There is a river in north Northumberland near Crookham called Pallinsburn, named after Paulinus, who was a key figure in Pope Gregory the Great’s mission to these islands in the late 6th century, before the monastic community on Holy Island had been conceived. Working northwards from Canterbury, the Gregorian mission reached the far north of what is today’s Northumberland, where Paulinus led a very successful ministry of evangelism as chaplain to the Northumbrian King Edwin’s wife, Aethelberga at Ad Gefrin (“Hill of the Goats”), a royal palace at the foot of the Cheviot Hills. Paulinus baptised thousands of people in local rivers. Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, tells of how Paulinus was assisted by a deacon called James, “a man of great energy and repute in Christ’s Church, who lived until our own day”.
St Matthew 27: 32
As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross.
James was never made a Saint – and remains one of Church history’s unsung heroes, with only fleeting references and a low profile. Like Simon of Cyrene, he had a ‘bit part’ in God’s unfolding plan. But there are no ‘bit parts’ in God’s kindom. However obscure, anonymous, minor a part we each feel we have to play, every action driven by Christian love has the potential to touch and transform beyond our own immediate understanding and appreciation of what we have just done.
What we do know is that James experienced Christian life on the edge after the reign of King Edwin came to a brutal and sudden end in battle. Pagan rule followed. Queen Aethelberga retreated to the relatively safer climes of Kent, along with her long-standing chaplain Paulinus. However, Deacon James remained behind, up north, in harm’s way and vulnerable: teaching and baptising for many years after, using a village near Catterick as his base. He is often seen as the one true hero of the Gregorian Mission who did not follow the safety and worldly allure of royal patronage, as many in the mission did when things went wrong. A brave decision.
Happily Deacon James lived a long life, and quite possibly passed on a lot of his story and that of others to Bede. Bede recorded James “had a wide knowledge of church music; and when peace was at length restored to the province and the number of believers increased, he began to teach many people to sing the music of the Church after the uses of Rome and Canterbury. At last, old and full of days as the Scripture says, he went the way of his fathers.” (And mothers!). What a legacy from someone never in the ecclesiastical limelight, but who left a spiritual song in the hearts of many he encountered. May we each play our part, humbly, offering up to God what little we may feel we can bring to the table, and like the loaves and fishes at the feeding miracles, pray that God will bless and amplify our every action beyond our hopes and dreams.
God who calls, Thank you for all the experience gifts sown into our lives, Teach us to use them freely selflessly and without fuss to your glory. Help us to tell our stories and that of others to help those around us to draw closer to you. And if it be your will, may our actions choices and words be blessed and bear fruit, Whether that be hidden from us or known to us, according to your will, In Jesus name. Amen.
The Rev’d Dave Herbert is Moderator of the Northern Synod