We do not know the names of the first Christian missionaries to Britain.
During a time in which Christianity was illegal, countless, nameless Roman soldiers, slaves, and merchants carried the Gospel to the pagans living in the British Isles. We know that their ministry bore some fruit because the attendance of Bishops Eborious of York, Restitutus of London, and Adelphius of Lincoln was recorded at a church council in Arles, France in 314.
The first known missionary to the Scots was St. Ninian, a Briton who created and led a church at Whithorn in 397.
But St. Columba is the first Christian missionary we know by name who made a substantial, lasting impact on the Church in Scotland and northern England. His ministry helped to shape the Anglican way.
This past Saturday, a small group of us flew to Glasgow, Scotland three days before the beginning of the Anglican Origins pilgrimage to the UK to travel to the small island where Columba created a tremendous base camp for mission and ministry to the British Isles.
Iona is a small island which sits a mile off the coast of the Isle of Mull.
In 563, Columba, or Collum Cille (‘dove of the Church’), an Irish aristocrat and monk, set sail with twelve other believers from the north coast of Ireland. There were no oars on their little skiff. No planned destination. Only a single sail and great trust that the Lord would take them where He might have them.
They landed on Iona, a one-by-two-mile island with high winds, green grass, and a small hill. They founded a monastery and shared the faith with local peoples in the area. Over the coming years, they founded additional Christian communities up and down the western coast of Scotland. In time, their reputation as men of God and the regard for Iona as a notably holy place would lead 60 Scottish, Norwegian, and Irish kings, including Malcolm and Macbeth, to choose to be buried in the small graveyard adjacent to the chapel created by brother Oran.
It took some time for us to get there.
It was eight hours of driving, ferrying, driving, and ferrying again before we arrived on silent Iona. There were perhaps 150 people on the island. We walked through the ruins of an old nunnery and said evening prayer in the tiny chapel/shrine to Columba as others have for over 1,000 years. It was an amazing place of stillness and peace.
And as the sun set, our small group enjoyed a powerful service of Holy Eucharist by candlelight in the small chapel dedicated to Oran. Hearing and feeling the wind move among us in the quiet of the island was a stirring reminder of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Iona is a reminder that we are a part of a Church built on the shoulders of men and women of great courage, tremendous faith, and exceptional resolve. Vikings attacked the island six times in the 9th century. But this little community continued to pray, translate the Scriptures, share the Gospel, and inspire the Church until the abbey was dissolved during the Protestant Reformation in 1560.
Our pilgrimage has begun.