05 June 2023

St Boniface of Crediton, church history, and missiology

Today (June 5) is the feast of St Boniface of Crediton, Apostle of Germany. 

As a missiologist, I've always found him interesting, and one of the most interesting missiologial things about him is that most missiologists pay little attention to him, and quite a lot of them are perhaps not even aware that he existed. 

He was born in Crediton in Devon in England about AD 680, and died a martyr's death in Frisia about 754. His original name was Wynfrith and he became a Benedictine monk. He went on a missionary journey to Frisia but found that no one was interested in his message there and the King opposed the Christian message.

He then travelled to Rome, and got the support  of the Roman Pope to reorganise and beef up the infant German church (which had been established by earlier rather haphazard Irish missionaries) and get it more active in mission. He did this with considerable success in Thuringia, Bavaria and Hesse. The Roman Pope Gregory II, on getting news of this summoned him to Rome and gave him more enthusiastic support. 

Boniface then returned to Germany, and the Hessian Christians, we are told, approached him with a problem. Some were pure in their faith, but others still retained practices that the purer ones thought were not compatible with the Christian faith, such as divination using the entrails of sacrificed animals, or from the flight of birds, and engaging in incantations and sacrifices. They urged Boniface to cut down a large oak tree that was much revered by pagans, and as he began to do so, amid the angry mutterings of the pagan spectators, a "blast from above" felled the tree without any human help, and we are told that most of the pagan spectators were so impressed that they converted on the spot. Boniface himself, however, in a report to Pope Gregory II, said that this account was exaggerated.

Boniface went on to reform the Frankish Church, and later became Archbishop of Mainz. Perhaps he found that too dull, and felt that he wasn't cut out to be an administrator, so he resigned and went back to being an active missionary again, on the scene of his earlier unsuccessful mission to the Frisians. He was reading the scriptures to a group of new Christians when a group of pagans attacked and killed him.

The treatment of Boniface by church historians and missiologists

My daughter, Julia Bridget Hayes, has painted an ikon of St Boniface, and he is remembered in the Orthodox Church as well as in the Western Church, though not perhaps as well as he might be, but the different treatment by church historians and missiologists is something else. 

I had done a BA degree at the University of Natal, majoring in Biblical Studies and Theology, with a couple of years of secular history as well. Later I did a BTh degree at Unisa, majoring in Church History and Missiology, which I found more interesting. The church historians made quite a big thing of Boniface, and went into some detail, and I wrote an assignment on him. 

Some time later I mentioned him in a missiology assignment. I thought it was perhaps significant that Boniface was English, and that the English had migrated to Britain from Germany over the preceding 200 years, and their kingdoms in southern Britain eventually amalgamated to form England. 

Boniface therefore went to the land that the English had originally come from, and so the language and culture of the people would not be entirely alien to him. We can still read and understand the English of the 1820s now, and so Boniface would hot have had any more difficulty in making himself understood than a US evangelist in the UK would today. He might annoy people with his message and some of his new-fangled cultural ideas, but he would be understood. 

I mentioned this in a missiology essay on cross cultural mission, and my professor, David Bosch, was quite astounded. It was clear that such a thing had never occurred to him before. He had no doubt heard of St Boniface, but obviously had never thought of him as missiologically significant. 

I began wondering about church historians and missiologists living in separate silos, each being unaware of the others were doing. The church historians found Boniface tremendously important, but not for his missionary work or his missionary methods. No, what they found important was not what he did in Germany, but the fact that he went to Rome. The significant thing about this for church history was that it marked a stage in the growing influence and power of the Pope of Rome, and it was therefore a stage in the development of the papacy.

But as a missiologist I thought there were other things worth noticing. The wandering Irish missionaries who had preceded Boniface were travelling evangelists, perhaps like the tent evangelists of the 20th century; they may have made converts, but they did not plant functioning churches. Boniface was a church-planting missionary, and one of his priorities was to establish Benedictine monasteries ans centres of Christian life and growth. He was so good at this that the Roman Pope asked him to reorganise the whole Frankish Church.

And one more thing worth remembering is that it was monastic missionaries who took the Christian message throughout Europe, and the tool for the evangelisation of Europe was forged in Africa, where Christian monasticism first developed. Long before Europeans evangelised Africa, African Christians created the tools that evangelised Europe.

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