Wednesday, 18 October 2017

History of Catholic Church of England and Syriac Spirituality

                     History of Catholic Church of England and Syriac Spirituality
Martin Thomas Antony

England is a country organised based on Christian principles. The history of Christianity in England and on a wider sense in Britain is very old going back to first few centuries of Christian era.
Catholic Church in England is a minority Christian denomination. The first authoritative Papal Mission to England was in AD 597 with St Augustine of Canterbury by the establishment of a direct link between the Kingdom of  Kent to the See of Rome and the establishment of the Benedictine form of monasticism.[i] The Christianity in England was always adherent to the Roman Catholic Church but after the Henrician reformation of the 16 th century, the official Christian Church in England became the Church of England and the Catholic Church suffered a lot of persecutions and produced many martyrs. Being a persecuted church, Catholic Church in England still is an active Christian community with a large number of Church attendees compared to Church of England.

Catholic Church.

The term 'Catholic Church' means the Universal Church. In AD 110, Ignatius of Antioch uses the term 'Catholic church' in his epistle to the 'Smyrneans' with the meaning of universal church. This was to differentiate the local particular church under the leadership of the Bishop and the Catholic Church as the aggregate of all local churches.[ii]

The term 'Catholic' also means the true church differentiating from heretic sects. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote in the fourth century that the church is called 'Catholic' not only because it is spread throughout the world but also it teaches all the doctrines completely without any defect. Thus, Catholic church means the Universal Christian church which is orthodox in faith.[iii]

The word 'Catholic' word derived from Greek 'Katholicos' and Latin 'catholicus' meaning universal.(Oxford dictionary)

Ecclesiastically, the term 'Catholic Church' means the Universal Catholic Church, the communion of Roman Catholic Church and 23 sui iuris Churches,  the largest Christian communion in the world.
Almost all Christian denominations claim that their church is 'Catholic'. The East Syriac church- the mother of the Syriac stream of Christianity, the continuation of the Judeo Christian movement of the Apostles and the very first Christian Church that got separated from the rest of Christendom after the Council of Nicea which depicted the first uniform Christian creed, - calls their church as Holy Catholic Apostolic Church of the East.

'Catholic' is one of the four attributes or markers of the Christian church according to the Nicean creed promulgated by the first Council of Constantinople in AD 381- One, Holy, Catholic, and  Apostolic.

