Here is an article I wrote in 2003 about the background, thoughts and writings of Ælfric, monk and novice-master at Cerne Abbas and later first abbot of the monastery at Eynsham, Oxfordshire.
It seems to me that Ælfric was a man in whose heart burned a steady, unextinguished love for God and man – the sort of ardent desire to serve God and bring others to have faith in Him that has stamped itself on every sincere Christian heart for many hundreds of years. It is my prayer that the love and zeal which moved and activated Ælfric a thousand years ago will likewise move us as we read and ponder the following extracts from his writings.
Some explanatory Notes:
(1) I have not assigned the extracts from the Sermons to the same days as in Ælfric’s original two volumes.
(2) Extracts from On the Old and New Testament are based on the translation by William de L’isle (1623); those from the Sermons are from Benjamin Thorpe’s translation in The Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church.
(3) Where words have been omitted in the following extracts, I have not replaced them with … which would produce an ugly and irritating page. I have altered nothing, except occasionally to modernise Thorpe’s English (e.g. spoke for spake, lies for leasings, reward for meed) or changed his punctuation (e.g. starting a new paragraph where it seems appropriate by today’s usage). I have not sought to express all of Ælfric’s thoughts, but I hope I have expressed faithfully those I have chosen. After all, there would be little point in twisting or distorting them: then I might as well have chosen a different author, or simply attempted to write a book myself.
- Eduard Dietrich “Abt Aelfrik: zur Literatur-Geschichte der angelsächsichen Kirche”
- S. Harvey Gem “An Anglo-Saxon Abbot”
- M. Gatch “Preaching and Theology in Anglo-Saxon England”
- John Godfrey “The Church in Anglo-Saxon England”
- Lynne Grundy “Books and Grace: Ælfric’s Theology”
- Alan Hardy “Eynsham: a Village and its Abbey”
- William Hunt “The English Church from its Foundation to the Norman Conquest”
- J. Hurt “Ælfric”
- F. Stenton “Anglo-Saxon England”
(4) I especially wish to acknowledge the following as my sources:
* * *
Reading about Anglo-Saxon England, one sometimes comes across a man with whom one feels it would have been good to sit down and have a good long talk. Ælfric of Eynsham is one of these. Reading some of his works, and reading about him, I have found parts of his writings very stirring, and they have vivified my feeling for:
- the preciousness of our redemption through the life, death and resurrection of Christ
- the strength and working in our lives of God’s grace when we believe, and when we repent
- the prompting and enabling of that same grace when we undertake good works
- the seriousness and the nearness of our Lord’s return in glory to this world to receive His faithful ones to glory and to judge those who reject His Gospel.
I would like to share some of this with readers in the hope that they too may be edified and stirred.
A monastic renewal, described below, came over England in the 10th. century and brought significant changes to the character of both oral preaching and homiletic writing. Before the renewal, no one produced an orderly set of commentaries on the scriptural passages appointed to be read in the churches; as part of it, Ælfric did. If we read English sermons from before the reform, we find an unquestioning acceptance of pseudepigraphical material, that is, written by historically insignificant persons in the names of better known writers, and reliance on wild, bizarre and fantastic legends. Ælfric reduced or abandoned this in his sermons. There is a great difference in tone between the two periods. In the English Preface he writes:
I have seen and heard of much error in many English books which ignorant people, because of their simplicity, have esteemed as great wisdom: and I regretted that they knew not nor had the evangelical doctrines among their writings, those men only excepted who knew Latin, and those books excepted which King Ælfred wisely turned from Latin into English, which are to be had.
While he was a monk at at Cerne Abbas, he published in about 989 and 992 two volumes of homilies, or sermons, based on the readings appointed for church services for various days of the year. They were written to be circulated widely and preached by local clergy in churches on Sundays and various major feasts. They could also, of course, be read in private devotion.
He was perhaps the best educated man in England at the time, but he tells us in the Latin Preface to his sermons that they are “for the edification of the humble” and “for the profit of their souls”. He always kept in mind his hearers’ level of ability, and took pains to write in a clear and lively style. He wished to “avoid garrulous verbosity and strange expressions, seeking with pure and plain words to be of use to my hearers by simple speech rather than to be praised for the composition of skilful discourse.” In other words, his message was important and he wanted to be understood (not admired) by ordinary, uneducated worshipers. His approach is winsome and gently persuasive, free from any crabbed, resentful feeling against sinners and backsliders. The sermons appeal, they do not attempt to command, other than by the authority of God’s Word itself.
