Saint of the Week: St. Augustine of Canterbury

For those still curious about the doings of the Classic Christian Reading Group, this past week we read Bede’s account of St. Augustine, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People Book 1, chh. 23-26, par. 1 of 27, 29, 31, 33, 34; Book 2, Chh. 2, 3.

In the year of Our Lord 596, Pope St. Gregory the Great, Doctor of the Church, sent missionaries to the island of Britain to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxon peoples dwelling there.  At the head of this expedition was the abbot (for the missionaries were monastics) Augustine (not of Hippo).  As these Italian missionaries got closer to the English Channel, they wavered in their commitment.  Why on earth were they going amongst a barbarian people who did not worship the Most Holy Trinity, did not honour the name of Christ, had strange customs, and spoke a language they did not even know?

They sent Augustine back to Gregory in Rome, but Gregory would hear none of it, but instead exhorted them not to turn back having put their hand to the plough, for it would have been better never to have started at all than to have chickened out in Gaul (France) — a common piece of advice to ancient and mediaeval monks and missionaries.

Strengthened by Pope Gregory’s words, they crossed over to the island of Thanet and made their presence known to Ethelbert, King of Kent.  Ethelbert went over and met them, allowing them to stay on the island for a while until he was certain of their motives.  Ethelbert’s wife was a Frankish princess named Bertha and herself a Catholic Christian (this is in distinction to Arian Vandals or Goths), so he had some knowledge of the faith.

Once King Ethelbert was convinced the were of good intent, the missionaries were given an old church in Canterbury to operate from.  Although he did not wish to convert at first, since it is a big deal to turn away from the customs and beliefs of one’s ancestors, Ethelbert saw no harm in allowing the Christians to preach among his people, allowing the people of Kent to believe as they chose.  If we consider the attitude of a good many Christian princes and bishops at this point in time, King Ethelbert’s tolerance is outstanding.

The missionaries lived together in monastic simplicity, sharing everything in common, and providing a stipend to the married missionaries who seem to have been involved in the project.  Their simplicity of life, miraculous signs, and clarity of preaching won many souls from among the English.  Canterbury became the seat of episcopal power in Kent, and remains the see city for the Church of England to this day.  Before long, King Ethelbert converted and was baptised, giving even greater freedom of movement to the missionaries both to preach and to restore old Roman churches that had fallen into disuse during the centuries of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the old province of Britannia.

Augustine was accordingly consecrated bishop in Arles, the nearest major episcopal seat.  Now that he was a bishop and the growth of the Church amongst the English was a more secure reality, he wrote to Pope Gregory about various questions concerning the life and order of the Church as it would become established in its new home, as well as questions surrounding the life and practice of the bishop.  Notable amongst St. Gregory’s replies to St. Augustine’s questions was the following encouragement:

… if you have found customs, whether in the Church of Rome or of Gaul or any other that may be more acceptable to God, I wish you to make a careful selection of them, and teach the Church of the English, which is still young in the Faith, whatever you have been able to learn with profit from the various Churches.  For things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.  (Bede, Ecclesiastical History 1.26, trans. Shirley-Price, p. 79)

Such an attitude would seem shocking to people reared on Reformation myths of mediaeval Christianity, or with the knowledge of Charlemagne’s attempts at making all liturgy and practice uniform in the eighth century.  Yet this is not so surprising if we consider the vast world of ancient Christianity which spread from Ireland to Mesopotamia and even India and included various cultures.  There was and is much similarity among the traditional liturgies, be they Roman, Gallican, Byzantine, Coptic, Syrian, and so forth, but with flexibility for local variation.

According to one book I read, this embracing of the good from both the Roman and Celtic practices is what helped shape and form the Use of Sarum, the particular liturgy in use in England until the Reformation.  No doubt it was less florid in St. Augustine’s day.

This willingness to take what is good from the pre-existing culture is demonstrated in the evidence that remains of Anglo-Saxon Christianity as established by men like Augustine and Cuthbert and as it stood until the coming of the Frenchified Viking Normans in 1066.  For example, the Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne Gospels demonstrate an artistic aesthetic that stands proudly beside the Celtic art of the Book of Kells.  Many of the considerations and prayers we find from the Saxons resonate with those we find amongst the monks of Iona.

Although there was some clash between the Roman missionary enterprise from the South and East and the Celtic from the North and West, much of what the modern Celtic movement in Christianity treasures existed within Anglo-Saxon Christianity as well.

However, the encounters between St. Augustine and the Celts were not all afternoon tea and crumpets.  The Celtic Church was not following the same date for Easter as the rest of the Church (ie. the Church from Spain and France to Mesopotamia, from Germany to Ethiopia), and they had their own monastic system.  St. Augustine tried to force the Celtic Christians to accept the universal date for Easter and to adopt Roman (ie. Benedictine) monastic practices.  They refused; many were slain by an Anglo-Saxon pagan king years later.  Bede attributes their deaths to their refusal to submit to St. Augustine.

As St. Augustine’s mission grew, he consecrated bishops in London and Rochester.  Many of the English became Christians during this time, and because of King Ethelbert’s conversion, many people with senior positions within the realm adopted Christianity or were promoted because they were Christians.  Ethelbert did not force his people to convert, maintaining his previous openness to people of other beliefs.

In 604, St. Augustine died.  The Church he helped found spread throughout all of England, and those worshipping communities have their successors amongst the worldwide Anglicans as well as English Roman Catholics.  A great harvest has been reaped, to glory of God Almighty.

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