St. Patrick Was An Anglican!

St. Patrick with Shamrock, as displayed in the Smith Museum at Navy Pier (now closed)

St. Patrick with Shamrock, as displayed in the Smith Museum at Navy Pier (now closed)

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

We here at Trinity are often asked to define Anglicanism. The short and easy answer is that we are a via media, a middle way between Baptists and Roman Catholics. Like the Baptists, we appeal to scripture as the highest authority in establishing doctrine, and we preach the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Like Roman Catholics, we worship with a historic liturgy, celebrating communion every Sunday, and our understanding of the sacraments leads us to baptize babies.

But Anglicanism is not only a set of doctrines and practices - it is also a church with a history, going back to the first centuries after Christ, with stories of saints who inspire us and shape our character today. One of our great Anglican saints is Saint Patrick. Now St. Patrick is best known as the first Bishop of Ireland, for which reason he is especially celebrated amongst the Irish. And Patrick was the Bishop of Ireland in the 5th century, before the split between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, so being Anglican did not prevent him from being Roman Catholic. Thus Patrick is greatly celebrated by Roman Catholics, too.

What is less well-known is that Patrick was born in England, and became a missionary to Ireland only after he had been previously enslaved by the Irish. Indeed, it was God’s great love working in Patrick’s heart that prompted him to return to the land of his captors to preach the good news of Christ. Anglicans look to Patrick, then, not only as a symbol of Irish Christianity, but also as an example of Anglican missionary zeal, and of sacrificial love for one’s enemies (For another appreciation of Patrick from an Anglican perspective, see David Roseberry’s article on Anglican Pastor from 2017).

Indeed, Patrick’s example proved to be quite consequential, for Ireland, for England, and for the entire Western World. In his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill argues that Patrick’s monasteries, together with the monastic efforts of Augustine of Canterbury, retained ancient learning and contributed to the medieval Christianization of Europe. While Cahill might claim a bit too much for the Irish alone, it is no exaggeration to say that Patrick and Augustine’s monasteries became the primary vehicle of both scholarship and evangelization within their broader societies, for many hundreds of years. What’s more, Anglicans throughout history have taken inspiration from Patrick’s example, as they move to new lands, set up churches, share the blessings of learning, and seek to love and serve the lost. That, in many ways, could serve as a description of our work here at Trinity.

In our worship this morning, our Associate Rector Nathan White compared the story of St. Patrick to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You can listen to his sermon below. Both stories reveal the sacrificial love of God, and the power of God’s love, working in and through us, to bless the world.

Peter Johnston