Saint Theodore of Tarsus was a Greek monk who was consecrated as the Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 668. He was one of the most significant of the people to hold this post. In Saint Theodore's time, England was not a single nation, but divided into Kingdoms like Kent, Northumberland and Mercia. The English church was similarly divided, and there were disagreements on various issues, like when to celebrate Easter. Saint Theodore convened the Council of Hertford, which established a common structure for the English church. He also promoted learning and scholarship, founding important schools in England. The great English historian Bede wrote of Saint Theodore's episcopacy thus: "never had there been such happy times as these since the English settled Britain."
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saint Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury
Tarsus is a city in modern-day Turkey, most famous for being the hometown of the Apostle Paul. Canterbury, is of course in England, the seat of the Archbishop who leads the English church. Saint Theodore is therefore associated to two cities that are 2000 miles apart. Believe it or not, this isn’t a record -the distinction goes to the 20th century Russian Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco, whose two cities are about 3000 miles apart.
Saint Theodore was a Greek monk from Tarsus born sometime in the early 7th century. Tarsus was then part of the Roman Empire, but in Theodore’s lifetime would be conquered by the Persian Sassanid empire. Not much is known about Theodore’s early life, but they are records that state he received a good education, and was living as a monk in Rome.
In his late 60s he was chosen to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, and would end up being one of the most important and beloved people to hold that post. He was actually the second choice for the position. Adrian, an Abbot was at first chosen, but declined the post and recommended Theodore instead. The English hagiographer Rev. Alban Butler recounts this story:
| FTER the death of St. Deusdedit, archbishop of Canterbury, Oswi, king of Northumberland, and Egbert, king of Kent, sent a virtuous and learned priest, named Wighard, to Rome, that he might be consecrated bishop, and duly confirmed to that important see by the pope himself. Wighard and most of those who attended him died in Italy of the plague; and Vitalian, who then sat in St. Peter’s chair, pitched upon Adrian, abbot of Niridian, near Naples, to be raised to that dignity. This abbot was by birth an African, understood Greek and Latin perfectly well, and was thoroughly versed in theology, and in the monastic and ecclesiastical discipline. But so great were his fears of the dignity to which he was called, that the pope was compelled by his entreaties and tears to yield to his excuses. He insisted, however, that Adrian should find a person equal to that charge, and should himself attend upon and assist him in instructing the inhabitants of this remote island in the perfect discipline of the Church. How edifying and happy was this contention—not to obtain—but to shun such a dignity! Adrian first named to the pope a monk called Andrew; but he was judged incapable of the necessary fatigues on account of his bodily infirmities, though otherwise a person extremely well qualified. There was then at Rome a Grecian monk, named Theodore, a native of Tarsus, in Cilicia, a man of exemplary life, and well skilled in divine and human learning, and in the Greek and Latin languages, who was sixty-six years old. Him Adrian presented to the pope, and procured him to be ordained bishop, promising to bear him company into England.
| Theodore, being ordained subdeacon, waited four months that his hair might grow, that it might be shaved in the form of a crown; for the Greek monks shaved their heads all over. At length Pope Vitalian consecrated him bishop, on Sunday the 26th day of March, in 668, and recommended him to St. Bennet Biscop, who had then come a third time to Rome, but whom the pope obliged to return to England with St. Theodore and Adrian, in order to be their guide and interpreter. They set out on the 27th of May; went by sea to Marseilles; and from thence by land to Arles, where they were entertained by the archbishop John, till Ebroin, mayor of the palace, had sent them permission to continue their journey. St. Theodore passed the winter at Paris with the bishop Agilbert, who had formerly been bishop of Winchester, in England. By his conversation the new archbishop informed himself of the circumstances and necessities of the church of which he was going to take upon him the charge: he also learned the English language. Egbert, king of Kent, hearing his new archbishop was arrived at Paris, sent one of the lords of his court to meet him, who, having obtained leave of Ebroin, waited on him to the port of Quentavic, in Ponthieu, now called St. Josse-sur-Mer. Theodore falling sick, was obliged to stay there some time. As soon as he was able to travel, he proceeded on his voyage, with St. Bennet Biscop, and took possession of his see of Canterbury on Sunday, the 27th of May, 669. Adrian was detained in France some time by Ebroin, who suspected that he was sent by the emperor to the kings of England on some designs against the French. He stayed a considerable time, first with Emmo, archbishop of Sens, and afterwards with St. Faro, bishop of Meaux. Ebroin being at last satisfied, he was permitted to follow St. Theodore, by whom he was made abbot of St. Peter’s at Canterbury.