It seems that Ælfric’s most important function in his own eyes both at Cerne Abbas and at Eynsham was that of teacher. He writes emphatically and with lasting conviction of the Christian’s need for a solid grounding in truth to enable him to withstand the torrent of false teaching and counterfeit miracles predicted in scripture for the end of the world, writing:
Men have need of good instruction, especially at this time which is the ending of this world, and there will be many calamities among mankind before the end comes, according to what our Lord in his gospel said to his disciples. Everyone may the more easily withstand the future temptation, through God’s support, if he is strengthened by book learning; for they shall be preserved who continue in faith to the end.
His writings contain much moral as well as doctrinal teaching. Three widespread sins in Anglo-Saxon England were sexual immorality, gluttony and drunkenness, and Ælfric warns high and low against them. Practising moderation himself, he once wrote a letter to Sigward, a landowner living some twelve miles from Eynsham, saying:
When I was with you, you would fain have persuaded me to drink for pleasure more than was my custom. But know, beloved, that he who forces another to drink more than he can bear, shall answer for both, if any harm come thereof. Our Saviour Christ in his Gospel has forbidden drunkenness to all the faithful: suffer all men that will to keep his ordinance. The holy and learned fathers also have since our Saviour put down that enormity by their doctrine: and taught that man should so drink as it do not hurt him – for over-drinking surely destroys a man’s soul and health: and sickness of body comes thereof.
A close relationship existed in those days between a priest and his people, and was not without its pitfalls. The priests themselves needed to be discouraged from dicing and from excessive drinking in the company of their parishioners.
His faith, and the zeal which energised his ministry, gave him independence, frankness and courage in writing to the great ones of the world. Some indeed were his personal friends, like the Sigward to whom the above was addressed, but their thoughts and their natural inclinations and temptations still came under the spotlight of his searching comments. Similarly, his faith leant him courage and power in addressing clergy who might have resented or opposed his exhortations, especially as he repeatedly reminds them of their duty to become better educated for the exercise of their teaching ministry and of their simultaneous duty to set a good example by their behaviour.
He aims also to sharpen the conscience of those in high places, some of whom were, or had previously been, his own superiors. He draws the attention of Bishop Wulfsige of Sherborne to the same two duties, reminding him that a bishop’s place is to be a model to all of exemplary conduct, and adding his opinion that Wulfsige ought to rebuke his clergy more often for the laxity that was damaging the church.
He had a stark and solemn awareness of the responsibility of a teacher, for teachers in God’s church must watch over the souls placed under their care. He felt deeply his own awesome obligation to attempt to supply the teaching Christians needed if they were to believe truly and to walk with God in their preparation for the final judgement. If he fails, he will have to answer for his shortcomings at the judgement seat of Christ:
It appeared to me that I should not be guiltless before God, if I would not declare to other men, by tongue or by writings, the evangelical truth, which he himself spoke and afterwards revealed to holy teachers. Very many I know in this country more learned than I am, but God manifests his wonders through whom he will.
With these motives in mind, he continues in his Preface:
For this cause I presumed, trusting in God, to undertake this task. Our Lord commanded his disciples that they should instruct and teach all people the things which he had himself taught to them; but of those there are too few who will well teach and well exemplify. The Lord also cried through his prophet Ezekiel, “If thou warnest not the unrighteous, and exhortest him not, so that he turn from his wickedness and live, then shall the wicked die in his iniquity, and I will require from thee his blood,” that is, his perdition. “But if thou warnest the wicked, and he will not turn from his wickedness, thou shalt release thy soul with that admonition, and the wicked shall die in his unrighteousness.” Again the Almighty spoke to the prophet Isaiah, “Cry and cease thou not, raise thy voice as a trumpet, and declare to my people their crimes and to the family of Jacob their sins.”
Major themes in the sermons include:
- God as Creator
- the Trinity
- the life and works of Christ
- man’s sin
- man’s redemption
- the need for true inward repentance
- the need for true inward spiritual faith
- moral teaching
- the duty of priests and teachers to spread the word of God.
He believed ardently that no-one can do anything of profit to his soul without God’s grace, which is essential for every aspect of the Christian life; and he believed equally that within the sphere of the working of grace Christians may help themselves by learning about their faith. Grace is a recurring theme in the sermons.
