Bede's best known work, An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, was written in Latin and is not immediately easy to understand and follow. Yet it is a key text for any student of English history. Rowan Williams shows in his introduction how Bede works to create a sense of national destiny for the new English kingdoms of the seventh century, a sense that has helped to shape English self-awareness through the centuries, by using the imagery both of imperial Rome and of biblical Israel. But Bede also wrestles with the difficult question of how the Church relates to and serves the political order. The attraction and fascination of his work is partly in seeing the tension between the strategic use of wealth and political power for religious ends and the example of self-effacing service and simplicity of life offered by some of Bede's greatest Christian heroes. The issues around these questions are not academic or antiquarian. Understanding Bede is a key to understanding British society in the present as well as the past.
Rowan Williams is Archbishop of Canterbury. He was formerly Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford and Archbishop of Wales. Sister Benedicta Ward is a member of the Community of the Sisters of the Love of God. She is Reader in the History of Christian Spirituality at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Harris Manchester College.