St James the Deacon: His Life & Legacy

St James the Deacon: His Life & Legacy

Life

In 597AD the marriage of the Jutish King Ethelbert to Bertha, the Christian daughter of the King of Paris, made it possible for the faith to be re-established in Kent by a band of Benedictine monks led by St. Augustine (who became the first Archbishop of Canterbury). They had been charged by Pope St Gregory the Great with the task of converting the Anglo-Saxons. Paulinus was one of the monks sent to Kent by Pope Gregory in 601AD to support the mission of Augustine to the Anglo-Saxons. It is believed that James the Deacon was a companion of Paulinus. The details of the birth and death of James the Deacon are not known, though, since he accompanied Paulinus, he may well have been Italian. James seems to have been very active in assisting Paulinus on his mission in southern Northumbria.

We know precious little about him other than in his connection with the Gregorian Mission, a part of which, the mission to York, was led by St Paulinus, and is recounted by The Venerable Bede (673 to 735AD) in his famous Ecclesiastical History.

Bede describes Paulinus as "a man tall of stature, a little stooping, with black hair and a thin face, a hooked and thin nose, his aspect both venerable and awe-inspiring". It is probable that Bede obtained this description of Paulinus from James the Deacon, who was said to be still alive in Bede's time.

In 633 Edwin, King of Northumbria, a recent Christian convert, died in battle. When he received this news Paulinus, the Bishop of York who was instrumental in Edwin's conversion and influential in the spread of Roman Christianity throughout Northumbria, abandoned his Northumbrian base and retreated to Kent as part of the court of Edwin's widow and son. This action was in line with the prevailing Roman attitude of serving under, and with the blessing of an established authority. Paulinus left James, a solitary deacon, as the only representative of the Roman Church's mission to Northumbria.

James remained in Northumbria, living mainly at a village near Catterick (now in North Yorkshire) and took an active part in the preaching of the gospel and baptising throughout the region. James represented Christianity in the face of hostility from Penda of Mercia, ensuring the survival of Roman Christianity in the region. Preaching the gospel under a pagan ruler was a risky occupation, and James was often in danger of his own life. It is largely due to the efforts of James and his associates that when the Northumbrian mission arrived in the area approximately five to ten years later there was still evidence of active Christianity to be found.

In more peaceful. times, after the death of Penda and the re-establishment of Christian rule, James taught music, especially Gregorian Chant, to the emergent churches of the region, and is praised by Bede as being a man of honour and integrity. As an old man, he attended the Synod of Whitby in 664, which met to discuss the differences between the Celtic Northumbrian Church of the north and the Roman Church of the south. James stood for Roman Christianity in an area which was far more sympathetic to the Celtic form of the Faith.

Although the date of James the Deacon’s death is uncertain (possibly around 668AD), he lived to a ripe age, as Bede records; ‘At last, being old, and ‘full of days’, as the Scripture says, he went the way of his fathers.’

Though not a monk and therefore without a community to perpetuate his memory, he seems to have had enough popularity that life was commemorated by the ordinary Christians, both Celtic and Roman, that he had served in the days after the flight of Paulinus. His Feast day is 11 October, the day after that of Paulinus.

Legacy

In his account of the times, the historian Frank Stenton has called James "the one heroic figure in the Roman mission". This reflects the fact that many of the Gregorian missionaries had a habit of fleeing when things went wrong whereas James remained steadfast. While others who came across on the mission from Italy became Bishops, James remained a humble Deacon, who through his tireless labours, built up the Church in the North.

There are very few depictions of him that we know of:

  • He appears on the Font Cover (designed by Sir Ninian Comper in 1946) in the Crypt of York Minster (postcard). the font stands on the traditional site of King Edwin’s baptism in 627AD. On the panels are Paulinus, King Edwin, Ethelburga, Hilda and James the Deacon (holding a hymn-book).
  • He also appears in an early 20th century stained-glass window in the Church of All Saints’, Goodmanham, which stands on the site of the pagan temple, near to where King Edwin’s council met, and where he was converted. The window is dedicated to a missionary who died in Peking in 1922.
  • There is a small wooden carving of James the Deacon on the Rood Screen of Dewsbury Minster, along with many other northern saints.
  • And there is a 14th Century Chapel dedicated to him in the Church of St Mary’s, Barton-upon-Humber.

As far as we know, we are the only Church to bear the name of James the Deacon, which is a great honour.

In what little we know of him, James seems like a man of tremendous ‘stickability’ and with a great willingness to weather the storms (political and ecclesiastical) and remain faithful in the face of adversity. James the Deacon stayed put and got on with the job – not looking back, but looking forward and remaining faithful to his call - to teach, baptise, worship, and serve the Lord. He is an excellent Patron to have, indeed his life and example speaks to us in our own day, we should be rightly proud of him and seek to learn from him.

St James the Deacon, was a humble man, a simple man of faith, whom God used to do great things; to spread the Good news of Jesus Christ in the North of England.

Pope St Gregory the Great, who sent St Paulinus and his companions to England as missionaries, wrote this in one of his commentaries on the gospels, which could certainly apply to our own time; "It is indeed regrettable that the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. There is no shortage of people to hear the Good news. What is missing are people to spread it!"

We give thanks for James the Deacon, our patron. His life and witness is an inspiration to us as we seek to bear faithful witness to the good news of the gospel in our community and wherever we find ourselves in our daily lives. We too are called to be ‘missionary disciples’ of Jesus Christ; to know him, to love him and to follow him.

May St James the Deacon our patron, pray for us.

Collect for the Feast of St James the Deacon.

Everlasting God,

whose servant, James the Deacon

carried the Good news of your Son

to the people of Northumbria:

grant that we who commemorate his service

may know the hope of the gospel in our hearts

and manifest its light in all our ways;

through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,

who is alive and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. 

Amen.