Conversion itself, when we turn from sin to God, is not of ourselves but of God’s grace. By prevenient grace, God gives us first the genuine desire and will, and then assists that very desire with his continuing work of grace within us. We should feel a burning grief over sin, and a wholesome fear of hell and a true love for God are both encouraged.
Genuine faith will always be followed by good works. Christians may rejoice in their good works, but always with humility, as the works themselves are God’s gift by the prompting and sustaining of his grace. They are without validity or merit if they are performed without love.
His writing is Christ-centred, and he aims to descry Christ in all the scriptures. The opening sermon of volume II shows how the prophecies of Abraham, Jeremiah, Micah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel are fulfilled in Christ. One is reminded of Luke 24 where Jesus “beginning with Moses and all the prophets interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.”
His most famous homily is on the Eucharist, republished in 1567 by Archbishop Parker and thirteen of his bishops, in which he stresses the indispensable need for repentance and true belief in the heart as one comes to the Lord’s table.
He often employs an allegorical or symbolical interpretation of scriptures, learned from the early Church Fathers. For example, in a homily on the Feeding of the Five Thousand, he interprets the five loaves as signifying the five books of Moses, the lad who carried them and did not eat them as the Jewish people. When the Queen of Sheba comes to Solomon, she is a type of the church coming to Christ, and her gifts of gold, gems and perfumes represent faith, prayers and virtues. At the wedding at Cana, the water for Ælfric represents the Old Testament, the wine the New Testament, the water jars the six ages of the world. This kind of interpretation was much loved and followed in his day, and undoubtedly had a wholesome motive at its heart as an attempt to make the words of scripture relevant to people living in a very different world from those who wrote and first read the scriptures. Ælfric draws many moral applications using it. Nonetheless, we should study the scriptures to find out what they actually say, not read into them our own allegories or other fancies.
Ælfric also translated various parts of the Bible, producing more than any other Old English Bible translator. There was already a very good translation of the Gospels into English, which arose from the same monastic revival, and Ælfric concentrated on the Old Testament. No other European country produced so much of the Bible in its native tongue so early in history.
His writings also convey a manly love for his homeland, a warm and wholesome patriotism. England was suffering from the attacks of Scandinavian sea-raiders, and the will to resist them had been weakened in many Englishmen. Ælfric uses stories such as those of the Maccabees and Judith from the Apocrypha to build up their confidence and their will to defend their homeland. From the way he cites a number of victorious Anglo-Saxon kings (Alfred, Athelstan, Edgar) as examples of national leaders whom God led to greatness and power, and the way he portrays their victories as analogous to the deliverances God granted at the times of the biblical judges, the reader can see his pleasure at the greatness of England, and his desire for the welfare of the widest circles of the population.
Yet, as we have seen, his main expression of love for his people came in his care and persistent service for their spiritual good, especially for the needs of the laity. It is, he says, good and right to serve God’s servants, but greater to tell to the unlearned the heavenly teaching and to nourish their souls. In times of such manifold trouble as England was passing through, which are described more fully below, the need is for biblical comfort to turn people’s minds from their sufferings to the eternal life to come.
And so we turn to the background to his work…
Background to his Work
By the late 8th. century there had been no significant raids or attacks upon England from the sea for two hundred years, and none was expected. It did not seem necessary to maintain coastal defences or a fleet of warships. But in 793 the Vikings appeared suddenly and violently in the North-East. The monasteries at Lindisfarne and Jarrow were sacked: “the ravaging of heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne through brutal robbery and slaughter,” says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
The raiders did not come again till 835, and then it was usually on hit and run incursions for plunder, not to invade or to settle. They stayed for a few weeks, or at most for the summer, and they seldom pressed more than fifteen miles inland.
In 851 they stayed over winter. The Chronicle says that three hundred and fifty ships came to the Thames estuary and “made the greatest carnage of a heathen army that we ever heard of.” In the years that followed, under the strain of the ravages they wrought, organised monastic life seems to have died out everywhere in England. Æthelwold, abbot and bishop, under whom Ælfric studied in the following century, says in an account of the reconstruction of the monasteries that Glastonbury was the only true monastery in England up till the time of King Edgar’s accession in 959. It had been re-established in about the year 940.
