Saint Aidan And The Future Of Britain

Dr. Ian Bradley, of St. Andrew's University, a prolific author and broadcaster, and a contributor to the Demos Think Tank, gave the keynote lecture at the St. Aidan Week Celebrations on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Census returns and other research, he said, reveal that white people increasingly think of themselves as English or Welsh etc, whereas black and brown people increasingly think of themselves as British. The break-up of the United Kingdom might harm all its peoples, for the whole is greater than its parts. Therefore we need to give attention to what is Britishness, as his book on this subject has done. He touched on both the forms and roots of British identity. He saw this as a series of overlapping identities. He would go further, he believes that the Christian understanding of God as Trinity needs to be expressed in nations, and that the UK at its best is a paradigm of this.

Although England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales each have a patron saint, the UK has none as Billy Bragg's millennium song put it: 'Britain isn't cool you know, its really not that great. It's not a proper country, it doesn't even have a patron saint.'

Today people care about identity and symbol. Patron saints are about giving a spiritual identity to a people. In a pluralistic society, they are inclusive, and they can do this. Other religions would rather live in a country that, unlike France, gives public space to religion. A patron saint like Aidan would pose no problem.

He said we all need role models. Protestants have stripped saints from public life. He, as a Protestant, feels they have done a disservice to their peoples. We need neighbourhood, national and perhaps international saints. If the people are not given them they will find them in pop idols. Saints provide us with stories, drama, narratives, legend. A generation brought up on Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings is hungry for stories such as that of Aidan.

Why Aidan?

1) His style. Corman, who led the first failed mission to the English from Iona, was bullying and aggressive. He wanted to force the people into his mold; he dismissed them and wrote them off. Aidan was full of grace. English Christianity which he spawned has been the most gracious and moderate. Aidan provides a rallying cry for the broad, welcoming God.

2) His commitment to the needy and to all people.

He was no respecter of persons. He gave away the royal horse which would have enabled him to go around in style. He kept his feet on the ground. He care about the poor. He sat lightly to the things of this world. The British often find God not only in good works but also in nature - outside the church. Aidan appeals to many beyond the world of the church.

3. His links with monarchy and nation-building. King Oswald is a great proto-type of the open-handed, generous king. The alliance of the monarch and the church who both seek to build a kingdom around Christian values is a fine model. The British monarchy still has the opportunity to sacralise the nation.

4. He nurtures others. Hilda, Chad, Wilfred are examples of people Aidan nurtured who took the Gospel further south.

How should we promote Aidan?

Establish a network of churches dedicated to St. Aidan. Establish an Aidan pilgrim route A route is being explored between Iona and St. Andrews. Rosanna Cunningham MSP has promoted this. Discussions are continuing on a route from Columba's birthplace in Donegal to Iona. A route to Lindisfarne from St. Andrew's could make up the third leg of a triangle: a trinity of pilgrim routes. This could be called The Aidan Way. In Norway the revived St. Olav's Way is the fruit of co-operation between church and state. Prisoners and asylum seekers are beneficially sent on these pilgrimages. A retired Polish general walked this route to atone for those he had killed. People walk not just in the steps of medieval pilgrims, they also celebrate many aspects of a wonderful country and its nature reserves.

Posted at 01:08am on 4th September 2009
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