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ENGLAND — : An open letter was sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby by the UK-based Odinist Fellowship asking for the return of sacred sites now occupied by Christian churches. These ‘stolen’ buildings must be returned, writes The Odinist Fellowship leader Ralph Harrison.

Canterbury Cathedral [Photo Credit: Hans Musil]

The Fellowship, established by Harrison (“Ingvar”) in 1996, was formed after a split with the Odinic Rite, an Odinist group originally established by John Yeowell. As a result of the 2006 legal case Royal Mail PLC v Holden, the Odinic Rite reportedly became the first Odinist group to be granted charitable status in the UK in 1988.

On its website, the current Odin Fellowship states that it seeks to increase awareness of one of the original faiths present in the UK, as practiced by the Saxons, Angles and Jutes. Additionally, organizers ask for an apology for the persecution of Odinists.

According to the open letter, the Fellowship wants two churches: one located in Canterbury and the other in York’s provinces. This will, according to Harrison, compensate for the temple grounds which were stolen “by Christian missionaries like St. Augustine.”

Harrison states that the “snatching of pagan property equals ‘spiritual genocide,’ and He claims that huge swathes of stolen property are currently under control of the Church of England.”

In 2016, Harrison sent a separate letter to the Archbishops of York and Canterbury. According to reports, he said at the time, “If such satisfaction is not offered, albeit that your church possesses a superfluity of ecclesiastical properties, then we most respectfully assure you, that we will persist ever more vocally in our just demands until at last they are met.”

Martin Warner, Bishop of Chichester, “responded to the claims by writing back that he remains uncertain concerning evidence for the strength of the Odinist faith in modern day Britain.”

While the Church has reportedly responded politely, reaction in the general Pagan community has been mixed, with people expressing their views predominantly over social media.

Those Pagans involved in academic research, including archaeology, have been pointing out that the overall issue of sacred sites being ‘stolen’ is in itself contentious. They observe, for example, that many of the alleged historically pagan temples were not converted at all.

London, for example, has evidence of a temple of Isis, but it is not known whether it lies beneath one of the city’s churches, or elsewhere. The west country has the remnants of temples to unknown Romano-British deities.  And, the complex of Aquae Sulis in Bath and the temple complex at Lydney in Gloucestershire were subsequently occupied by the Church.

Looking specifically at the claims of the Fellowship, they seem to relate to two historical episodes: the conversion of King Aethelbert and the destruction of an Odinist temple in Goodmanham in Yorkshire.

The first of these episodes is found in the writings of the Venerable Bede:

It is told that the king, while he rejoiced at their conversion and their faith, yet compelled none to embrace Christianity, but only showed more affection to the believers, as to his fellow citizens in the kingdom of Heaven. For he had learned from those who had instructed him and guided him to salvation, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not by compulsion.

Pope Gregory was pleased with the outcomes of missions to England and in 597 AD made Augustine ‘Archbishop of the English’. Augustine asked Gregory for guidance on ways of dealing with the pagans and Gregory told Augustine to gather whatever seemed best from the various churches and teach them in the way that seemed appropriate to him. ‘For things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.’

Pope Gregory, in the early 600s, wrote a letter to Mellitus, (the first Bishop of London in the Saxon period) proposing that pagan temples should be converted for Christian worship. He commented that since the pagans were in the habit of sacrificing cattle, perhaps they could be persuaded to sacrifice cattle to God instead.  Bede goes on:

So when almighty God has led you to the most reverend man our brother Bishop Augustine, tell him what I have long gone over in my mind concerning the matter of the English: that is, that the shrines of idols amongst that people should be destroyed as little as possible, but that the idols themselves that are inside them should be destroyed. Let blessed water be made and sprinkled in these shrines, let altars be constructed and relics placed there: since if the shrines are well built it is necessary that they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God, so that as long as that people do not see their very shrines being destroyed they may put out error from their hearts and in knowledge and adoration of the true God they may gather at their accustomed places more readily.”

Despite that writing, it is not clear how many pagan sites were actually converted to Christian worship. Some known examples are the temple of Claudius in Roman Colchester and two of its Romano-Celtic temples.

In an essay titled “Anglo-Saxon Pagan shrines and their prototypes,” John Blair wrote, “several hundred years of archaeological excavation have not produced a single example of an Anglo-Saxon church built over the foundations of any pre-Christian structure, let alone one recognised as a temple building.”

Building D2 at the archaeological site of Yeavering in Northumberland is held to be an Anglo-Saxon temple complex, but this was destroyed some years after its conversion to Christianity and no church was subsequently erected on the spot.

Despite the overall historical picture and whether or not temples were converted throughout the country, the Fellowship claims may still retain some merit. Goodmanham in Yorkshire used to be the site of a temple to a pagan deity, variously described as Delgovine or Wotan, and is mentioned by Bede, whose reliability as a historical commentator limited.  That pagan temple site was allegedly destroyed by the high priest Coifi on his conversion to Christianity in the time of King Edwin, 627 AD.

The temple appears to be on the site of the current All Hallows church in Yorkshire.

All Saints Church Goodmanham 1905 [Public Domain]

In Canterbury, King Aethelbert (552 – 616 AD) is said to have worshipped at a temple to Odin before his conversion, and apparently did give the temple precincts to Saint Augustine to build a church. This is perhaps the stoutest claim for the Odinist Fellowship to make, but it is notable that the area would previously have been the home to Celtic tribes, probably the Cantiaci.

If those tribes, who made accommodation with the invading Romans were subsequently displaced by the invasive Saxons, it raises the question of whether theeir descendants could similarly sue the Odinist Fellowship for the return of their lands.

Since the mainstream media picked up on the story, the entire episode has drawn British Pagan community’s attention to the Fellowship itself. Although the website references standard Norse/Heathen beliefs, Harrison is extensively interviewed on website Western Spring: Fighting For a White Revival. In 2012 he spoke at a London “thing,” about “the role of Odinism as a national religion and its increasing popularity as a result of the liberalisation and modernisation of the Church of England and the rise of Islam in the West.”

Due to such statements and Harrison’s far right political agenda, no other UK-based Pagan organisation has made any claims on behalf of or stepped in to support the Fellowship’s current quest.