Theodore of Tarsus was not anyone's first choice for the post of Archbishop of Canterbury. As it proved, however, he was a good alternate.
When Deusdedit, the fifth Archbishop of Canterbury, died, Wighard, a priest recommended by King Oswald of Northumbria, proceeded to Rome to be consecrated for the vacant position. He died of plague before he could receive consecration. The pope decided to appoint his own man. In a monastery near Naples, there was an African-born abbot named Adrian who understood church discipline, classical languages and was well-read in the Bible.
Pope Vitalian ordered Adrian to become the Archbishop of Britain. But Adrian replied that he was unworthy of such an honor. He proposed a monk named Andrew instead. It turned out that Andrew had all of the qualifications except one: health. He was too ill to go. The pope told Adrian to begin packing. Again Adrian resisted; he pleaded for time to find someone else.
This time Adrian turned up a healthy, well-trained, sixty-six year old monk named Theodore. Pope Vitalian agreed that Theodore might have the job. However, Adrian must accompany Theodore to England.
The pope had several reasons for imposing this condition. First, Adrian had already traveled through France twice. His knowledge would be of help to Theodore. Second, Adrian would be able to take with some of his abbey's monks as assistants. Third, Adrian could keep an eye on Theodore to make sure he did not introduce errors among the English.
Avoiding errors was especially important. England had long been divided between Christians of the Celtic tradition and those who accepted Roman forms. Only recently, at the synod of Whitby, had the whole island adopted the Roman tradition. Resentment still ran high. Theodore could have complicated matters by introducing yet a third tradition, for he was from Tarsus in the Roman Empire's Eastern province, Celicia. In fact, Theodore had to wait four months for his hair to grow out so he could get the proper Roman haircut!
Two months after Theodore's ordination, Adrian and he set out. They were detained at Arles, waiting for authorization to travel through France. Afterward Theodore stayed with the bishop of Paris while Adrian visited several other bishops. A hard winter overtook Adrian and he had to prolong his stay among the French. Theodore then crossed the channel, but Adrian remained behind because he was sick. As a further complication, Ebrin, the King's mayor of the palace, detained Adrian on suspicion of conspiracy.
After Adrian finally joined Theodore in England, the two made a circuit of the entire nation. Theodore was well received everywhere he went; he ordained bishops and corrected abuses. Under his administration, local councils were held. Saxon historian Bede said Theodore was the "first archbishop whom all the English church obeyed." Together Theodore and Adrian taught Roman forms and the proper dating of Easter; and Adrian schooled the English in mathematics, astronomy, Latin and the Bible.
Bede considered those the happiest days of England. Theodore of Tarsus was archbishop for twenty-one years and left a united church. He is commemorated in the Anglican church on this day, September 19, each year. After Theodore died, Adrian finally accepted the archbishop post that was supposed to have been his from the start.
- Bede. A History of the English Church and People [Ecclesiastical History of England]. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1968.
- Hook, Walter Farquhar, 1798-1875. Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury. London, R. Bentley, 1865-1884.
- Hunter-Blair, D.O. "Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- McKilliam, Annie E. A Chronicle of the Archbishops of Canterbury. London: J. Clarke, 1913.
- "Theodore of Tarsus." Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, 1950.
- "Theodore of Tarsus, St." Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F. L. Cross, F. L. and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
Last updated June, 2007