered, missional and attractional, if you like.
It is easy to get so fired up about the mission that you can neglect the necessary tools to sustain spiritual life, namely, Christian community, spiritual disciplines and practises, commitment to learning and reading God’s words (Aidan encouraged Christians to learn the Psalms and Gospels). All this feeds and sustains missional living.
This is why, for me, the idea of the Community Connections eventually having a base, a prayer space and a meeting space is part of my dream. I am hoping that God will call people to share in our mission, and who will sustain a faithful rhythm of prayer with us as we engage with folks in the streets, homes and in the public spaces of the two communities. It may even be that I take further the idea of drawing together some who could belong to an ‘Aidan’s Way Community’ will will embrace a new monastic way of life in the light of Aidan’s example – you never know!
It is also why I hope to build in a missional training ministry as part of The Solace Network, so that we can train missional disciples, give real experience in the real world and help people re-engage, re-connect with people who are in post-Christendom England.
It is such a laugh to me that God should pester a committed Scottish Nationalist to live in the North of England, so tantalisingly close to home and yet so far, and to have that sense of being called to make this place home, to settle, become a local. It is so ironic that God is calling a ‘wanderer, pilgrim and vagabond’ (which is what my moniker ‘turasaiche’ means), to settle in a place not home. And yet, this year away has fostered in us a sense of knowing where we should be.
In the words of TS Elliot:
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
We left Newcastle last year from a position of some influence, strength and a very different role. We return in weakness, maybe even a bit of poverty, with a heart to serve knowing that we will see it in a completely new way. My biggest hope is that I can return inspired by the same Spirit as Aidan, who ignited a gentle flame of the gospel in the lives of so many and played his part in expressing God’s heart for the North East.