The English historian Bede wrote very admirably of Saint Theodore, and his Ecclesiastical History is the main source by which we know of him, and the main source we will use for this episode. In this passage, Bede describes Saint Theodore’s work as Archbishop, helped along by the abbot Adrian.
THEODORE arrived at his church the second year after his consecration, on Sunday, the 27th of
May, and held the same twenty-one years, three months, and twenty-six days. Soon after, he visited all
the island, wherever the tribes of the Angles inhabited, for he was willingly entertained and heard by all
persons; and everywhere attended and assisted by Hadrian, he taught the right rule of life, and the
canonical custom of celebrating Easter. It was the first archbishop whom all the English church obeyed.
And forasmuch as both of them were, as has been said before, well read both in sacred and in secular
literature, they gathered a crowd of disciples, and there daily flowed from them rivers of knowledge to
water the hearts of their hearers; and, together with the books of holy writ, they also taught them the
arts of ecclesiastical poetry, astronomy, and arithmetic. A testimony of which is, that there are still
living at this day some of their scholars, who are as well versed in the Greek and Latin tongues as in
their own, in which they were born. Nor were there ever happier times since the English came into
Britain; for their kings, being brave men and good Christians, they were a terror to all barbarous
nations, and the minds of all men were bent upon the joys of the heavenly kingdom of which they had
just heard; and all who desired to be instructed in sacred reading had masters at hand to teach them.
From that time also they began in all the churches of the English to learn sacred music, which till
then had been only known in Kent. Theodore, visiting all parts, ordained bishops in proper places, and with their assistance corrected
such things as he found faulty.
Saint Theodore was a monk of great learning, so it is no surprise that he encouraged education and founded schools during his time as Archbishop. Here is an account by Rev. Alban Butler focusing on Saint Theodore’s commitment to promoting education and learning:
St. Theodore was the first archbishop of Canterbury, after St. Austin (that is, Saint Augustine of Canterbury), who presided over the whole church of England. He was founder of a most famous school at Canterbury, which produced many great men: for Theodore and Adrian themselves expounded the scriptures, and taught all the sciences, particularly astronomy and ecclesiastical arithmetic for calculating Easter; also how to compose Latin verses. Many under them became as perfect in the Latin and Greek languages as they were in their own tongue. Britain had never been in so flourishing a condition as at this time since the English first set foot in the island. The kings were so brave, says Bede, that all the barbarous nations dreaded their power; but withal such good Christians, that they aspired only after the joys of the kingdom of heaven, which had been but lately preached to them. All men’s minds seemed only bent on the goods of the life to come, to use the words of our venerable historian. St. Theodore established schools in most parts of England, and it is hard to say whether we ought most to admire the zeal and unwearied labours of the pastors, or the docility, humility, and insatiable ardour of the people, with whom to hear, to learn, and to practise seemed one and the same thing.
Saint Theodore also had to play the role as a peacemaker, since at this time there was no united Kingdom of England. Instead England contained many kingdoms that ocassionally warred against each other. Bede recounts him putting an end to a war between King Egfrid of Northumbria, and King Ethelred of Mercia
In the ninth year of the reign of King Egfrid, a greatbattle was fought between him and Ethelred,
king of the Mercians, near the river Trent, and Elfwin, brother to King Egfrid, was slain, a youth about
eighteen years Of age, and much beloved by both provinces, for King Ethel red had married his sister
Osthritha. There was now reason to expect a more bloody war, and more lasting enmity between those
kings and their fierce nations; but Theodore the bishop, beloved of God, relying on the Divine
assistance, by his wholesome admonitions extinguished the dangerous fire that was breaking out; so
that the kings and their people on both sides being appeased, no man was Put to death, but only the
usual mulct (that is, a penalty) paid to the king for his brother that had been killed; and this peace continued long after
between those kings and their kingdoms.
One of Saint Theodore’s most important accomplishments was in calling the Council of Hertford in 672 or 673. This
council was the first to be attended by bishops from all over England. King Egfrid of Northumbria was also present. This council established the unity of the English church, by laying down rules concerning authority and structure in the church. This was crucial, because the church in England had experienced many divisions before Theodore’s tim. Here is an excerpt from the proceedings of that council:
" In the name of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who reigns for ever and for
ever, and governs his church, it was thought meet that we should assemble, according to the
custom of the venerable canons, to treat about the necessary affairs of the church. We met
on the 24th day of September, the first indiction, at a place called Hertford, myself,
Theodore, the unworthy bishop of the see of Canterbury, appointed by the Apostolic See,
our fellow priest and most reverend brother, Bisi, bishop of the East Angles; also by his
proxies, our brother and fellow priest, Wilfrid bishop of the nation of the Northumbrians, as
also our brothers and fellow priests, Putta, bishop of the Kentish castle, called Rochester;
Eleutherius, bishop of the West Saxons, and Winfrid, bishop of the province of the
Mercians. When we were all met together, and were sat down in order, I said, ' I beseech
you, most dear brothers, for the love and fear of our Redeemer, that we may all treat in
common for our faith; to the end that whatsoever has been decreed and defined by the holy
and reverend fathers, may be inviolably observed by all. ' This and much more I spoke
tending to the preservation of the charity and unity of the church; and when I had ended my
discourse, I asked every one of them in order, whether they consented to observe the things
that had been formerly canonically decreed by the fathers? To which all our fellow priests
answered, ' It so pleases us, and we will all most willingly observe with a cheerful mind
whatever is laid down in the canons of the holy fathers. ' I then produced the said book of
canons, and publicly showed them ten chapters in the same, which I had marked in several
places, because I knew them to be of the most importance to us, and entreated that they
151might be most particularly received by them all.
