Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus

Theodore of Tarsus was Archbishop of Canterbury for a significant part of Wilfrid’s life as bishop.  This was at a time when there was only one archbishop in England, despite there being many kingdoms. Theodore worked hard to regularise the Anglo-Saxon church, turning it from a haphazard set of huge bishoprics that had grown up in the conversion period under the influence of various kings into a more organised collection of smaller and more manageable dioceses, suitable for a land where Christianity was now firmly established.

When Theodore arrived in England from Rome in 669 he found that Wilfrid, appointed Bishop of the Northumbrians in 664, had been replaced as bishop by Chad. This had been done by King Oswig during Wilfrid’s absence in Gaul for his consecration. It was irregular by any standards, and so, although Theodore recognised the great holiness of Chad, he moved quickly to restore Wilfrid to his proper position. Theodore then moved Chad to serve as Bishop of the Mercians and, with Wilfrid’s generous assistance, provided him with a fixed see at Lichfield.  Relations between Wilfrid and Theodore became strained later when Theodore set about reducing the huge Northumbrian see into smaller dioceses, evidently without adequately  consulting Wilfrid. But Wilfrid’s biographer reports that Theodore later admitted he was at fault in this.

Theodore was born in 602 in Tarsus, the birth place of St Paul, and was consequently a native Greek speaker. He was a considerable scholar, studying at the great centre of learning in Antioch. But when this part of Syria was invaded in the early seventh century, he fled to Constantinople, where he continued his studies. Subsequently, for reasons we do not know, he moved to Rome, where he seems to have been a monk in the Greek-speaking monastery of St Anastasius. While there, he made good use of his exceptional learning in helping the papacy produce theological statements on current doctrinal matters. Some years later, when Wigheard, archbishop-elect of Canterbury, died of the plague while in Rome to collect his credentials, the pope chose Theodore to replace him. Being already in his mid-60s, a Greek speaker (although by now accomplished in Latin also), educated in Eastern traditions, and a noteworthy theological and biblical scholar, Theodore was an unlikely choice! It is difficult to imagine what he thought of such an extraordinary appointment. But he rose to the challenge. He was consecrated in Rome on 26 March 668 and arrived in England on 27 May 669. In addition to reordering the Anglo-Saxon church throughout its various kingdoms, he established Canterbury as a centre of learning at a level far exceeding the norm in western Christendom.  He died on 19 September 690. It is fair to say that he is one of the greatest scholars ever to have been Archbishop of Canterbury.

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