St. Augustine of Canterbury
In 1997 we celebrated the 1400th anniversary of the arrival on our Kentish coast of St. Augustine and his monks from Rome. As a parish dedicated to St. Augustine, this was an important occasion for us. Although there were many Christians in parts of Britain when Augustine arrived, no one can doubt the importance for the Christian mission in England, especially in Kent, of Pope Gregory’s sending of Augustine and his monks to our shores. By A.D. 500 those areas invaded by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes were predominantly pagan and a new preaching of the Gospel was desperately needed.
Pope Gregory the Great
Pope Gregory had a deep desire to bring the Good News of Jesus to the people of England. It is said that one day, before he became Pope, Gregory was in a crowd in the marketplace in Rome and among the goods for sale were some slave-boys from England. Gregory was told they were pagan Angles and he is reported as saying Not Angles but Angels. Gregory begged the Pope to send missionaries to the English and was eager to go himself but he was not given permission. As soon as he became Pope in A.D. 592, Gregory put in hand his cherished project.
Gregory chose for his mission about 40 monks from the Roman monastery of St. Andrew which he had founded. They were not Benedictines although their monastic life was probably influenced by the Rule of St. Benedict. Led by their prior, Augustine, these missionary pilgrims started their journey in 596, but were soon disheartened and afraid and nearly gave up altogether. They wanted to return home, appalled at the idea of going to what they had been told was a fierce and pagan nation and not knowing a word of its language. Tales of the dangerous Channel crossing and rumours of bloodthirsty deaths meted out to enemies did not help. The monks sent Augustine back to the Pope to ask him to recall him, but Gregory wrote a letter of encouragement urging them to keep going. Augustine, now given increased status as an Abbot, and the other monks resumed their journey and eventually crossed the Channel. They landed at Ebbsfleet near Ramsgate sometime in the spring of 597.
Ethelbert, King of Kent
The most powerful king was Ethelbert who ruled Kent and a large area north to the Humber. Augustine sent interpreters saying that they came from Rome bearing good news which assured all who received it of eternal joy in heaven. The king told them to stay on the island and gave orders that they should be provided with all necessities. Apparently this included beer brewed from the royal barley as beer was considered one of the necessities of life. The king had already heard of the Christian faith; his wife and queen was Bertha, daughter of the Christian king of Paris and she continued to practice her faith after marrying Ethelbert.
Six days later after their arrival, King Ethelbert came to the island and summoned Augustine and his companions. They approached the king carrying a silver cross and the likeness of the Lord painted on a board, like an icon. First they sang a litany of salvation and then they preached the Gospel to the king and his court. Ethelbert seemed to be impressed although he was not converted then and there and he offered hospitality to the missionaries and gave them permission to preach among his people. He also gave them a dwelling in his chief city, Canterbury. There they lived a life of prayer and preaching, living simply and caring for the poor. A number of people were converted and baptised. The Church of St. Martin in Canterbury had been built in Roman times and was still used by Queen Berta for prayer. The monks gathered there for prayer, Mass, preaching and baptisms.
Eventually, King Ethelbert himself came to believe and was baptised. From then on, large numbers were converted to Christ. The king insisted that no one should be forced to accept Christianity; he knew that true service of Christ must be accepted freely. Augustine went to Arles in France to be ordained a bishop and sent two of his monks to Pope Gregory with news of their success and a request for more help. The new missionaries included Mellitus and Justus who were ordained by Augustine as Bishops of London and Rochester respectively. Paulinus became first bishop of York after Augustine’s death. Augustine was made Archbishop by Gregory with all bishops of Britain committed to his pastoral authority.
The Other Christian Britons
Britain was not a totally pagan land when Augustine arrived although a new preaching of the Gospel was certainly needed in much of England. Many Britons had remained Christian from Roman times but had pushed westwards by the invading pagans. Patrick, for example, was a British Christian who had gone to bring the Gospel to Ireland and later Irish missionaries like Columba came back to Britain with the same Gospel. This Celtic Church was largely monastic and developed its own distinctive way with its own bishops. It regarded Augustine with suspicion. The Britons had been fighting the pagan Anglo-Saxons for 150 years and many had fought for their Christian faith. A bishop coming under Anglo-Saxon protection seemed like a threat. There was no hostility to Rome in the Celtic Church; their Christian roots were in Romano-British Christianity and Rome was seen as very distant and very holy. Augustine tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the Celtic Church to accept his authority, to establish unity and to join efforts together in converting the English. Augustine was less than diplomatic with these bishops of the unconquered Britons.
Augustine dies in 604, the same year as Pope Gregory. In just seven years he had laid the foundations for the reviving English Church although his policy was one of consolidation in a small area (mainly Kent) rather than reaching out to wider areas. On his tomb were the words Here rests the Lord Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury, who, having been sent by blessed Gregory, Pontiff of the City of Rome, and supported by God with miracles, guided King Ethelbert and his people from the worship of idols to the Faith of Christ. He ended the days of his duty in peace and died on the 26th day of May in the above King’s reign. It is our task to continue Augustine’s work.