The renewal of monastic life took place south of the Humber, especially the Fens, the Severn Valley and south of the River Thames, and it reached beyond the monasteries to renew English life more widely. Learning and art flourished, especially during the reign of King Edgar (959-975), and the reform provided most of England’s bishops down to the reign of Cnut, supplying “a set of bishops of outstanding quality” as Eric John has it in his Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England. The parish clergy were strongly influenced, which brought fresh vitality to the whole English church.
The influence of the monastic reform was felt in the royal court, in the witan, and in the church, from cathedral to parish level.
After the death of King Edgar in 975 England’s prosperity and peace suffered a calamitous reversal. Edgar’s son Edward was murdered in the third year of his reign, and the murder was followed by the disastrous years of Ethelred the Unready (978-1016). The Danish attacks and raids grew in brutality whilst the English faltered under incompetent and feckless leadership and betrayal and treachery in high places.
In 991 a larger force than any recent one harried England. It was more like an organised army than previous Scandinavian raiders. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records how the Danes “wrought the utmost evil that ever any army could do, by burning and plundering, by man-slaying, both by the sea-coast and among the East Saxons, and in the land of Kent, in Sussex and in Hampshire.” The following years saw further raids, warfare and threats of invasion, and Ethelred gathered and paid huge amounts of English money to the Danes in ineffective attempts to buy them off. The raids became worse from 1003. The army which harried the land in the period 1009-1012 was the most formidable since the beginning of Ethelred’s reign. A chronicler of the time estimated they had ravaged the whole or part of fifteen shires, not including East Anglia which they had already spent three months ravaging.
Thus Ælfric’s time was a dark and threatening period for England. He himself was no small light, and through him and others religious, cultural and intellectual life continued to flower despite all the tribulations around them. Like the bush which burned but was not consumed, he pursued with zeal and patience the ministry God had given him.
The Churches in Ælfric’s Day
The parish priest at the time played an important part not only in religious but also in secular affairs and local administration. He attended courts; his learning, though small, probably exceeded his neighbours’: he would be able to write, and probably knew some arithmetic, and might even be able to translate Latin documents. All this enabled him to play a useful rôle in the business of daily life. Moreover, parishioners often used the churches as places to assemble for secular business, and the priest had the legal right to preside at meetings held in his vestry.
The priests of the great minsters were mainly richer and of higher birth than other clergy, but the local parish priests were probably similar to their neighbours in birth and means. They derived the larger part of their income from the cultivation of the land belonging to their churches, and from offerings and other payments. They were not allowed to receive payment for the exercise of their office, except for burial fees.
The parish clergy were generally married men, living in the community with their wives. They were closely connected with the regular pleasures of Anglo-Saxon life. They announced the church festivals, which were holidays on which even slaves were allowed to rest. They took part in the merry-making, the music and singing, though a good priest would of course discourage excess in these.
The services of the church were conducted in Latin, but a good priest would explain the meaning of the Gospel in English. Yet as the clergy were only slightly educated and had very limited access to books, it is likely that their sermons were unhelpful and of little interest to the hearers. Ælfric’s published sermons were intended for the use of parish priests in their teaching ministry throughout the year, and from him and other contemporary writers they probably came to have more material available in their native tongue intended to help them in their work than the priests of any other nation of the time.
In the summer of 1011 the Danes were raiding in Kent. They besieged Canterbury and took it. Christ Church was plundered and burnt and the inhabitants of the city were made captives. Ælfheah, the archbishop, was taken to the Danish ships at Greenwich where he was kept captive for seven months and spoke to his captors of Christ. In the spring a ransom was demanded for him, but he did not wish the people to be burdened by any more extortions, and he forbade it to be paid. The Danes, he said, could do with him as they wished – Christ’s love set him free from fear.
He was cruelly murdered by their army. Drunken soldiers dragged him to a place where they assembled and pelted him with the bones and skulls of oxen on which they had feasted, with stones and with logs, until one of them split his head with a battle axe. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records: “he sank down; and his holy blood fell on the earth, and his holy soul he sent forth to God’s Kingdom.”
Ælfric was born of middle class parents in Wessex in about 955 AD. Early in the 970s he went to the monastic school in Winchester and trained as a monk; in those days the only schools were monastic. Winchester Old Minster had been brought under the Benedictine Rule in 964 by Æthelwold, who was then Bishop of Winchester.
The monastery at Winchester was the intellectual centre of the reform movement. It was led by Æthelwold, who maintained a strong hand and exact discipline, but had a kindly and winning manner with children and youths and enjoyed teaching them.
