Column: St. Wilfrid still has much to teach us

St. Wilfrids procession will take place on Saturday (August 5) this year
St. Wilfrids procession will take place on Saturday (August 5) this year

I have just returned to Ripon following a weekend near Scarborough. Driving into the city, I noticed the temporary yellow road signs - St. Wilfrid’s procession take’s place on Saturday (August 5).

This is interesting as I have spent the last few days reflecting on what we can learn from St. Wilfrid today. I have been leading a Cathedral group spanning all generations, with every decade of age represented up to the 90’s. Enjoying the comfortable hospitality of Wydale Hall, the York diocesan retreat and conference centre, we were inspired and encouraged by Wilfrid and what he can teach us for today.

Those who come to Ripon a week on Saturday will get a particular impression from the lively parade. Over thirteen hundred years after his death, St. Wilfrid is still able to unite this community in celebration of its ancient history and contemporary life. Different organisations and groups will make the effort to decorate and populate floats that reflect something of the vibrancy and imagination of Ripon today. There is a great carnival spirit that results from a combination of both mediaeval and contemporary influences. And the wonderful thing, from my perspective, is that it comes to a climax in the Cathedral with a short, lively act of worship and the presentation of prizes. And all of this will be presided over by someone who, dressed as Bishop Wilfrid, reminds us of the saint whose birth is being celebrated. As the Visit Harrogate website helpfully informs us, Henry I in 1108 granted the city the right to hold a fair at this time of year to mark the saint’s birth.

Over the centuries, however, St. Wilfrid has been regarded as a dubious figure by many historians. His biographer, Stephen of Ripon, wrote in glowing terms about him - so much so that many judged him to be too sycophantic to be reliable. Others have interpreted the great church historian of the Anglo-Saxon age, the Venerable Bede, as having been less than enthusiastic about Wilfrid. This is probably unfair, but often Wilfrid is regarded as just a difficult character who liked his own way and irritated people. Well, I hope that my recent weekend companions will now see things differently. There are many ways in which this far-sighted, practical, determined, missionary, church-building bishop can inspire us today. Wilfrid could see the bigger picture. As a young man, he travelled extensively and was influenced greatly by what he experienced in Rome (then a very cosmopolitan community) and Lyon. Back home, he worked hard to counter insularity, helping the different kingdoms in this island to become both more united and better connected with the wider world. Many of the people with whom I spoke at the recent wonderful Yorkshire Show seemed to desire something similar.

Wilfrid, always a great missionary, taught the pagans of Sussex to fish as well as converting them to the Christian faith. Clearly, he knew that people’s material and spiritual needs are equally important, thereby connecting earth and heaven through faith and charity. He can be an inspiration not only to the 21st century church, but also charities. Before he died, Wilfrid gave a quarter of his wealth for the care of the poor and ensured that sufficient funds were left to sustain the church communities for which he had some responsibility. Wilfrid was a man who made his faith effective in practical ways and knew that, to be of any earthly use, the church needs to be well organised and resourced. May this remarkable saint continue to be an inspiration to us today.