Christianity in Britain
Celtic Christianity.
Tertullian, the father of Latin theology has commented that by about AD 200, Christianity was spread in to even areas of the Britain inaccessible to the Romans-Britannorum inaccessa romanis loca.[iv] Christianity in Britain had its beginnings with Celtic converts. Celtic Christianity was related Gallic[v] Christianity[vi].[vii] It was easy for the Celtic people to accept Christianity, due to certain similarities between pagan Celtic beliefs and Christian beliefs.[viii]  In the history, the first signs of Christianity in Britain are seen from the early third century. The martyrdoms of Aaron, Julian and Alban are dated in the mid-third century[ix]. These were part of Roman persecutions. British Bishops were documented present in the Council of Arles in AD 314.The early Christianity in the Britain was related to the Roman occupation in the Britain. Much of Great Britain was incorporated into the Roman Empire by 43 AD[x].  Emperor Constantine abolished persecution of  Christianity in the Roman Empire by Edict of Milan in AD 313.  Later, with the Edict of Thessalonica in AD 380, Catholic Orthodoxy as depicted in the Councils of  Nicea (AD 325)  and Constantinople(381)  was declared as the state religion of Roman Empire[xi].
Archaeological studies show evidence of Christianity in Britain in the 4 th century AD  in the form of personal items bearing Christian imagery, liturgical fonts or basins, church structures and burial sites.[xii] Excavations at Canterbury revealed the presence of buildings of Roman period which were Christian Churches, another building at Reculver with archaeological features of a Christian church and a few other buildings at Roman occupied areas in England like Frampton in Dorsetshire and in Chedworth in Gloucestershire with Christian monograms[xiii].
Excavation near Trafalgar square in London revealed at least 1400 yr old Christian burial site in the traditional Christian manner east to west.[xiv] The excavation also shows evidence of Christianity pre dating the Anglo Saxon conversion.
Celtic Christianity has left a large number of Christian buildings, art objects, manuscripts, bronze bells, crosiers etc. Spiritually, their monastic life was intense as seen in Egypt or Syria.[xv] It has been proposed that these Celtic Christians had contacts with the Mesopotamia and Egypt  that  Celtic sacred  manuscript as the Gospel text known as 'The Book of Durrow' and similar figures in Celtic sculptures of the late sixth century derive from the ancient Syriac Gospel book 'Diatessaron' and the Religio cultural symbol of  Celtic Christianity  (like  the Saint Thomas Crosses of India), the 'Celtic crosses' have precedents in the art of Coptic Christianity[xvi]. Thus, we can presume that the  Celtic Christians, even though they used Latin as their liturgical language, was constantly communicating and updating with the Christianity in the land and the culture where it originated, the Eastern Syriac Christianity.
Anglo Saxon period.
Early 5th century, Romans abandoned their hold in England. Jutes, Angles and Saxons from continental  Europe invaded England who destroyed the Christianity. The Christians might have got absorbed into the new society or pushed to the mountains of Wales or Cornish Tores [xvii]. In AD 597, Pope Gregory I sent Saint Augustine from the monastery of Saint Andrew to preach to the Anglo Saxons. Anglo Saxons were the Germanic tribes migrated to Britain from the Continental Europe. The Anglo Saxon conversion was a revival of Catholicism in England.  Bede's ecclesiastical history narrates that Augustine was consecrated as the Bishop with his base at Canterbury. The local King had known about Christians and there was a Bishop already as a chaplain of the Queen who was a catholic.[xviii] This revival continued with two provinces Canterbury and York.
Anglo Saxon chronicles also describe about an embassy sent to India. Anglo Saxon chronicles describe that in AD 883, King Alfred of England sends envoy with offerings that he woved  to Saint Thomas's Tomb in India in thanksgiving for his victory over Dunes in London.[xix]for  and Saint Bar thulomy in India[xx]
Norman period
11th century Norman conquest gave further revival to the English Catholicism with Romanesque Cathedrals  and spiritual revival with Benedictines like Anslem and  Lanfranc. Monasteries and convents flourished as the centres of learning. Pilgrimage was another feature of this period. Walsingham[xxi] in 1061 witnessed a Marian apparition and became a pilgrim centre. Similar pilgrim centres were Holywell to commemorate St Winefred, Canterbury after the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in 1170, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, and so on. Pope Adrian IV was born in England and was elected as Pope in 1954.[xxii]
Henrician reformation and subsequent persecution
Catholicism flourished in Britain in constant communion with the See of Rome until the reformation by Henry VIII. In 1534, Henry VIII suppressed Catholicism in Britain  and established a National Church- the Church of England due to a number of reasons namely the King Henry VIII could not have an heir through his wife Catherine of Aragon and the Pope refused to annul the marriage with her so that Henry VIII can have an heir through another wife. This resulted in King and the Parliament renouncing the authority of the Pope and subsequent legislation lead to the formation of the Church of England with no communion with the Pope of Rome any actions opposing these legislation publicly considered as treason. This lead to persecution of Catholics- Saints John Fisher, Thomas Moore and others were martyred. Even though Henry VIII opposed to Protestantism and did not accept Protestant theology in doctrine or worship, the subsequent Monarchs allowed Protestant influence in the Church of England. Henry VIII dissolved all the monasteries and took over the rich properties of Catholic Church[xxiii]. The period immediately followed Henry VIII was volatile. Edward IV (1547-1553)moved the Church of England into Protestant influence. During the period of Queen Mary 1 (1553-58) tried to bring back the Church into Catholicism. Elizabeth I (1558-1603 ) tried to abolish the authority of Pope in England by a number of legislatures by which it was made a crime to assert the authority of a foreign prince, prelate or authority.  Pope Pius V in 1570  in his bull 'Regnans in Excelsis' excommunicated the Queen and obliged all Catholics to try to overthrow her. This resulted in the Government making more rigorous actions against the Catholics and persecutions against Catholics.
An assassination plot against King James I of England and King James VI of Scotland by blowing up the House of Lords with gunpowder on the 5th of November 1605 by a group of English Catholics was foiled and the culprits were convicted. The commemoration of this victory over the rebellion Catholics was evolved into the Bonafire night celebrated even today.
Such actions by Catholics made them appear rebellious to the country and further persecutions followed for next  200 years. The act of settlement of 1701decided that the Monarch of England should only be a Protestant. Catholic presence and influence in the public life was limited, they did not have the right to vote, right to own property was limited. Civil rights were limited.
During these dark years, the Roman Catholic Church existed in England as Apostolic vicariates. Diocesan Episcopacy was restored only in 1850. By 1778, by Catholic relief act, there was some liberalisation in the anti-Catholic laws.
Second Catholic revival
The situation changed by  the influx of French Catholics by the end of 18th century due to French Revolution which was evidently anti-catholic, influx of Irish Catholics in the  19th century due to famine in the background of unification of Ireland leading to increased population of Catholics in England leading to pressure for abolishing the anti-catholic laws. Also some Anglican conversion to catholic church that involved eminent intellectuals. Roman Catholic relief act of 1829 reinstated equal civil rights to Catholics. Catholic hierarchy was restored with the establishment of Dioceses in place of vicariates in 1850.Catholic church grew in 20th century with an increased number of practicing Catholics actively participating in worship on Sundays compared to the Church of England.
Later, with modernisation and liberalisation of the society, practising Catholics became more of the older generation, but, being a persecuted church, Catholics were more in number compared to Church of England in active in religious practices and witnessing. But there was significant reduction in vocations.
By the end of 20th century, further immigration of Catholics from south Asia including South India, Philippines etc further boosted catholic numbers and more and more young people are seen in the church.