Ælfric was a good pupil, became a Benedictine monk himself, and in time was ordained to the priesthood.
The Church of St. Bene’t (= Benedict) in Cambridge today claims to be the oldest building in the shire, and has been dated by scholars to about 10-15 years after the life-time of Ælfric. If you visit the church today, you will find a leaflet telling you that St. Benedict’s Rule was written in the 6th. century for observance by monks:
With a desire for true life as its starting point and love of Christ as its motivation, humility is advocated as its means, and mutual service in community the harmonious expression of that love and humility. “Nothing is to be preferred” to the love of Christ.
The worship of God, the central action in a Benedictine monastery, has always impinged on Christian life outside.
So reads the leaflet, and it portrays a tone of high quality and aspiration as the ethos of the Rule by which Ælfric set out to live his life. Daily life in a monastery was divided between work, prayer, and reading. Some six hours were given to work, somewhat under four hours to thoughtful, spiritual reading for the benefit of the monk’s own soul, much of it of the Bible itself, and prayer was offered seven times at set hours throughout the day aloud, as the monks together sought to worship God as a community. The aim was to live in the presence of God, orientating every activity towards him, without distractions. The ethos and environment they sought to cultivate was a common life, lived as a family with the abbot as its father figure.
In 987 a certain Æthelmær endowed an abbey at Cerne Abbas in Dorset. Ælfric was chosen as a monk fit to set the house on a Benedictine footing, and he moved from Winchester to the new monastery, probably with the dual objective of promoting the reform and organising the teaching programme.
Can we picture him there in our mind’s eye? According to Chapter 55 of the Rule of St. Benedict, “in ordinary places the following dress is sufficient for each monk: a tunic, a cowl (thick and woolly for winter, thin or worn for summer), a scapular for work, stockings and shoes to cover the feet. The monks should not complain about the colour or the coarseness of any of these things, but be content with what can be found in the district where they live and can be purchased cheaply.” The habit would probably have been grey or white, the natural colour of undyed wool, and was girt with a leather belt. Further, the Rule says that “it is sufficient if a monk has two tunics and two cowls, to allow for night wear and for the washing of these garments.”
At Cerne Abbas Ælfric won a reputation for learning which drew bishops to come to him for advice.
In 1005 King Ethelred granted authority in a charter for an abbey to be founded at Eynsham, near Oxford. For building it, there would have been no architect, only a skilled and experienced master mason with sketches in the ground. Artisans of various skills then erected the building: carpenters, masons, roofers, glaziers. The abbey was built inside a large precinct near to a cross roads.
Ælfric was chosen as its first abbot, and he realised that he was taking on a grave responsibility. The Rule of St. Benedict says:
Let the abbot be always mindful that, at the tremendous judgement of God, both things will be weighed in the balance: his teaching and the obedience of his disciples. And let the abbot know that whatever the father of the family finds of less utility among the sheep is laid to the fault of the shepherd… Therefore, when anyone receives the name of abbot, he ought to rule over his disciples with a double teaching; that is, let him show forth all good and holy things by deeds more than by words. So that to ready disciples he may propound the mandates of God in words; but, to the hard-hearted and the more simple-minded, he may show forth the divine precepts by his deeds.
In ordaining an abbot… He who is to be ordained shall be elected for merit of life and learnedness in wisdom; even though he be the lowest in rank in the congregation.
Such words (quoted from the translation provided on the “Medieval Sourcebook” website) undoubtedly weighed heavily on Ælfric’s mind and set his aspirations.
As a monk and then an abbot, he led a quiet life in his monasteries and as far as is known played no part in the important secular events of his time. His commitment was to the service of God and the Christian teaching of his countrymen. It is not known when he died, but it may have been around 1015.
Following the Norman invasion and conquest of England in 1066, the abbey and its church were demolished, and a new abbey was built early in the 12th. century.
Ælfric and Wulfstan
Ælfric’s contemporary, Wulfstan, became bishop of London in 996, and established his reputation as a preacher during his episcopacy there. In 1002 or 1003 he was translated to the sees of Worcester and York, which he held together till 1016 when he relinquished Worcester. He remained Archbishop of York till his death in 1023.
