On October 12, the Episcopal Church commemorates the life and ministry of Wilfrid (born about 640 in Northumbria, England; died 709). Christians in Britain during that period divided over whether to follow Celtic or Roman practices with respect to the manner of tonsure (clergy hair dos), the ecclesiastical calendar, and so forth. Perhaps because he spent several years in Rome and Roman influenced monasteries, Wilfrid insisted on following the Roman teachings.
James Kiefer, writing at the Mission St. Clare site for the Daily Office, drew this picture of Wilfrid’s ministry:
[Upon his return from the continent in 660, Wilfrid] was made abbot of Ripon in Northumbria, and imposed the Roman rules there. In 664, a conference was held (the Synod of Whitby) to settle the usages controversy, and the Roman party triumphed, thanks in large part to the leadership of Wilfrid. He was appointed Bishop of York by Alcfrid, sub-king of Deira (a division of Northumbria), but was unwilling to be consecrated by bishops of the Celtic tradition, and so went over to France to be consecrated, and was gone for two years.
On his return, he found that King Oswy of Northumbria had appointed Chad (see 2 March 672) as bishop of York. Wilfrid returned quietly to Ripon. But in 669 the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore (see 19 September 690), declared that Wilfrid was rightful bishop of York. Chad quietly withdrew, and Wilfrid was installed at York.
For the next few years, Wilfrid enjoyed peace and prosperity, stood high in the favor of King Efrith of Northumbria, and was undisputed bishop of a diocese that included the entire kingdom of Northumbria, with his cathedral at York. But there was trouble ahead.
The queen wanted to leave her husband and become a nun, and Wilfrid encouraged her in this. After she had left (in 672), the king was not as cordial to Wilfrid as he had been, and in 678, Archbishop Theodore, acting in close concert with the king, divided the Diocese of York into four smaller dioceses, and appointed new bishops for three of them, leaving Wilfrid with the fourth, which did not include the city of York. Wilfrid decided to appeal to the pope.
On his way to Rome, he spent a year preaching in Frisia, and so was the beginning of the movement by Christian Anglo-Saxons in Britain to convert their relatives on the Continent. The pope eventually sided with Wilfrid, but the ruling was not accepted in England, and Wilfrid was banished from Northumbria. He went to Sussex, the last center of Anglo-Saxon paganism in England, and preached there. When he arrived, there had been no rain for many months, the crops were ruined, and the people were starving. Wilfrid showed them how to construct fishnets for ocean fishing, and so saved the lives of many. They listened to his preaching with favorable presuppositions, and soon a large number of them were ready for baptism. On the day that he baptized them, it rained. He remained in Sussex for five years, preaching with great success.
Eventually he was reconciled with Archbishop Theodore, and returned to Northumbria, where he was again given a bishopric. He served there a bishop for five peaceful years, but then a royal council found him unfit; he was deposed again, appealed to Rome again, and ended up bishop of the small diocese of Hexham, with jurisdiction over the various monasteries that he had founded. In his will, he bequeathed his money to four causes: (1) to various Roman congregations; (2) to the poor; (3) to the clergy who had followed him into exile; and (4) to the abbots of the various monasteries under his jurisdiction, ‘so that they could purchase the friendship of kings and bishops.’
Several points merit noting:
· Wilfrid became abbot at age 20. He exercised leadership at a youthful age. Do we allow youth with gifts for ministry and leadership the same type of opportunities?
· He was clear on his understanding of the Christian faith and sought to follow that path faithfully without excluding those who understood the Jesus path differently. For example, he yielded to Chad rather than initiating a fight for dominance.
· His ambition appears to have been for God rather than himself, twice stepping aside rather than demanding his lawful place.
· He was a good steward, seeing his assets as a trust from God to be used for God's work (though I hope that we doubt the propriety of leaving gifts to abbots with which to purchase the friendship of kings and bishops).
Where are such leaders today? How can the Church intentionally cultivate more such leaders?