St Francis, Terriers - Trinity 2 (05.06.2016)

Tony Dickinson

Who was the greatest Englishman ever? Who is your candidate?

My candidate is a man who was born more than thirteen hundred years ago. His name was Wynfrith. He probably came from Devon. As a boy he went to a school attached to a monastery in or near Exeter and when he grew up he became a monk in a place called Nursling, near Southampton. There was a school attached to that monastery, too, and he taught at it. We know he taught Latin, because he wrote a book about the language to help his pupils learn. He also wrote a book about poetry and (because even monks have to relax sometimes) a book of riddles.

Now that doesn’t sound very “greatest-Englishman-ever”, does it? It was a fairly unremarkable life. And it stayed unremarkable until he was about forty, when there was a huge change. The head of the monastery, Abbot Wynbert, died. The monks asked Wynfrith to take over. He was the obvious candidate. He was bright. He was organised. He was holy. It must have been a huge shock when he said “no”. It must have been an even bigger shock when he told them that he was leaving them. He felt that God was calling him to work in Europe as a missionary. He had grown up as a Christian in an England which had been Christian for nearly a hundred years, but he knew that there were parts of mainland Europe which had not yet heard the good news of Jesus, including the lands on the other side of the North Sea from which his ancestors had set out two or three centuries before.

So Wynfrith set out for Friesland – that’s roughly the north Netherlands and north-western Germany. But he didn’t stay there long. There was a war going on and the bishop he had gone to help told him to go back to Nursling. He did – but he didn’t stay there long, either. God’s call hadn’t gone away, so the following year he went off to Rome, to the headquarters of the Western Church, to ask where he could be most useful. The answer he got was “Germany”. Not this part of Germany or that part of Germany. He was to be bishop of the whole lot east of the River Rhine! And he was, more or less, on his own.

But not for long! I told you that Wynfrith was a good organiser. He was also a prodigious letter-writer. We know that, because a lot of his letters home and his letters to Rome have survived. They show him inviting contacts in England, family, friends, church-men (and women), to join him in Germany. And they did. Wynfrith, who had been given a new, Latin name, Boniface, travelled with his teams thousands of miles, all over Germany. They preached. They taught. They built churches and grew Christian communities from the Rhine to the Danube, eastward into Saxony and onhward into what is now Austria. On one of his visits to Rome to report on progress, Wynfrith was made archbishop, and some of his helpers were made bishops, to organise the churches in the outlying areas, in Salzburg, Regensburg, Freising, Erfurt, Würzburg and Passau. He set up his headquarters in Mainz, which was a good base because you could travel along the rivers, the Rhine and the Main and the Mosel. And some say that in the middle of all this activity he invented the Christmas tree – but that is a story for another time of year!

So why am I telling you this today? Is it part of a cunning plan to get you to vote in a fortnight’s time? Well, no. I’m telling you this today because when he eventually retired as Archbishop of Mainz, Archbishop Boniface (as I suppose we ought to call him) didn’t just drift into old age. At the age of eighty he went back to Friesland, to lead a mission there. On 5th June, 754, he was preparing to baptise and confirm hundreds of new Christians when a group of armed bandits broke into their camp and forced their way into the archbishop’s tent. The archbishop wouldn’t let his people protect him. “Cease fighting” he said. “Lay down your arms, for we are told in Scripture not to render evil for good but to overcome evil by good.” One of the bandits raised his sword and brought it down on the archbishop’s head, cutting through the book he had been reading and which he raised in an attempt to ward off the blow and killing him. That book, and the Archbishop’s body, were found a few days later and taken to Fulda in Hessen, where they both are to this day, in the cathedral, to remind us of the life of one of the greatest Englishmen, who was committed to the peoples of mainland Europe and who gave his life in God’s service.