He played a significant though very different part in the revival of religious life of the period. Not primarily a theologian, he was a fiery preacher of righteousness. Convinced he was living in the last days, shortly before the appearance of the Antichrist and the personal return in glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, he urged priests and laymen alike to oppose false teachings and so to live that on the Last Day they might present themselves as righteous followers of Christian teaching. His most famous sermon is his “Address to the English” (Sermo Lupi ad Anglos), available today (2003) in translation in paperback and on the Internet; it describes the Danish invasions and their ravages of the land as a judgement from God, and was a call to the nation to repent.
Here are some words from a homily of Wulfstan’s on Matthew 24 concerning the last days:
And treacherous deceivers will then arise and spread abroad too far, and lead too many astray through false teaching… And at the judgement, to which all people must come, our Lord himself will at once show us his bloody side and his pierced hands and the very cross on which he was hung for our need; and he will know without doubt how we repaid him for it, and how we have kept our Christian faith.
His influence lay behind a significant amount of secular legislation. His laws attempted to bring the heathen Danes resident in England under Church law, and he exercised a civilising influence on the young King Cnut.
Both Ælfric and Wulfstan strove for greater orthodoxy and clearer thought than were found in earlier sermons published before the reform, and their writings for the instruction of the clergy give a lot of attention to the need for preaching in the churches. A frequent theme in Wulfstan’s writings – as in Ælfric’s – is that pastors should exhort their flocks by word and lead them by example; indeed, it has been called his favourite subject. Three letters of Ælfric have been preserved which deal with this theme. One of them, addressed to Wulfsige, Bishop of Sherborne, says:
The priest is to relate the meaning of the Gospel in English to the people on Sundays and Mass days. And also concerning the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, as often as he can, for their inspiration, that they may know the faith and keep their religion. Let the teacher warn against what the prophet says, “Dumb hounds cannot bark.” We ought to bark and preach to the laity lest for lack of instruction they be lost.
Three questions arise:
- Did Ælfric succeed?
- Was he a Roman Catholic?
- What can we learn from his life and work?
1. Did Ælfric succeed?
The church in England shared in the general exhaustion of the nation caused by the Danish wars. Spirituality and learning both declined, especially following the death of King Cnut in 1035, by which time Ælfric had passed from the scene.
No-one in the century after Ælfric produced another coherent set of commentaries on the appointed Bible readings for the year, neither in English nor in the native language of any country in Europe. He set the example, but no one followed it. Nonetheless, during the 11th. century, he continued to be regarded as an authoritative teacher, and his works were a standard component of English libraries. They continued to be copied, re-written and imitated throughout the country for about two hundred years.
In fact neither Ælfric nor Wulfstan left any worthy successors and their effort to reform preaching did fail to gain lasting general acceptance. They did not succeed in repressing the older tradition of bizarre and far-fetched legends. Rather, both trends continued into the 11th. century, and people failed to appreciate how different the two were.
It is written that King David “after he had served the counsel of God in his own generation, fell asleep, and was laid with his fathers.” It was not long after David’s death that division and idolatry followed in Israel. Likewise, Ælfric served the counsel of God in his own generation; following generations will answer for themselves on that Day. We must always earnestly strive to serve God in our own day and generation: that alone is the success which will attract the commendation, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
A further thought: Ælfric wrote towards the end of an era – not, as was thought at the time, the appearance of the Antichrist and the end of the world, but the end of England as he knew it, for the Norman conquest of 1066 soon led to the replacing of our native monarchy, nobility and leading churchmen. A new age began. Does not God often bless shortly before the end of an era? Wales saw its last revival in 1904, ten years before the First World War, with its slaughter of potential future church leaders, and its subsequent loss of faith in a good God. Albania saw the awakening in and around Korçë in the late 1930s, shortly before the Italian invasion and the rise of Communism. Last calls to repentance and belief: and none of us knows when his world and society will be overturned in some upheaval yet to come.
2. Was he a real Catholic?
The question, of course, is an anachronism and hardly makes any sense: Ælfric lived more than five hundred years before the Reformation. The doctrines taught in his Sermons were recognised as officially valid by the approval and confirmation of Archbishop Sigeric, head of the Anglo-Saxon church, and they represent its teachings from about 860 to 1060.
If the question must have an answer, then in one sense – Yes, he was. He was certainly committed to his Church. He begins his Preface to his homilies with the words Ic Ælfric munuc and mæssepreost. He was a man of his own day and age, and some of his themes will not delight the Evangelical reader of today; I have not used them in this book. On the other hand, a considerable number of changes have been added to Roman Catholicism since his day, among them major developments in the idea and doctrine of Purgatory, acceptance of the doctrine of transubstantiation and of the teaching that Peter is the rock on which the Church is built, the withdrawal of the communion cup from the laity, and of course the Council of Trent; and most of the present-day devotional practices of Roman Catholics did not exist in the late 10th. century.
