Who was St. Cyprian of Carthage?

There are several names that refer to early Christian Saints – John, Augustine, Clement, Theodore, Gregory, Basil, to name a few – so we generally have to give them suffixes to their names in order to distinguish them. Today’s commemoration in the calendar is one such example: St. Cyprian, from Carthage.

In many ways, Cyprian is the Augustine before Augustine. He was a Berber, a Roman African, born to a wealthy Pagan family, and he converted to Christianity at age 35. After his conversion he was ordained quickly, becoming the Bishop of Carthage roughly four years later. This was, perhaps understandably, a little controversial, but his actions in the ministry soon proved his sanctity-in-Christ. A wave of government oppression of the Church, called the Decian Persecution, swept through in the early 250’s, and Cyprian saw a lot of his flock cave in to the Roman demands to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods. Cyprian himself rode out much of that persecution in exile, believing it God’s will that he survive to shepherd his flock from a temporary distance, and be present to pick up the pieces when it was over, much like how the Apostles fled Jerusalem after the death of St. James, and how many Christians fled Jerusalem during the Roman-Jewish War culminating in the sack of 70 AD.

Needless to say, there was a controversy waiting for Cyprian when the dust settled: what do you do with the lapsi – the lapsed, who burned sacrifices to other gods? Cyprian’s initial demand was that they undergo public penance before being readmitted to Holy Communion, but a number of his earlier opponents thought this was too strict, and many priests took it upon themselves to invite people back under much more liberal conditions. As this controversy was brought to a local council, another party cropped up: a stricter group who argued that the lapsed could not repent and rejoin the church at all! The council stood with Cyprian, in between the too-liberal Novatus of Carthage and the too-strict Novatian of Rome.

As a pastoral and liturgical aside, this is insightful for us today, because we, too, see many lapsed Christians coming in and out of our churches these days. Do we admit them to Holy Communion without question? Or should we, as St. Cyprian ruled, call for public repentance of their wanderings from the Gospel before reinstating their place at the Holy Table? This is worth considering carefully, and we have resources in our Prayer Book to help us.

  • The Ash Wednesday exhortation explicitly mentions the ancient practice of public repentance.
  • The Exhortation in the Communion service warns us against unworthy reception of the Sacrament.
  • The Confirmation liturgy includes a variant for “Reaffirmation”, particularly for those who were previously confirmed, fell away, and have since returned.

It may well be that we have become too lax in our ministration of the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and need to re-learn, from the likes of St. Cyprian, what good Eucharistic discipline looks like.

This wrestling with the implications of the Gospel for those who fall away under persecution would return for St. Augustine of Hippo and the Donatists nearly 150 years later, though then it would be about the purported need for re-ordination, rather than readmission to Holy Communion. Cyprian was like an early Augustine in other ways too: his Latin writings were influential and beloved, his handling of controversy and good accord with other bishops was laudable. And they both saw disaster at the end of their lives. For Augustine, of course, it was the news of the sack of Rome and the arrival of barbarians at the gate of his own city. For Cyprian it was another round of government persecution, leading to his execution on 14 September 258.

The date of his commemoration isn’t so straight-forward, because 14 September has been taken by Holy Cross Day, forcing the Church calendar to shift St. Cyprian of Carthage to another day. Most Anglican calendars place him on an adjacent day – the 13th or 15th. The Roman Church has another observance (Our Lady of Sorrows) on the 15th, so they celebrate Cyprian on the 16th, and some other traditions follow suit.

Saint Augustine of Canterbury Day

May 26th is the commemoration of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, who is an immensely significant figure for Anglicans.  He was the first Archbishop of Canterbury.  He was the leader of a mission to re-evangelize the British Isles after the Anglo-Saxon invasion had pushed the old Celtic churches somewhat to the margins.  Sometimes today we romanticize Celtic Christianity, but it needs to be remembered that their unique traditions and style of spirituality did wane over time, and the land later to be known as England was not truly “won for Christ” for the long haul until Augustine’s second wave of evangelists beginning at the end of the 6th century.

St. Augustine had been sent by Pope Gregory the Great, and entrusted with the difficult task not only of evangelizing the warlike Saxon kings but also reconciling his new churches with the old Celtic ones.  It would be over 60 years later, at the Synod of Whitby, that the Anglo-Saxon Church finally settled a peaceful accord between the Augustinian churches and the Celtic churches.  In this sense, Augustine represents a sort of “catholicizing” influence on the English church, pulling local traditions more into alignment with the rest of the Church across the world.  I wrote about this last year, too.

By the way, much of what we know about Augustine and his mission, we owe to the Venerable Bede.  So it’s kind of fitting that their feast days are next to each other in this order!

The Venerable Bede

If you have an interest in medieval English history, Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England, or the now-ubiquitously-popular concept of “Celtic Christianity”, there is one giant of literature that you have to get to know: the Venerable Bede.  His body resides in Durham Cathedral and you can read a bit about him on their website if you like.  As that page notes, Bede’s “most famous work is The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the first ever written history of England.  Completed in 731, it is a key source for understanding early British history, details about St Cuthbert’s life and the arrival of Christianity.”

It is from his writings that we have the oldest-preserved poem in English, Cædmon’s Hymn (which I had to memorize in Anglo-Saxon and translate for an exam in college), and from his students we have another gem of a poem that he recited on his deathbed:

Before the journey that awaits us all,
No man becomes so wise that he has not need
to think out, before his going hence,
What judgment will be given to soul
after his death: of evil or of good.

He died 1,285 years ago tomorrow, but his commemoration day is today.  The reason for that is tomorrow is the commemoration of another saint, August of Canterbury, whose feast is traditionally of a higher “rank” than Bede’s.  Although the Prayer Book tradition only acknowledges two ranks of saints days (the red-letter days appointed with Collects and Lessons, versus the black-letter days listed in the calendar and left as optional commemorations) we still follow the old precedent of celebrating Augustine on May 26th and moving Bede up a day… and besides, it’s easiest to have just one saint per day.

But let’s go back to that poem.

It is, first of all, a reflection upon death and judgment.  It is not simply a momento mori (remembrance of death) like became popular in medieval piety over the centuries, but a remembrance of judgement and eternity.  No one should grow presumptuous (or worse, lethargic) about the state of one’s soul.  Before we die, we all must contemplate eternity, we all most think on our sinfulness and on God’s grace.  Bede does not say we should live in fear, as some accuse medieval Romanism of preaching, nor does he swing in the direction of easy-peasy pop-evangelicalism that focuses on God’s loving-kindness and tends to forget about our sinfulness.  He does not swerve in either direction, but stays simply in the middle: one must be mindful of judgment.

This poem navigates the balance between different sorts of biblical texts, such as:

  • Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).
  • Judgement begins at the household of God (1 Peter 4:17).
  • They will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand (John 10:28).

I wish I knew more about Bede himself.  Hopefully I’ll make some time to his Ecclesiastical History in the coming year or two.  For now, though, this should be a good spiritual introduction to Bede’s sort of sober spirituality.