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Why did monasticism play such an important part in the expansion of the Irish and Anglo-Saxon Churches between 500 and 750?

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Why did monasticism play such an important part in the expansion of the Irish and Anglo-Saxon Churches between 500 and 750? The term "monasticism" is not entirely straightforward: in this period the word "monasterium" was used to refer to a wide variety of institutions and it must be borne in mind that there was not some kind of 'standard monastery'. The basic characteristics of monasticism were prayer and abstinence, although the levels of dedication demanded varied greatly and encompassed both coenobitic and eremitic forms. We should not force anachronistic ideas onto monasticism in this period: the isolation and simplicity demanded by the Rule of St Benedict were generally not required until the reforms of the tenth century, although some monasteries, like Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, where Benedict Biscop's rule was used, incorporated strong elements of Benedictine tradition. Indeed, in many monasteries, monks had considerable freedom of movement and clerics were also part of the community. Because of the later associations of the word "monastery", some writers use the term "mynster" in discussing monastic establishments in this period; I shall not follow this pattern, since, as Sims-Williams points out, "monasterium" was considered in this period to encompass a broad range of institutions and did not necessarily then have the connotations it has subsequently acquired. It is my contention that these diverse monastic foundations played an important role in the growth of both the Irish and the Anglo-Saxon Churches in four main ways. The first sense in which monasticism contributed to the Church's expansion was in the conversion of pagans. Secondly, monks were most probably concerned to some extent with 'front-line' pastoral care, ministering to the faithful. In analysing this, it is necessary to consider the role of monasticism in relation to episcopal authority, where contrasts between the Anglo-Saxon and Irish Churches emerge. It appears that, especially in the Anglo-Saxon Church, the monasteries played an important role in this area, though pastoral care was theoretically the preserve of the episcopate; while monasteries in Ireland were powerful, it is doubtful whether they contributed greatly to pastoral care. ...read more.


However, the repetition of these instructions, which we see on both sides of the Irish Sea, suggests that they were being disobeyed, implying that monasteries were involving themselves in pastoral care, often to the chagrin of church councils and synods. It is particularly likely that this was the case in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, which tended to have large bishoprics and relatively few priests (a similar situation existed in the British Church in Wales in this period). Although Archbishop Theodore increased the number of dioceses, it would be difficult for a bishop to maintain comprehensive control of his see and it is likely that monasteries took on pastoral work, perhaps especially where little was organised by the episcopate: such an interpretation reconciles Bede's account with the evidence from the councils. However, we can also draw the conclusion that some monasteries in Ireland were attempting to perform pastoral work, since it was necessary for it to be stated repeatedly that only priests could administer the sacraments. Nevertheless, it is probably reasonable to conclude, as Sims-Williams does, that direct monastic involvement in pastoral care diminished over time, as such strictures were repeated. In the Anglo-Saxon Church, this came about as the episcopate grew more powerful, particularly after Theodore; in Ireland, it now seems unlikely that monks played a critical role in most pastoral work, given that the episcopate was relatively well established from the time of St Patrick. We do not have evidence (like that of Bede for the Anglo-Saxon Church) to suggest that pastoral care was a routine part of Irish monasteries' work, although some probably did become involved; indeed, evidence of day-to-day ministry is notably absent from Adomnan's "Life of Columba", suggesting that pastoral care was not integral to Irish monasticism. However, it is probably best not to see monasteries and the episcopate in opposition to each other: most of the time, as Thacker points out, they combined and co-operated as part of a 'Church'. ...read more.


Secondly, as Sims-Williams points out, they were tolerated by the Council of Clofesho (747); this suggests that they were not generally perceived as harmful. Upsetting as the secularisation might be to Bede, a proponent of relative austerity, it is probable that the benefits of such endowments to the Churches, in practical if not spiritual terms, outweighed their disadvantages. After all, wealth was necessary if the monasteries were to support the missionary activity, pastoral work, education and artistic achievement that extended the Churches. The implicit assumption behind this question is that monasticism was highly important in the growth of the Irish and Anglo-Saxon Churches. In many ways, this is an entirely reasonable premise: monasticism contributed directly to the preaching of the Word, especially to pagans, but also in some cases to the faithful; provided much of the intellectual and creative underpinning of the Churches' missions; and accumulated wealth that was vital for the Churches' growth. Generally, the similarities between the roles of monasticism in the Irish and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms are striking. This is not to say that they were identical: there were differences, for example in missionary style, artwork and position in relation to the episcopate. However, we see monasteries performing broadly similar roles in preaching the Word and especially in supporting the preaching of the Word. Nevertheless, it should be stressed that monasticism was not the Church: on both sides of the Irish Sea, there were important issues relating to episcopal control and it now seems that the direct pastoral role of monasteries in Ireland was perhaps not as great as Hughes once thought, although some monasteries clearly made an important (and in some ways unofficial) contribution to pastoral care. No two monasteries were the same and it is highly unlikely that any two monasteries had precisely the same impact, but it is clear that monasticism contributed greatly, both directly and indirectly, to the expansion of the Irish and Anglo-Saxon Churches. ...read more.

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