Today is the feast day of Saint Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604 AD), who was sent by Pope Saint Gregory the Great to evangelise the English peoples in 596 AD. Whilst Christianity had been introduced to Britain via the Romans many centuries earlier, much of those roots had been dislodged during the upheaval caused by successive invasions of the island, and the reintroduction of pagan customs to British life. Furthermore, the Christians that remained had developed customs that were out of sync with the practice of the universal Church, something which I discussed in an earlier post on Saint Aldhelm and Saint Bede. Bede himself points out the problems this caused for establishing unity, so that by the time of the Synod of Whitby (664 AD):
‘…the confusion in those days was such that Easter was sometimes kept twice in one year, so that when the King had ended Lent and was keeping Easter, the Queen and her attendants were still fasting and keeping Palm Sunday.’
A History of the EnglishChurch and People (1979), p.186, Penguin Classics.
Bearing all this in mind, I now turn to another passage in Saint Bede’s history, in which he recounts Saint Augustine’s attempt to bring the British bishops (mainly from Wales, Devon and Cornwall) into the fullness of Catholic unity. They met at a place believed to be somewhere along the boundary between Somerset and Gloucestershire, under a large oak tree, which was later known as ‘Augustine’s Oak’. After lengthy discussions, and the performance of a miracle by Augustine (which mollified the local bishops greatly) agreement was still not achieved, and the bishops sought advice from a local hermit, who said that if Augustine rose when they arrived at the next meeting, he was truly a servant of God, and that they should trust him:
‘The British bishops carried out his suggestion, and it happened that Augustine remained seated in his chair. Seeing this, they became angry, accusing him of pride and taking pains to contradict all that he said. Augustine then declared:
“There are many points on which your customs conflict with those of the universal Church. Nevertheless, if you will agree with me on three points, I am ready to countenance all your other customs, although they are contrary to our own. These points are: to keep Easter at the correct time, to complete the Sacrament of Baptism, by which we are reborn to God, according to the rites of the holy, Roman, and apostolic Church; and to join with us in preaching the word of God to the English.”
But the bishops refused these things, nor would they recognise Augustine as their archbishop, saying among themselves that if he would not rise to greet them in the first instance, he would have even less regard for them once they submitted to his authority.’
It is probable that Augustine believed more of the old Roman organisational structures (both secular and ecclesiastical) to still exist in Britain than actually did, and this partly explains his remaining seated (i.e.; assuming a position of authority) before the local bishops. For the bishops’ part, there was still an ongoing conflict between the native Britons and the Anglo-Saxons (the ‘English’ that Augustine wanted help in preaching to), who were still encroaching upon British lands at the time. Thus submission to Augustine, protected as he was by the Anglo-Saxon King Æthelberht, could be seen as submission to the invaders.
Despite the unfortunate political factors involved here, which undoubtedly contributed greatly to the disagreement, we can I think identify two lessons which are of lasting edification. Firstly, regardless of what Augustine assumed about the existing infrastructure in Britain, greater charity to the British bishops would surely have helped them to accept his authority, and serves to remind us that the office of bishop (or archbishop, or pope) is first of all one of service – as Jesus says in Mark 10, ‘whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all’ (vv.44-45). Whilst the local bishops were indeed more committed to locality than to catholicity, and Saint Augustine had a legitimate authority with which to bring them back into full union, truth must always be accompanied with love, that it may be received the more readily.
Secondly, as I discussed in my post on Saint Aldhelm and Saint Bede, by Aldhelm’s time the bishops of the regions that Augustine had met with were still not reconciled to universal Church custom, and it was left to Aldhelm to complete the process of their incorporation into the Catholic fold. The lesson here is that it is not necessarily all that we see achieved in our own life that matters, but that what we do may lay the grounds for others to bring our work to fulfilment. As Jesus said to the disciples, ‘here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour; others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour’ (John 4:37-38). We must not be discouraged if we do not see great results in our lifetime – we are part of a greater work which God is doing, and He will make use of everything we do.
So, in the story of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, not only do we have an account of a pivotal moment in British (particularly English) history, but there are here some important lessons about mission, dialogue, charity, and Providence which are of relevance for all ages, and therefore remain worth recounting. The history of our Faith is not just fascinating; it is enlightening as well, as it is the story of how God’s ongoing work of redemption is worked out in concrete situations, ones which have both regional and universal relevance. His writing can be seen all across our lives, and in those of our ancestors – all of it can show forth His glory, and help us to grow in our faith.