Theodore of Tarsus

Archbishop of Canterbury


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Theodore of Tarsus
Archbishop of Canterbury

Public Domain

Theodore arrived in England in 669 as the newly appointed archbishop of Canterbury. He found the church confused and drifting. When he died, he left it well organised and self-confident, ready to face what would become one of the most brilliant centuries in the history of the church in England.

Theodore, combined in his person a remarkable spectrum of cultures and countries. He was a Greek from Tarsus of Cilicia, almost certainly studied in Antioch and Constantinople, later lived as a monk in Rome where he was probably involved with Saint Maximos the Confessor in the Lateran Council, became one of the most important Archbishops of Canterbury in Britain assisted by an African called Hadrian, and Theodore worked among the English and Celtic people for 21 years.

Theodore was already 66 years old when nominated archbishop of Canterbury. That was after Wighard, the choice of two English kings, had died. A monk, Adrian, had declined, and another monk, Andrew, was too ill to take up the appointment. Adrian went with Theodore to England. On arrival at Canterbury, Theodore discovered that south of the Humber there was only one bishop in office, and in the north only two. The English church had been badly affected by the plague, and there were strong tensions between supporters of the Celtic and the Roman traditions.

Theodore’s vigour and reforming spirit became evident immediately. New bishops were appointed, a synod of all the bishops was called, and a fresh set of canons was promulgated, through which he was able to reconcile some of the differences between the Roman and Celtic traditions. Several new dioceses were created by Theodore, though the rather high-handed manner in which he divided Northumbria led to some friction which lasted several years. His wisdom in dealing with moral problems was soon recognised, and his judgements on issues of conflict commended themselves for their justice and practicability. He gave a priority to education and insisted that this be of the broadest kind. He established a school under Adrian at Canterbury, which produced several future bishops. His own intellectual ability won him the admiration of others. Among his achievements, he is remembered for the encouragement of the use of Gregorian plainchant in English church worship.

The Venerable Bede wrote of him: “Theodore was the first archbishop whom the entire church of the English obeyed,” a remark underlining Theodore’s success at largely unifying the Roman and Celtic traditions in England. In 1091 his body was found to be incorrupt (it exhibited no signs of decomposition) confirming for many his status as a Saint.

BORN:602 AD, Tarsus, Turkey.

DIED: 19 September 690 AD, Canterbury, England.