Angles on Gregory and Augustine

QUITE HOW ANGEL-LIKE Pope St. Gregory the Great would have found the modern English tourist in Rome is a moot point. Pilgrims might fare a stage better perhaps. All the same Gregory’s inspiration, at the sight of the fair-skinned slaves in the market, to turn Angles into angels has had an incalculable effect on the formation and growth of the English Church and people. England and English Christianity would not be what they are, fourteen hundred years later, had Gregory not commissioned St. Augustine and his band of monks to travel north to re-evangelise Britain.

Augustine wasn’t coming to a completely pagan environment, and while the origins of Christianity in Britain are shrouded in mystery it is certain that the faith was brought here sometime during the Roman occupation, first or second century AD. There are stories about Alban, the first English martyr , legends about Glastonbury and the Holy Grail, well-attested evidence of a flourishing Celtic Christianity, founded probably by missions from Gaul, and only ousted out of the main part of Britain at the time of the Saxon invasions in the 5th century. This Celtic Christianity continued to flourish in Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, and there was many a clash later on between the Roman customs brought by Augustine and the Celtic tradition.

In Kent, Bertha, wife of King Ethelbert, was herself a Christian. Of Frankish royal descent, she had brought her own bishop-chaplain with her, as part of the marriage contract and continued to practise her faith in an otherwise pagan setting. In a sense, she and her devout mother Queen Ingoberg were also “apostles of the English” since their influence opened up the way for Gregory’s plans to be realised.

Gregory, in fact, was far from averse to using such diplomatic means as he could among the royal ladies of Gaul to further the spread of Roman Christianity, as other letters of the time show. Bede shows Gregory to have had a realistic understanding and respect for women despite the taboos. Augustine’s doubts about baptising expectant mothers are dispelled by Gregory (cf. Bede, Eccl. Hist. ch. 27, quest.8), and equally, as a celibate monk he can define with moral authority the restraint and respect a husband should have for his wife. Our modern post-Christian age could do worse than follow these guidelines.

What sort of a man was Augustine ? Writing to King Ethelbert Gregory describes him as one “trained under monastic Rule” with “a complete knowledge of scripture” and, “by the grace of God, is a man of holy life.” (ibid,ch. 32). Nevertheless, in his personal letters Gregory is concerned that Augustine is not puffed up by the success of his work. The correspondence shows how Augustine defers to Gregory but apparent also is the support secured by Gregory from the Frankish bishops and secular rulers. Under God, by their mutual strategy, the mission succeeded.

Ethelbert was baptised and his kingdom Christianised. Further bishoprics were founded and Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Eventually the fusion of several kingdoms under the unifying influence of the faith, led to the birth of the English nation. The seeds of English Christianity had been sown; its Benedictine/monastic foundations; that finely attuned relationship of Church and State; the feeling towards comprehensiveness and inculturation; an independent spirit which refused ultimately to submit to undue authority from outside.

Despite the long, sad history of Christian division in the intervening centuries surely the English Church of our times can look back to Gregory and Augustine for inspiration and thankfulness. It is not far-fetched to say that these two great missionary bishops, together with Queen Bertha and Queen Ingoberg and the monks from St. Andrews in Rome, were the initiators of the journey back which we are resolutely making now, no longer as strangers but as pilgrims. 

A Sister from Holy Cross, Rempstone