Arthur Middleton on Augustine of Canterbury
On 27 May we commemorate St Augiustine of Canterbury, the apostle of England. In 590 AD, Gregory the Great became Bishop of Rome, Gregory, that early English Christians spoke of as ‘Gregory our father, who sent us baptism’. He decided on an English mission in 596, and selected the Provost of St Andrew’s monastery, Augustine, with several others to undertake this mission. The part of Britain most accessible from the continent was Kent. Ethelbert, the King of Kent for thirty years, gave a favourable hearing to preachers of the religion professed by his wife Bertha. He had been allowed to marry her on condition he allowed her to worship as a Christian under the guidance of the Frankish bishop, Liudhard. The bishop lived in Kent, and Bertha made no attempt to convert her pagan husband nor did he prevent her from fulfilling her Christian duties.
Augustine and Ethelbert
On 14 April 597 Augustine landed at Ebbsfleet. He sent a message to the King, ‘that they were come from Rome with the best of all messages, and that if he would accept it, he would undoubtedly ensure himself an everlasting kingdom.’ Ethelbert answered kindly but he would not hastily commit himself. He visited them, but feared the foreign priests might use spells to mislead them if he received them under a roof. They addressed him in the open air. Ethelbert and his attendant thanes took their seats and saw some forty men advancing with a lofty silver cross, and beside this a board on which was painted the Crucified. There was a procession and the singing of the litany. Augustine, through a Gallic interpreter, spoke to them of Jesus who had redeemed the world and opened the Kingdom of heaven to all believers. Ethelbert said that these were fair words, but as they were new and doubtful he could not give up what he and the entire English race believed. But, as they had come a long way to make known what they believed is best and truest, they would be treated kindly, and they would not be hindered in bringing any of the English over to their belief. As a Teuton he had a sense of the spiritual world, of the gravity and solemnity of life, of rights as involving obligations, a regard for truth and noble manliness, a liberty combined with authority, a purity which could dignify the home, all which might be seen as a preparedness for Christianity.
It was Ascension week 597 when Augustine first saw the wood-built city of Canterbury. They processed behind the crucifer which was lifted high, and with it says Bede ‘the likeness of the great King our Lord’ (Hist. i.25). It was Rogationtide and this time in the previous year they were in Provence in Gaul. It was probably there that they picked up the antiphon they were singing. Mamertus of Vienne had instituted the singing of processional supplications for Rogationtide, in time of distress, before Ascensiontide of 468. The practice spread, and Augustine would know that Cesarius of Arles had recommended it, though Rome had not adopted it. Augustine made it an institution in the English Church, according to the Council of Cloves in 747.
They settled in Canterbury close to a heathen temple, where they made their temporary home. Bede (i.26) says they lived ‘after the Primitive Church model, giving themselves to frequent prayers, watchings and fastings; preaching to all who were within their reach, disregarding all worldly things as matters with which they had nothing to do, accepting from those whom they taught just what seemed necessary for livelihood, Living themselves all together in accordance with what they taught, and with hearts prepared to suffer every adversity, or even to die, for that truth which they preached. What need is there to say more?’
Conversion of Ethelbert
Ethelbert allowed Augustine to preach to such as would listen, but said he could not personally assent to the new and uncertain doctrines they proclaimed, seeing that by doing so he would have to renounce those which he and his people had for so long believed, in common with all the Anglian tribes. The ultimate acceptance of Christianity by the Kentish court was the result of several conferences between Ethelbert and his nobles, who wisely abstained from agreeing to such a sweeping reformation, until they were convinced that it would be more beneficial to themselves and the kingdom than their older system of worship. The obvious advantage of establishing friendly relations with the rest of Christendom doubtless affected their decision. On Whit-Sunday 597, Ethelbert and his court were baptized. Ethelbert would not compel his subjects to become Christians, but many did. This was the principle that Gregory had impressed upon Augustine and his monks. He said that the person brought to the font by coercion and not persuasion is most likely to relapse. Ethelbert permitted Augustine to restore and rebuild the many British churches in Kent.
Augustine needed wider Episcopal authority if he was to govern the growing Church. On Gregory’s authority he was consecrated by Bishop Virgilius, and others, on 16 November 597, to be Archbishop of the English.