Ælfric was a Catholic of that time.
If the question must have an answer, it seems wiser to approximate to the thought of Eduard Dietrich, one of the first serious writers on Ælfric:
Ob sie nun protestantisch oder katholisch sei, darauf kommt es mir nicht an; ich will aus seinen gesammten Ausdrücken … ermitteln, was seine Lehre für sich ist…
[I am not concerned whether it is Protestant or Catholic; I want to find out from all his expressions what his teaching is for itself…]
The extracts I have offered in this book do not give teaching which is Catholic or Protestant: rather, it is Christian. A wiser question to pose is the following one.
3. What can we learn from his life and work?
An earlier English churchman, Wilfrid (634-709), spent the years 681-686 as a missionary in the kingdom of Sussex, which was then pagan. Many left their paganism and turned to God. According to Wilfrid’s biographer Eddius Stephanus, some did so freely, some at the king’s command. It is hard for us in the 21st. century to penetrate the mind and motives of people who were baptised at the command of another, even of their king, but the situation certainly carried the risk of nominalism – that is, of being a Christian in name but not by inward conviction. The same risk existed in Ælfric’s day and exists in our own society today: people hold a religion by name, but do not sincerely believe and practise it. Ælfric emphasised the need for true inward repentance and faith by the indwelling and working of God’s Spirit. We must always emphasise the same, and be sure that we ourselves have this inward life from God.
He was a man of quiet determination and steady purpose. Even while the Danes were devastating the land, he quietly and patiently went on with his writing. He calls to mind some words of Charles Wesley, and English hymn-writer, who senses his need for an even, strong desire… a calmly fervent zeal.
The same hymnwriter recalls what mighty troubles the Lord’s followers had been going through in his day. He says, “We have through fire and water gone.” But they found that their Lord was present in their troubles and gave them the victory.
When hard times come, we should be mindful of our Lord’s words: “We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work.”
The study of his life and work, and of the reform movement in which he was so prominent a player, shows us some of the effects that can be produced in a troubled and insecure society by the working of God’s grace and Spirit, as men are moved in spiritual experience and good works. Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven.” Whether you are reading this in Britain, Albania or Kosova, you are living in a society where sustained and ardent preaching of God’s truth is the greatest need of the men and women around you. Pray that God will grant it.
Ælfric was impelled by an even, strong desire to provide sound doctrinal and moral writing in a society where few books were available either to the clergy or to the people at large, and where a good deal of what did exist was misleading or downright false. There are lands today – I think especially of Albania and Kosova – which have no long-standing and deep tradition of Christian literature, with no wide range of titles, but some strange erroneous and harmful teachings being purveyed by some who bear our Lord’s name. We should take these lands into our hearts and our minds, and pursue with a zeal like Ælfric’s the aim of providing, disseminating and reading good, helpful books.
Ælfric lived vividly in the light of our Lord’s expected return in glory. He emphasises that no-one knows the day nor the hour of the Coming, but it is held to be imminent. This was a widespread belief at the time. It features in a lot of Anglo-Saxon prose and poetry, and it engendered seriousness and piety. We too would do well to remember our Lord’s words, “Surely I come quickly,” and to have in our own hearts the age-old response, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” Whilst we can serve Him in this world, let us do so with ardour. Soon we shall see him face to face.
Finally, Ælfric is a testimony to the truth and effectiveness of our Lord’s words in John’s Gospel 7:38: “He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, “Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
If, through his writings and example, we can sense our own need for a deeper love for God, worship of God as Creator of all things, the preciousness of our redemption, a morally consistent Christian life, the urgency to bring the Gospel to the lost and the importance of strengthening the Lord’s people with consistent teaching… if these things come to us more vividly and more weightily from his writings, then in spirit and in truth we shall have drunk in much that is vitally important for our walk in our own day from this servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Ælfric was a man called by God’s grace, in whose soul that grace lit a fire of love for Christ and of urgent compassion for the lost. I wrote that it “would have been good to sit down and have a good long talk” with him: maybe I should look forward to that in the glory, for it is written that “many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”
 I Ælfric, monk and mass-priest