May 19: Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, 988

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In the ninth century, under King Alfred the Great, England had achieved considerable military, political, cultural, and even some ecclesiastical recovery from the Viking invasions. It was not until the following century that there was a revival of monasticism. In that, the leading figure was Dunstan.

Dunstan was born about 909 into a family with royal connections. He became a monk and in 943 was made Abbot of Glastonbury. During a year-long political exile in Flanders, he encountered the vigorous currents of the Benedictine monastic revival. King Edgar recalled Dunstan to England in 957, appointed him Bishop of Worcester, then of London; and, in 960, named him Archbishop of Canterbury.

Together with his former pupils, Bishops Aethelwold of Winchester and Oswald of Worcester (later of York), Dunstan was a leader of the English Church. All three have been described as “contemplatives in action”—bringing the fruits of their monastic prayer-life to the immediate concerns of Church and State. They sought better education and discipline among the clergy, the end of landed family interest in the Church, the restoration of former monasteries and the establishment of new ones, a revival of monastic life for women, and a more elaborate and carefully ordered liturgical worship.

This reform movement was set forth in the “Monastic Agreement,” a common code for English monasteries drawn up by Aethelwold about 970, primarily under the inspiration of Dunstan. It called for continual intercession for the royal house, and emphasized the close tie between the monasteries and the crown. This close alliance of Church and State, sacramentalized in the anointing of the King, was expressed liturgically in the earliest English coronation ceremony of which a full text survives, compiled for King Edgar by Dunstan and his associates.

The long-term effects of this tenth-century reform resulted in the development of two peculiarly English institutions: the “monastic cathedral,” and “monk-bishops.”

Dunstan is reputed to have been an expert craftsman. His name is especially associated with the working of metals and the casting of bells, and he was regarded as the patron saint of those crafts.


I.  O God of truth and beauty, who didst richly endow thy bishop Dunstan with skill in music and the working of metals, and with gifts of administration and reforming zeal: Teach us, we beseech thee, to see in thee the source of all our talents, and move us to offer them for the adornment of worship and the advancement of true religion; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

II.  O God of truth and beauty, you richly endowed your bishop Dunstan with skill in music and the working of metals, and with gifts of administration and reforming zeal: Teach us, we pray, to see in you the source of all our talents, and move us to offer them for the adornment of worship and the advancement of true religion; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.


Psalm 57:6–11

Job 1:6–8

Ephesians 5:15–20

Matthew 24:42–47

Preface of the Dedication of a Church

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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18 thoughts on “May 19: Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, 988

  1. Well, he’s definitely been dead long enough 😛

    I like this one generally: I always knew Dunstan’s name from the work of Winfred Douglas (St. Dunstan’s Kyriale and all that) but little more than that. The musical connection was interesting.

    The collect is a little flat on first read: “with gifts of administration and reforming zeal” is not a particularly zealous phrase and the “see in thee the source of all our talents, ” bit seems, I dunno, small (?). But let me pray it tomorrow and see how it goes… I like the meat of the collect though — adornment of worship and advancement of true religion are both very good things in my book.

    Just for discussion purposes, here’s the Dunstan collect from the 1963 LFF (the only one I have at hand):

    GOD, who dost ever hallow and protect thy Church: Raise up therein through thy Spirit
    good and faithful stewards of the mysteries of Christ, as thou didst in thy servant Dunstan;
    that by their ministry and example thy people may abide in thy favour and walk in the way of
    truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the
    same Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

    It prays better but is pretty generic. There’s no rite II analogue for obvious reasons.

    Following up on the passing reference to monk-bishops and monastic cathedrals, I’d also like to see a little bit more said about the importance of Benedictine Archbishops after Dunstan and their specifically Benedictine influences on the BCP: repetitive but formative liturgy, immersion in the psalms, simple elegance and all that.

  2. There is reference to music in Mr Weyland’s remarks and nothing in the Biography. Did I miss something?
    Question – how did the King get Dunstan appointed to Canterbury without involvement of Rome ? Or is that
    assumed as being normative in the 10th Century ? The notion of Benedictine influence — were not the
    monks who came with Augustine of that tradition ? It is not new. Reform may bring new/renewed stuff ? What ? Can someone tell us of the time sequence re: annointing the king and Dunstan et al formulating the Rite. Edgar seems king already when Dunstan is sent into exile and D is not yet (it seems) a Bishop.

    • Edgar became king in 959 but was not coronated until 973. There are conflicting explanations for the delay in Edgar’s coronation.
      By one account, Edgar (presumably on Dunstan’s advice) simply wanted to wait until he had reached thirty – then the minimum canonical age for priestly ordination – before he was officially crowned. Dunstan had been recalled from his exile in France by Edgar in 957 to serve has Bishop of Worcester. Edgar was then king of Northumbria and Mercia (the politics of 955-959 is very convoluted).
      By another account, however, Dunstan withheld the blessing of the Church until Edgar had done suitable penance for his abortive effort to seduce the future St. Wulfhilda (died c. 1000). In 961 the king – who was then about 18 years old – fell in love with Wulfhilda, a novice in the convent at Wilton. He proposed marriage, but she refused, having already dedicated herself to the Lord.
      The king then approached Wulfhilda’s aunt, the abbess of the nearby convent of Wherwell. The aunt, who despite her calling was worldly enough to appreciate the advantages of a royal match, lured the young girl to her abbey. When Wulfhilda arrived, she found Edgar waiting for her. She managed to escape the clutches of both the king and her aunt by crawling though the drains. Edgar pursued and caught her in the cloister garden, but she slipped out of his grasp and took refuge among the relics on the altar of the church at Wilton. Unwilling to incur the wrath of the saints, Edgar renounced his evil intentions, at least with respect to Wulfhilda. He endowed a new convent at Barking, installed Wulfhilda as its abbess, and took her cousin Wulfrudis as his mistress.
      English monasticism had been all but destroyed by the Danish invasions, and Alfred had not had time to put everything back in order.

