Fri 23 March 2018

Saint Augustine of Canterbury, 605

Friday 26 May

In the 'good old days' British history was taught chronologically! We would start with the landing of Julius Caesar in 55BC. Then, just before King Alfred burnt the cakes, we would meet St Augustine. This was St Augustine of Canterbury, archbishop and administrator, not to be confused with St Augustine of Hippo, writer and philosopher, who had lived some two hundred years earlier.

So why was our St Augustine, a monk in Rome sent to such a savage and uncivilised country as England? Well, legend has it that Pope Gregory the Great was in the marketplace in Rome when he came across a pen of children being sold into slavery. The Pope was struck by the blonde hair, blue eyes and rosy cheeks of these children. He was told that these children were Angles. 'They should be called Angels, not Angles!' was his reply. But when he discovered that these 'angels' knew nothing of Christianity, he decided to act.

England, at the time, was a tangle of small, quarrelsome kingdoms, each with their own pagan gods. There were Celtic Christians in the far north and west, but they were cut off from the south of the country by the heathen Saxons in central England. Augustine had served Gregory at one time as his private secretary and his work as prior of his monastery in Rome confirmed for the Pope that he was a man of self discipline and determination.

Neither Augustine nor his fellow monks relished this journey into an unknown land but, after a false start in Gaul (France), the expedition arrived in Ebbsfleet on the Isle of Thanet in 597. They were well received by Ethelbert, King of Kent, who had a Christian wife, and was himself soon baptised. The people of Kent quickly followed their king and, according to the historian, the Venerable Bede, on Christmas Day 597, over 10,000 converts were baptised.

A cathedral was established on the site of an old Roman church in Canterbury and it was dedicated 'in the name of the holy Saviour, our God and Lord Jesus Christ'- hence Christchurch, Canterbury. As Augustine sought to extend Christian influence beyond the tiny kingdom of Kent, he was under strict orders from the Pope to develop 'Roman ways'. This was to lead to conflict with Celtic traditions over matters such as the date of Easter, the shape of the monk's tonsure and the ritual of baptism. Such differences were not resolved until the Synod of Whitby in 664.

Meanwhile, Augustine, before he died in 605, successfully established two further dioceses at Rochester and London. The importance of St Augustine lies in the successful establishment of a permanent foothold for Christianity in southern England. It also lies in his obedience to the Pope which led to the strong links with Rome which were to be such a feature of Christianity in this country until the Reformation, almost a thousand years later.

Richard Allen