We have chosen to mark Pelagius’ memory on the feast day normally assigned to Augustine of Hippo, who did so much to malign Pelagius and who is the source of many erroneous teachings and emphases that still dog Christian thinking today!
Pelagius was a British theologian, teacher, writer and soul friend who settled in Rome. He was highly spoken of at first – even by Augustine. He taught about the value of soul friendship. He celebrated the fact that the goodness of God cries out through all of creation, for ‘narrow shafts of divine light pierce the veil that separates heaven from earth’.
But soon he was criticised for teaching women to read Scripture, and for believing that the image of God is present in every new-born child, and that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. He did not deny the reality of evil, its assault on the human soul or the habitual nature of sin. Augustine’s own peculiar ideas were in stark contrast, seeing humanity as essentially evil and polluted by the sexual activity which brings about conception.
Augustine tried twice in 415 to have him convicted of heresy, but on both occasions Pelagius was exonerated in Palestine. In 416 Augustine and the African bishops convened two diocesan councils to condemn him and Celestius, another Celt. In 417 the Bishop of Rome called a synod to consider the conflict, declared Pelagius’ teaching entirely true, and urged the African bishops to love peace, prize love and seek after harmony. They ignored this, and in 418 persuaded the State to intervene and banish Pelagius from Rome for disturbing the peace. The Church was then obliged to uphold the Emperor’s judgement, and excommunicated and banished him, though no reasons were made clear. He returned to Wales, probably to the monastery of Bangor.
Two centuries later all the same ideas were still to be found in Celtic Christianity. History is written by the victors, so most reports of what Pelagius said are given from Augustine’s view-point, not in his own balanced and sensible words. He was also criticised for being a big, enthusiastic man, stupid from eating porridge and over-confident in his own strength, and for wearing his hair in an inappropriate style!
Grant us, Lord, to understand the value of soul friendship, to celebrate Your goodness seen in all creation, and to cherish every human being as made in Your own image. Help us to love peace, to prize love and to seek after harmony in every part of our life. Amen.