Augustine of Canterbury – A Reluctant Missionary
Augustine of Canterbury – A Reluctant Missionary
Augustine of Canterbury, often known as “the apostle of the English,” would have never made it across the Channel if it hadn’t been for the insistent prompting of Pope Gregory I.
The eighth century historian Bede tells us in fact that Augustine and his companions were “seized with a sudden fear” after hearing tales about the “barbarous, fierce, and unbelieving nation to whose language they were strangers.” In unanimous agreement, they sent Augustine back to Rome to beg Gregory to spare them from “so dangerous, toilsome, and uncertain a journey.”
Gregory and Augustine had known each other for some time, since Augustine had served as prior at Gregory’s family monastery of St. Andrew’s in Rome. Gregory held Augustine in great esteem, but was not about to let him off so easily. He sent him back to his companions, but sent letters to bishops and kings in France asking them to supply the missionaries with whatever they needed. He also made sure Augustine could able to find some interpreters who spoke the language of the Anglo-Saxons.
Augustine and his team of about forty monks landed in the Isle of Thanet (a peninsula in the east of Kent, southern England) in the spring of 597.
Augustine and Ethelbert
Augustine told Ethelbert, king of Kent, that they had come to bring “a joyful message, which most undoubtedly assured to all that took advantage of it everlasting joys in heaven and a kingdom that would never end with the living and true God.”
Ethelbert received the missionaries warmly, although he kept them outdoors. Bede tells us the king was afraid that, inside a building, they could cast some magical spells. This is unlikely, since, as Bede himself confirms, he had learned about Christianity by his Frankish wife of 15 years, Bertha. In fact, Bertha’s parents gave her to Ethelbert on condition that she could continue to practice her religion with the assistance of her confessor, Bishop Luidhard. Ethelbert gave her an older church building, St. Martin’s, for her worship.
In any case, Ethelbert was cautious. "Your words and promises are very fair,” he said, “but as they are new to us, and of uncertain import, I cannot approve of them so far as to forsake that which I have so long followed with the whole English nation.”
Nevertheless, he allowed them to hold services in a church in Canterbury, to preach the gospel among the people, and to open a school. Gregory sent Augustine the pallium, the sign given to archbishops, and appointed bishops in London and Rochester to serve under Augustine’s supervision. The bishop of London, Mellitus, arrived from Rome in 601 with another group of monks and a large number of supplies, as well as letters from Gregory. Ethelbert was baptized sometime before then.
Ethelbert’s conversion opened the door to a greater evangelization of the region. “Greater numbers began to flock together to hear the Word, and forsaking their heathen rites,” Bede said. The king also issued a law code that protected the “teaching he had welcomed” as well as church property.
Augustine and Pagan Rites
But “forsaking heathen rites” didn’t come easy for most people, and Gregory took time to reassess his methods. Initially, he had encouraged both Ethelbert and Augustine to destroy all pagan temples. Later, however, he realized that Ethelbert could not compel his people to abandon their own ways, so he devised a new tactic, which he explained in a letter that Mellitus was to bring to Augustine and the monks in England. The idols inside the temples had to obviously be destroyed, but well-built temples could be transformed into churches, so the people could still go to familiar places but hear a completely different message.
As for the animal sacrifices the Anglo-Saxons used to perform, they could be turned into feasts of thanksgiving. “Nor let them any longer sacrifice animals to the devil, but slay animals to the praise of God for their own eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all for their fullness, so that, while some joys are reserved to them outwardly, they may be able the more easily to incline their minds to inner joys.”
This method proved to be efficient. By the time Augustine and Gregory died (both in 604), the majority of the population of Kent – and other parts of England - had become Christian.
Later authors have written poems and even a hymn in Augustine’s memory. Some told rather dubious tales, such as the story about the people of Rochester who, far from accepting Augustine’s teachings, “threw ray-tails at him, so that his mantle was all hanging with ray-tails; and for even greater humiliation they threw on him the guts of rays and fish. And at that the good man St Augustine was very angry, and prayed to God that all the children who were to be born thereafter in the city of Rochester should have tails.” If the people of Rochester still have tails, they hide them well.
Augustine of Canterbury is often remembered as the man who “brought Christianity to England.” In reality, Christianity had been there for some time. Patrick of Ireland, a native of England, was born to a Christian family, with both his father and grandfather serving as deacons. By the time Augustine arrived in Kent, Christianity was still widespread in the western parts of the island. In the southeast regions the Anglo-Saxons had taken over, it had become almost forgotten. Bede lamented in fact that the Christians in England never preached the faith to the Saxons.
But if Augustine was not the first to bring Christianity to England, he was the first to be sent on an official mission by a Roman pope and the first to be appointed as archbishop of Canterbury. He was also the first to adopt Gregory’s method of “recycling” pagan places and rites for Christian purposes. This was not a wholly new practice (Roman buildings, names, and rites had been recycled before), but Gregory’s imprimatur and Augustine’s example contributed to its diffusion.
 Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, chpt. 23, https://pages.uoregon.edu/sshoemak/322/Texts/bede.htm
 Ibid., chpt. 25
 Gregory I, Letter to Mellitus, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/360211076.htm
 Quoted in Eleanor Parker, “St Augustine, Apostle of the English, Britain's day-star,” A Clerk of Oxford, https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2014/05/