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C H U R C H
The Parish of Northenden, Manchester
© 2006
St. Wilfrid’s Parish Church
Ford Lane
Northenden
Manchester
M22 4WE
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Who was St. Wilfrid?
St. Wilfrid: 634 – 709 ad. A potted life!

Wilfrid was born into a Northumbrian noble family, but lost his mother at an early age. He did not get on with his step mother, and with royal approval wend to the abbey at Lindisfarne, where he supported an injured warrior who had become a monk.  To further his education, and devotion to Christ, he got permission to travel to Rome (no mean feat in the seventh century!)  When he returned he was given land by the Northumbrian king to found a monastery of his own at Ripon.  When a dispute blew up between Celtic and Roman Christians over the right date to celebrate Easter, Wilfrid was the natural protagonist for the Roman side, and his arguments won the day at the Synod of Whitby (then called Streonshalgh!) in 664.  This may seem a trivial matter to us, but it was a practical problem at court, where the “Roman” king wanted to celebrate Easter with feasting, and his “Celtic” Scottish queen was still fasting for Lent! (or was it the other way round?)

Some of the Celtic “side” felt that they could not conscientiously accept the king’s decision and withdrew to Scotland, leaving a vacancy for bishop at York.  Wilfrid was proposed, and in the end accepted, but felt he had to be made bishop by other bishops in the Roman tradition, so left for France for the consecration.  This was delayed, and when he got back he found another man, Chad, had been made bishop of York locally already!  Rather than fight about it, he withdrew to his monastery at Ripon, and also worked in the Midlands (the kingdom of Mercia).  After about five years matters were sorted out, and he and Chad did a kind of swap, with Chad becoming a much loved bishop of Lichfield.  If  he founded Northenden church himself, this would be the period when it was done, since we are just in Mercia.

This pattern of co-operation and then disagreement between Wilfrid and various kings of Northumbria forms a recurrent theme in his life.  He has been blamed for being cantankerous, and made enemies as well as friends in his own day.  I would suggest, however, that his purpose was to establish an independent moral authority for the church, over against the various kingdoms that then made up Britain.  By appealing to the pope he was asserting that even kings were subject to a higher law than their own will and sword arm. He used the symbols of his age to demonstrate the power of the church, bringing precious gifts from Rome for the Northumbrian kings, using finer robes than the Celtic church, and building grand stone churches in place of the simpler Celtic style.  

He reclaimed old Celtic church sites (was Northenden one of them? ~ its original round churchyard might possibly suggest this).  He prayed for the sick, including sick members of the families of his gaolers at one stage.  On his travels he was often threatened, and having been attacked by pirate wreckers in Sussex, he took the opportunity of one of his exiles from York to go there, and convert his erstwhile attackers to Christian faith (and incidentally, so runs the story, to overcome a famine by teaching them how to fish ~ presumably sharing a Northern technique new to them, enabling them to exploit untapped resources.)

After years of travel and mission he was reconciled to the Northumbrian kings, and spent the last years of his life in that kingdom.  He fell seriously in at Hexham, but in response to prayer felt he had gained a year’s reprieve.  He continued to work, setting his affairs, and the affairs of his monasteries in order, and eventually died, in 709, at one of them at Oundle.  He was buried at Ripon.

A story about his life and work, written for children, is available from this church;  or look into Aedde’s life, which is fairly matter-of-fact and realistic, as Saxon lives of the saints go.
For more historical information about St. Wilfrid or Northumbria try searching the British Library at www.bl.uk