"Chapter I. That we all in common keep the holy day of Easter on the Sunday after the
fourteenth moon of the first month.
"II. That no bishop intrude into the diocese of another, but be satisfied with the
government of the people committed to him.
"III. That it shall not be lawful for any bishop to trouble monasteries dedicated to God,
nor to take anything forcibly from them.
"IV. That monks do not remove from one place to another, that is, from monastery to
monastery, unless with the consent of their own abbot; but that they continue in the
obedience which they promised at the time of their conversion .
"V. That no clergyman, forsaking his own bishop, shall wander about, or be anywhere
entertained without letters of recommendation from his own prelate. But if he shall be once
received, and will not return when invited, both the receiver, and the person received, be
under excommunication .
"VI. That bishops and clergymen, when travelling, shall be content with the hospitality
that is afforded them; and that it be not lawful for them to exercise any priestly function
without leave of the bishop in whose diocese they are.
"VII. That a synod be assembled twice a year; but in regard that several causes
obstruct the same, it was approved by all. that we should meet on the 1st of August once a
year, at the place called Clofeshoch.
"VIII. That no bishop, through ambition, shall set himself before another; but that they
shall all observe the time and order of their consecration.
"IX. It was generally set forth, that more bishops should be made, as the number of
believers increased; but this matter for the present was passed over.
"X. Of marriages; that nothing be allowed but lawful wedlock; that none commit
incest; no man quit his true wife, unless, as the gospel teaches, on account of fornication.
And if any man shall put away his own wife, lawfully joined to him in matrimony, that he
take no other, if he wishes to be a good Christian, but continue as he is, or else be
152reconciled to his own wife.
" These chapters being thus treated of and defined by all, to the end. that for the future,
no scandal of contention might arise from any of us, or that things be falsely set forth, it
was thought fit that every one of us should, by subscribing his hand, confirm all the
particulars so laid down. Which definitive judgment of ours, I dictated to be written by
Titillus our notary. Done in the month and indiction aforesaid. Whosoever, therefore, shall
presume in any way to oppose or infringe this decision, confirmed by our consent, and by
the subscription of our hands, according to the decree of the canons, must take notice, that
he is excluded from all sacerdotal functions, and from our society. May the Divine Grace
preserve us in safety, living in the unity of his holy church."
Saint Theodore passed in the year 690 due to an illness, and he is celebrated by the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches as a saint, with a feast day on September 19. Let us read the Anglican collect for his feast day:
Almighty God, who gave your servant Theodore of Tarsus gifts of grace and wisdom to establish unity where there had been division and order where there had been chaos: Create in your church, by the operation of the Holy Spirit, such godly union and concord that it may proclaim, both by word and example, the Gospel of the Prince of Peace; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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To end this episode, let us read a passage from the Doctoral Dissertation written by Rev. Robert Whitaker, for the University of Edinburgh, entitled THEODORE OF TARSUS, ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY, A.D,668~690. This passage is from the conclusion of that dissertation.
The present writer has no particular en thusiasm for hero worship Nevertheless, we submit that, on the basis of measurable accomplishments, the career of Archbishop Theodore leads the field In the history of the early English Church* He was the one "man who contributed more than any other individual to the making of the English Church, both by ecclesiastical organisation and by training of the clergy. Our estimate, inevitably, must be that of the Venerable Bede who concluded that there never had been a more happy time since the English first came to Britain. It was an age when there were Valiant and Christian kings who were respected by barbarous nations, while the desires of all were entirely directed to the good news of the kingdom of * heaven* It was a day when if anyone wished instruction in the reading of the Holy Scriptures, there was no lack of 16 masters who were ready to teach tnem« One of those teachers—indeed, the greatest of then*~was a monk from Tarsus by the name of Theodore*