Catholic Church of England today.

English Roman Catholic Church comprises of 5  provinces Birmingham, Liverpool, Cardiff, Southwark and Westminster with 22 dioceses. There are about 4.1 million faithful in England according to 2011 census[xxiv]. Archbishop Vincent Cardinal Nicholls is the President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales. With the spirit of II Vatican Council, the Catholic Church of England actively participates in ecumenical activities with other Christian Churches. Even being a minority in the country, with the history of a persecuted church, Catholic churches are still very active in religious life compared to the vast majority Church of England.

Post Vatican council II -traditional Catholics versus liberal Catholics.

There is a strong group of Catholics in England who loves the traditional Latin mass. The changes in the liturgy and church architecture in par with the so-called spirit of II Vatican Council  and the liberalism has upset many the traditional catholic faithful. Latin mass Society[xxv] is an organisation promoting the spirituality of Traditional Latin rite.  There are several churches in England where traditional Latin liturgy is regularly celebrated with Gregorian chants and Holy Mass fully ad orietum.[xxvi]

Eastern Catholic Churches.

Syro Malabar Church

Syro Malabar Church is a Major Archi Episcopal Church with a strong base in England. Syro Malabar church is the second largest church in England after the Roman Rite. In the late 20th century, there was a mass migration of Nurses from Kerala to England[xxvii]. Most of these Nurses came over from the Middle East where religious rights to Christians are minimal. They all came over to England with their secret prayer group spirituality. A number of Priests and certain lay leaders led these small communities with regular prayers, night vigils and celebration of Eucharistic liturgy in Malayalam language. These all were on the interests of a few dedicated Priests and the Charismatic movement. The main theme was pastoral care in Malayalam language and regular Charismatic retreats and prayers rather than the spirituality and rite of Syro Malabar Church.
Later, the Holy Synod of the Syro Malabar Church also took initiative and Chaplaincies were formed. In 2007, Pope Francis established an Eparchy of Great Britain for the Syro Malabar's and Bishop Mar Joseph Srampikkal was consecrated amidst a large crowd of faithful of about 12000 at Preston on 09th October 2016[xxviii].
With the establishment of the Eparchy, the Syro Malabar Church in England is growing in her own spirituality from an ethnolinguistic identity. Comparing to other ethnic groups, the English Catholic Church is hopeful that the Syro Malabar Church would lead a new revival with a different Eastern spirituality in England. The English church is very supportive to the Syro Malabar Church and spirituality and insists that the Liturgy and sacraments of Syro Malabar Church is protected and preserved in England[xxix]. It is a great opportunity to the Syro Malabar faithful to witness the Apostolic spirituality of Syro Malabar Church which is closer to the Judeo Christian movement of the Apostles than the familiar hellenised Latin West and Greek East and faith transmission in the Syriac spirituality to the native English people.

Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church

Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is another Major Archi Episcopal Church which has about 15000[xxx] faithful living in England. They have an Eparchy in London with a Bishop. They take a very active role in introducing the Eastern Churches to the Western church through the Society of Saint John Chrysostom. In 2015, Society of Saint John Chrysostom organised a Festival of Eastern Catholic Churches with the theme on Syriac Christianity and Syro Malabar Church[xxxi].

Other Eastern Catholic Churches.

There are chaplaincies of Maronite Church, Erythtrean Catholic Church, Syriac Catholic Church, Chaldean Church and Syro Malankara Church operates in England adding to the Universality of Catholic Church.

Other Ethno linguistic groups.

Polish migrant Catholics are organised in England as congregations based on a few churches but they are part of English Catholic Parishes. There are large number of Philippino Catholics also in England associated with English parishes.  

Personal Ordinariate of our Lady of Walsingham

This is an establishment promulgated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011 to accommodate the reunion of   Anglicans while preserving the distinctive elements of Anglican Patrimony[xxxii]. A number of serving and retired Bishops and several clergy and laymen joined the movement.

Catholic Church of England and Eastern Spirituality.

The Catholic Church of England is experiencing a new revival with the immigrant Catholics and Eastern catholic Churches, especially the Syro Malabar Church. Syriac Spirituality is not new to England. Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury(668-690 AD) was a Greek from Tarsus but was fluent in Syriac[xxxiii]. The influence of Syriac exegetical literature is widely seen in the Biblical commentaries of the Canterbury School of Theodore [xxxiv]. Now, Bishop Mar Joseph Srampikkal, a Syro Malabar Bishop who had his training and formation in Syriac tradition is leading the Syriac spirituality in England. The young active practicing Catholics of Syro Malabar Church is giving a vibrancy to the English parishes. Large-scale Charismatic prayer meetings and night vigils organised by the Syro Malabar faithful are common in all areas of England attracting the English Catholics as well.

English Saints

There are a large number of native Saints venerated in the English Catholic Church. There are pre reformation saints and fathers and several martyrs during the period of persecution.

Walsingham is a Norfolk village where a woman Richeldis de Faverches reported a Marian apparition in 1061. The shrine there is a major place of Pilgrimage. Syro Malabar faithful are also very enthusiastic about Walsingham Pilgrimage. The Syro Malabar Eparchy of Great Britain has also taken a very keen interest in Walsingham pilgrimage.
Holywell in North Wales in the memory of St Winefried, Canterbury in memory of Saint Thomas Becket, Westminster Abbey to commemorate Edward the confessor are a few of them.


Catholic Church in England is an ancient church with a glorious beginning and then dark ages of persecution. The Church became a minority and viewed by the general public as rebellious and radical to the nation but the spirituality of the Church sustained with the strong faithful. European and Asian immigration gave the English Catholic church great revival. The presence of Eastern Catholic churches adds the richness and universality of the Church life in England. The Catholic Church in England always stood for social justice, rights of the common workers and immigrants.

