Hilda of Whitby

Hilda of Whitby

Early Church Father Ambrose reports that Easter in 387 was observed in Gaul (France) on 21 March, in Italy on 18 April, and in Alexandria, Egypt, on 25 April. From the 4th century onward, factions of the Church debated the proper dating of Easter. It took a great deal of diplomacy to handle these matters. Hilda of Whitby, a princess and Abbess of a famous monastery, negotiated this very question in her day for Christians in Britain.

Long before the Normans invaded England, many smaller kingdoms filled her bonny land. Hilda, or Hild, was born a princess of Northumbria in 614, the daughter of Hereric, who died when she was an infant. She was brought up in the court of her great-uncle King Edwin and received a fine education. When Edwin married the Christian princess from Kent in 625, the new Queen AEthelburg brought her beliefs and missionaries to Northumbria. Her husband and many of the court became Christians too. Hilda was among them.

Hilda was baptized at age thirteen on Easter Sunday, and dedicated her life to God. At nineteen, the neighboring King of Mercia attacked Northumbria and her great-uncle died in battle. Hilda left with the Queen for her former home, and both of them retired to a monastery in Kent. When she was thirty-three, Hilda struck out to return to Northumbria to become a nun of the Celtic type in a monastery on the River Wear. Here Pastor Aidan of Iona taught the nuns and monks. They lived separately in tiny houses, but worshiped together in a small wooden church. Hilda was trained in theology, learned the Scriptures, and became a leader known for her wisdom.

She spent some years as Abbess at Hartlepool Abbey, and was then appointed to the double monastery at Whitby Abbey, high on a cliff overlooking the North Sea near Yorkshire. As Abbess of both men and women, she was highly respected and beloved. Under her direction, Whitby became a great religious center. With tireless energy, Hilda was a skilled administrator and teacher. She treated workers well, supported the arts, music, and poetry, and excelled in raising sheep and cattle, and in farming and woodcutting enterprises. Caedmon, one of the herders under her care, became the first British poet due to her encouragement. In addition to the common people, kings and princes came to Whitby to seek her advice.

So famous had Hilda and her Abbey become, that when the time was right to convene a council to discuss the dating of Easter in England, King Oswiu of Northumberland chose Hilda to host the gathering. This was to be the first Christian synod (or meeting for religious decisions) in the kingdom. Church leaders from far and wide attended to hear the arguments in 663/664.

Would it be best if Northumbria followed the Roman dating of Easter and other patterns of Christian liturgy and practices, or those of the Celtic tradition? Hilda preferred the Celtic practices and dating but, after long discussions and prayer, and in an effort to unite the Church in Northumbria, she agreed to follow the Roman patterns. The leaders who deliberated there said they were guided by the Holy Spirit.

The decision led to the acceptance of Roman usage elsewhere in England and brought the English Church into closer contact with Europe, where vigorous theological, liturgical, and musical exchanges were flourishing. The church leaders from Lindesfarne, who did not agree with the decision, slipped away to Iona, and then to Ireland. The Welsh and the Irish have long maintained an independence from Roman patterns that still color their expressions of worship today, and provide a rich and varied treasury of worship texts and music.

Hilda suffered from a fever for the last seven years of her life, but she continued to work until her death on 17 November 680. In her last year she set up another monastery, fourteen miles from Whitby, at Hackness.

Today, we can hardly imagine the difficulties of traveling pastors, laypersons, missionaries, and shared leaders, as they conducted seamless services among the varied expressions of the Early Church, not to mention the many languages and cultures in which the Church worshiped and ministered. It was considered extremely important, then, particularly as written forms of worship materials were shared among the churches, to unify the Church so that liturgies, celebrations, and discipleship training, could be conducted in the pattern of one Lord, one faith, one baptism . . . under the Holy Spirit's direction.

-Karen O'Dell Bullock
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