AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY
Margaret Laird gives food for thought for a significant anniversary
N A LETTER to King Ethelbert of Kent, Pope Gregory the Great describes St. Augustine as, "...our most reverend brother, trained under monastic rule with a complete knowledge of Scripture and, by the grace of God, a man of holy life. Consider his advice with care and follow it exactly.” He continues, “Work sincerely and wholeheartedly with him in fervent faith and support him in all his work.”
Most readers of this journal will be familiar with the Venerable Bede’s account of the progress of St. Augustine’s mission but it is also well worth taking into consideration the other ways in which St. Augustine’s work affected English Society as a whole.
Not only was Augustine responsible for initiating the conversion but also the civilization of the English people. He had brought not only Latin Christianity but the fruits of Latin civilization to an area which had abandoned Roman ways. For the historian, the conversion of King Ethelbert marks the point when, wrote Professor Deanesley, “the waters of the Tiber began to flow into the Kentish Stour, and a Mediterranean civilisation to influence a Germanic Society.”
One eventual result was the writing down of the hitherto unwritten laws of Ethelbert of Kent. Now that the instrument of writing was used at Canterbury by the monks and clergy, the old folk law was also written down. Furthermore, through that law, the missionaries and their Churches were given protection for their persons and their goods so the Churches were woven into the fabric of English Society and its laws.
In later English history, as we all know, laws about Church matters, as well as matters secular, were published by Parliament on royal authority and this custom goes back to the work of St. Augustine at Canterbury. Throughout English history this has sometimes caused difficulties, and with the General Synod particularly at times it has become a bone of contention.
Secondly, Augustine and his colleagues introduced a distinctive style of architecture. One of Augustine’s preoccupations during the short years of his episcopate was the building and care of Churches. Archaeologists tell us that the Anglo-Saxons built with timber but the remains of the stone and brick of the old Roman buildings were still lying around. Recent archaeological excavations have shown that Augustine put these ruins to good use in his Churches and built them in the architectural style of the basilica Churches of Rome – with a rectangular nave and semicircular apse at the East end.
Thirdly, Augustine introduced to England what in fact proved to be the greatest of all civilizing influences in the Western world – the Benedictine pattern of the monastic life – for the monasteries became the centres of learning, book writing and art, and the monasteries were responsible for keeping the Christian faith alive during the Dark Ages, when over and over again it looked as if the Anglo-Saxons were reverting to paganism and that Augustine’s work had been in vain.
Above all, Augustine’s mission shaped the character of the English Church, which, from the beginning was founded on the rock of the one, holy, Catholic Church.
There is no doubt that the Christian faith in this country is rooted and grounded in what Augustine called the Apostolic faith – the faith of the Apostles, the orthodox faith which, despite setbacks, will, in the end, triumph.
But what can we learn of St. Augustine the man and the example which he has set us?
Augustine seems to have had the quality of “gravitas” – or seriousness – a quality much esteemed by Pope Gregory in his own writings. Perhaps that is why he chose Augustine to lead the mission to the English in the first place.
It was entirely true to Augustine’s character that he chose to consolidate Christianity on a narrow geographical front in South East England rather than to scatter his limited resources and missionary enterprises further afield and perhaps that is all that could be expected of him in his brief period at Canterbury. He did not see himself as an exciting leader of world mission. He concentrated on what was achievable – on what was possible – and on what he was told to do.
Augustine was not himself an innovator. He obeyed instructions and regarded the missionary enterprise as Pope Gregory’s project rather than his own. As one who had lived his life under monastic rule, he had been trained to obey and this is precisely what he did – when faced with a problem, he sought the advice of his religious superior, the Pope, and obeyed it.
Augustine asked for St. Gregory’s guidance on many matters:
‘What are the functions of a bishop in his Church?’
‘What punishment should be given to those who rob Churches?’
‘Is it permissible for two brothers to marry two sisters?’
‘May an expectant mother be baptised?’
‘Should we destroy the pagan Temples?’
As a matter of interest, to this last question the Pope replied – ‘No! Cleanse them with Holy Water, remove idols and relics and dedicate the buildings to the True God.’ Is it not ironic that, 1400 years later, it is the Christian Churches which may, if declared redundant, be stripped of their Christian symbols and relics and used by other faiths?
And so, in all matters Augustine acted under obedience and in so doing extended the Christian faith among the people committed to his charge. His life of obedience sowed the seeds which bore much fruit.
Augustine was also a man of principle. His meetings with the Celts demonstrated his determination to uphold what he believed to be the pattern of right belief and practice. That he was unable to achieve unity with the Celtic Bishops and persuade them to accept his pastoral care and the customs of the universal Church must have left him frustrated. He had to learn, as we have to learn, that differences cannot be overcome easily or speedily, but in God’s own time. St. Augustine did not live to see the healing of the rift between the Celtic and Roman Church, any more than we shall see the healing of division within the Church of England. However, he remained true to what he believed to be the faith of the universal Church.
Above all he was a man who impressed others by the holiness of his life, to which the epitaph on his tomb bears witness:
“Here rests the Lord Augustine, the first Archbishop of Durovernum, who was sent here in times past by blessed Gregory, pontiff of the city of Rome. Supported through God’s help by the working of miracles, he led Ethelbert, the King and his people from the worship of idols to faith in Christianity, and having fulfilled the days of his office in peace, he died on May 26 604.”
Finally, I conclude with some words of Thomas Traherne, a faithful parish priest, who lived through the middle of the Seventeenth Century – at a time when the Church of England was going through a period of turmoil, very similar to that of the present day.
“The greater part of our eternal happiness,” writes Traherne, ‘“will consist in a grateful recognition not of our joys to come but of benefits already received.”
And this year we thank God for one of the greatest benefits already received by the Church in England, the life of St. Augustine of Canterbury. Margaret Laird is First Estates Commissioner
BIBLIOGRAPHY Baedae opera historica – the Plummer introduction. Famulus Christi – edited by Gerald Bonner Augustine of Canterbury – Margaret Deanesly The Pre-Conquest Church in England – Margaret Deanesly Cantuar – Edward Carpenter Benedict’s Disciples – Hugh Farmer
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