St. Adamnan’s Day
reflections by Troy Cady
In my prayer book this morning, I learned that today is the feast day of St. Adamnan among the Northumbria community.
Adamnan was the ninth abbot of Iona. In the late 7th century, church leaders in Rome were putting pressure on the Celtic church to adopt Roman customs. Because Adamnan was a peace-loving person and did not wish division with his brothers and sisters in other sectors of Christendom, he tried to persuade the community in Iona to go along with the new Roman customs.
He met with no small measure of opposition. For many years, a contingent of the community in Iona insisted on celebrating Easter twice each year: once on the new Roman date and once on the traditional Celtic date.
Though the matter seems trivial to us now, I imagine it was incredibly difficult for Adamnan to hold the community together in the midst of it all. In fact, I imagine the community felt like it was bitterly divided for quite a long time.
Viewing the situation from Adamnan’s perspective, he had an impossible decision to make. If he decided to hold fast to the Celtic customs, he would risk division with his brothers and sisters in other places. If he decided to embrace the new Roman way, he risked resentment with many of the members of the community right in his midst.
As someone who serves on the staff of a local church and as someone who is deeply concerned about the state of the broader church in America, I can relate to Adamnan.
In short, my heart aches over the issues that are dividing the American church right now, both locally and nationally.
On the one hand, my heart grieves the broader church in America. Like the Roman authorities in Adamnan’s day, it seems to me that the American church of today is intent on powering up, laying huge burdens upon people, and pressuring diverse sectors of society to conform to a particular worldview. I can’t help but feel that what really motivates the church in America is a desire to consolidate and preserve a sense of cultural supremacy. The ideological hubris is oppressive and it is absolutely astounding when I consider that it comes from those who tout “salvation by grace through faith.”
If we are to be a people who reflect the grace of Jesus, our way of engaging the world must become more gentle, understanding, and humble. We should be known not as coercive but as compassionate. Let us listen more than we speak. Let us lay aside anger. While arguing may win a temporary victory, it is only by love that anyone is transformed through and through.
The irony of all of this is that, like the Roman church of Adamnan’s day, the American church wants to cast itself as an agent of change—but underneath the desire to effect change is a deeper desire to arrange life in a way that is most comfortable for us. In other words, it’s possible that the desire to change the world around us springs from a deeper desire to secure our standard of living…without having to change ourselves.
In other words, we like life the way we like it. We want our homes and neighborhoods to be just the way we like it. We want our schools and our cities…our friends, our holidays, and our entertainment…to be just the way we like it. We even want our church to be just the way we like it.
This is what Adamnan faced from both sides…pressure from those who wanted things to be just the way they liked it. The power struggle here is exhausting in part because it is simply inescapable.
I have been saying this since long before the pandemic hit, but I revisited it in March 2020 and again in the summer of 2020 and again in the fall of 2020 and again and again and again since then:
The church in America desperately needs to reimagine what it really means to be the church. We can no longer continue arranging “church” in ways that merely suit our own liking. The invitation ultimately is to let go of power, to relinquish the need to control, to stop trying to rearrange the world in whatever way we happen to like best. Once we can really do that, we are really free to love, just love…to see others for who they are, made in God’s image, beloved through and through.
I believe the church in America is facing a crisis that is deeper than anything we have ever had to face. The question is not whether the crisis is upon us. The question is: “How will we respond to the crisis?”
Will we be willing to ask the hard questions of what it means to be the church? Are we willing to do what it takes to be a community of those who have been called by God to love others extravagantly? Will we be open to different ways of being formed? Will we hold on to what we have always known? Will we choose to be heavy-handed when God would make us soft-hearted?
On this feast day of St. Adamnan, I imagine these were some of the difficult questions he must have had so many centuries ago, though I admit I may be reading into his story a bit. All I know is I can sure relate to the no-win situation he found himself in.
That said, I am inspired by his patient, gentle, peace-loving way of holding gracious space in the midst of the tension and I want to follow his example. I want to be the kind of person who can hold the space open so we can just come together in our differences…to help each and every person experience deep within the freedom and joy of being beloved through and through. May it be so.