    • As to the appointment of bishops and archbishops,, until the bishops of Rome began to usurp the right in the 11th century, kings — especially English kings — generally appointed their own bishops and archbishops. For another example of this, see St. Chad.

    • Regarding music: the connection is brief. “His name is especially associated with the working of metals and the casting of bells” and from bells the connection is made to music more broadly. (That said, anyone who’s ever been around old bells and heard what it’s like to try to tune them can certainly appreciate the amount of skill required for that activity.)

      Regarding Edgar: what an exquisitely crazy story. I’ll have to remember that one.

      Regarding Benedictines: yes, certainly the history was there and I’m no expert on it. I just noted that the bio accredited monastic cathedrals and monk bishops to Dunstan and his followers and thought it might be helpful to say what that means for us today.

      Regarding the OT reading: Yep, I don’t get it either.

  3. This commemoration is already included in the Calendar. The Hebrew Scripture reading and the New Testament reading are new.

  4. Hebrew reading: This reading from Job seems an odd fit (as other Job readings for other commemorations have noted often).

    Re: Michael W’s reference to the 1963 (!) edition of <iLesser Feasts and Fasts and Dunstan’s collect. The present collect is the same as the 2006 (and latest) edition of Lesser Feasts and Fasts.

  5. The Job reading is just weird. Unless it’s a very indirect reference to how Dunstan shoed the Devil . . .
    Significant as Dunstan’s monastic reforms were, his lasting impact is probably the regularization of the kingdom’s organization which he and Edgar implemented in 974, building on the reforms of Alfred the Great. The resulting county system — which the Normans had the good sense to leave more or less intact — lasted exactly 1000 years and gave the English a strong and stable kingdom, at least by medieval standards. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints notes “It has been well said that the 10th century gave shape to English history, and Dunstan gave shape to the 10th century.”
    In addition to Dunstan’s skill as a metalworker and ferrier, a contemporary wrote that when Dunstan sang at the altar, “He seemed to be talking to the Lord face to face.” (Donald Attwater, A Dictionary of Saints)

    • I was not going to write anything today since I really had nothing to add to what has already been said. But Steve, I really needed a good hearty laugh, and your link supplied it, whether you intended to or not. Thank you!

  6. Dunstan is not honored just because he was an Archbishop. I suggest as a subtitle “Monastic Reformer”.

    Line1, second paragraph: add “in Somerset, England,” after “909”.

    Line 13, second paragraph: I think many would misunderstand “landed family interest”. I suggest “interference”, or possibly “involvement”, and substituting “Church Affairs” for “the Church”.

    Last line, second paragraph: substitute either “liturgy” for “liturgical worship”, or just delete “liturgical”.

    Add final paragraph: “Dunstan died at Canterbury on May 19, 988.”

  7. COLLECT: I like the collect, on the whole. Father Lewis pointed out that “music” appears as a non-sequitur since no foundation was laid for it in the narrative, which is easily fixed, and should be. Some wording could be pulled together, e.g., “…endowed your bishop Dunstan with skill in music, metalwork, reform and order:…” (12 instead of 21 words.)
    The petition could omit “our” to widen the scope of God’s gifts beyond our own particular ones (“the source of all talents”). A “so that” clause is ALMOST provided by the second half of the petition. It could easily become “…talents, so that we may offer you our best, in the beauty of holy worship and the richness of life in Christ.”
    READINGS: This reading from the Book of Job is a travesty. It goes nowhere; it suggests an analogy (Job with Dunstan) that neither reflects the narrative nor is even apt; it is so short it evaporates before leaving any impression. With all the music, metalwork, religious leaders and organizers in the Old Testament, there HAS to be a better passage. PLEASE re-think this! Maybe Isaiah 61:1-7 (The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me), or Isaiah 60:1-7 (Arise, shine, for your light has come), either of which would go well with the selection from Psalm 57, which is itself a beautiful passage but in its present pairing with Job loses its import. It would be very apropos with either of these possibilities.
    Ephesians 5:15-20 is a good choice, although again it starts “in media res” with no sense of where or why it is saying what it says, or from what context it speaks. Adding (even as an optional lengthening) verses 10-14 would fix that shortcoming, giving it more of a sense of ballast.
    The gospel passage is acceptable, as is the recommended proper preface. Many comments about the historical considerations for Dunstan were made by others, which seem well worth noting. To me (not the historian others are) it is good to have the example of a person whose faith strengthened the church in a trying and tentative period. It is encouraging to know things CAN improve — especially they have been of late!

  8. More needs to be said about these peculiar institutions (pun intended, Nigel).

    Dunstan and his colleague Aethelwold and Oswald “were as concerned to write in Old English as in Latin, developing with pride a vernacular literary tradition which” which antedates Wyclif, Tyndale and Cranmer. Diarmaid MacCulloch goes on to write, “That emphasis on the vernacular mighty well have altered the patterns of Christianity in northern Europe, if England rather than Cluny had proved to be the powerhouse of Christian change in the next century.”

    (Why does the biography start with King Alfred; he has his own day on October 26?

  9. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the sources for Dunstan’s life are so few that there is little about him that can be said with certainty. I think we should be very cautious about holding up as examples for contemporary Christians people about whose holiness we are only guessing. Some names, of course, symbolise Christian or Anglican identity among such a large part of the population that it would be foolish to remove them from a national calendar; Dunstan does not seem to me to be in that category.

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