[i] accessed on 25 June 2017
[ii] Rev J H Srawley, The Epistles of St Iganatius vol II Early Church classics, Society for promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1910 p 41 foot note 4
[iii] Rev J H Srawley, opus cited p 42 foot note
[iv] Charles Thomas, Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500, University of California press, 1981, p 43
[v] Gaul (Latin Gallia)is a region in the Western Europe which was a heartland of Latin Christianity comprise of todays France, Luxumborg, Belgium, Switzerland and Northern Italy.
[vi] Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, Penguin Books, p330.The Celtic Christians  were vibrant  Catholics. They kept the language of Western Latin Christianity as their sacred and liturgical language . Gallic Christianity was initially Arian Christianity.
[vii] F J Haverfield, Early British Christianity, English Historical review, vol 11, 1896, pp417-430
[viii] Kimberley Rachel Grunke, The effects of Christianity upon the British Celts, University of Wisconsin La Crosse  Journal of Undergraduate research, XI, 2008, p1
[ix] Kimberley Rachel Grunke, The effects of Christianity upon the British Celts, University of Wisconsin La Crosse  Journal of Undergraduate research, XI, 2008, p
[x] Cassiun Dio,Roman History, accessed from*.html#19 on 25 June 2017, Book LX, Nos 19-22
[xi] Sydney Z Ehler, John B Morrall, (Ed), Church and State through the Centuries,: A collection of Historic documents with commentaries, Biblo and Tannen Publishers,1967, p 6-7
[xii] David Petts, The oxford handbook of Roman Britain
[xiii] E P Loftus Brock, Christianity in Britain in Roman Times with reference to recent discoveries at Canterbury, Archaeologia Cantiana vol 15, 1883, pp 38-55
[xiv] David M Keys, accessed on 26 May 2017
[xv] Diarmaid  MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, Penguin Books, p 332.
[xvi] Diarmaid MacCulloch, opus cit p332
[xvii] John Mooreman, History of the Church in England, III edn,
[xviii] Judith McClure, Roger Collins, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Greater Chronicle, Bede's letter to Egbert, Oxford University Press, p 39-40
[xix] Diana Webb, Medieval European Pilgrimage C700-c 1500, Palgrave, p146
[xx] Rev James Ingram, The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, A history of England from Roman Times to the Norman conquest, Red and Black publishers, St Petersburg, Florida, p 57
[xxi] It is not surprising that a large number of Syro Malabar faithful from Kerala are very enthusiastic in Wasingham pilgrimage as they come from Kuravilangad, the ancient church in Kerala where the Mother Mary appeared to children in AD 325. Walsingham could be considered as the Kuravilangad of the England.
[xxii] John Duncan Mackie, Pope Adrian IV: The Lothian Essay, Blackwell Publishers page 5
[xxiii] G W Bernard, The dissolution of the monasteries, History, 2011 cited in Wikipedia accessed on 26 June 2017
[xxiv] accessed on 29 June 2017
[xxv] accessed on 29 June 2017
[xxvi] It is very sad to note that in one of those English Catholic churches in England where only Tridentine Mass is celebrated, (fully ad orientum)  one of the prominent Syro Malabar Pastors used to celebrate Syro Malabar Liturgy fully ad populum on a regular basis ridiculing the spirituality, traditions and over all of this, the decision of the Holy Synod of the Syro Malabar church about celebrations of the holy Eucharistic liturgy among migrants.
[xxvii] Rev Fr Mathew Thottathimyalil, History of Syro Malabar Church in the UK and Eire, 2005, p6, 37.
[xxviii] accessed on 29 June 2017
[xxix] Archbishop Vincent Cardinal Nicholls, the President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, personal letter dated 21 January 2014 to the author with a copy to the then Co ordinator of the Syro Malabar Mission in England.
[xxx] accessed on 29 June 2017
[xxxi] accessed on 28 June 2017
[xxxii] accessed on 29 June 2017
[xxxiii] Panteleimon Tzorbatzoglou, St Theodore, Archbishop of canterbury (668-690AD), A Greek from Tarsus of Cilicia in England: Some aspects of his life, Mediterranean Chronicle, vol 2, 2012 Diavlos, p 80
[xxxiv] Sebstian Brock, St Theodore of Canterbury, the Canterbury school and the Christian East,  Heythorpe Journal, XXXVI, 1995, p433
[xxxv] accessed on 29 June 2017

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