ST. AUGUSTINE, ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY
From the writings of Alban Butler7 ◊◊◊
When Pope St. Gregory the Great decided that the time had come for the evangelization of Anglo-Saxon England, he chose as missionaries some thirty or more monks from his monastery of St. Andrew… As their leader he gave them their own prior, Augustine. The party set out from Rome in the year 596; but no sooner had they arrived in Provence than they were assailed with warnings about the ferocity of the Anglo-Saxons and the dangers of the Channel. Greatly discouraged, they persuaded Augustine to return to Rome and obtain leave to abandon the enterprise. St. Gregory, however, had received definite assurance that the English were well disposed towards the Christian faith; he therefore sent Augustine back to his brethren with words of encouragement which gave them heart to proceed on their way.
They landed in the Isle of Thanet in the territory of Ethelbert, king of Kent, who was baptized at Pentecost 597. Almost immediately afterwards St. Augustine paid a visit to France, where he was consecrated bishop of the English by St. Virgilius, metropolitan of Arles. At Christmas of that same year, many of Ethelbert’s subjects were baptized, as St. Gregory joyfully related in a letter to Eulogius, the patriarch of Alexandria. Augustine sent two of his monks, Laurence and Peter, to Rome to give a full report of his mission, to ask for more helpers and obtain advice on various points. They came back bringing the pallium for Augustine and accompanied by a fresh band of missionaries, amongst whom were St. Mellitus, St. Justus and St. Paulinus.
Gregory outlined for Augustine the course he should take to develop a hierarchy for the whole country, and both to him and to Mellitus gave very practical instructions on other points. Pagan temples were not to be destroyed, but were to be purified and consecrated for Christian worship. Local customs were as far as possible to be retained, days of dedication and feasts of martyrs being substituted for heathen festivals.
In Canterbury itself St. Augustine rebuilt an ancient church which, with an old wooden house, formed the nucleus for his metropolitan basilica and for the later monastery of Christ Church. These buildings stood on the site of the present cathedral begun by Lanfranc in 1070. Outside the walls of Canterbury he made a monastic foundation, which he dedicated in honour of St. Peter and St. Paul. After his death this abbey became known as St. Augustine’s, and was the burial place of the early archbishops.
Cut off from much communication with the outside world, the British church clung to certain usages at variance with those of the Roman tradition. St. Augustine invited the leading ecclesiastics to meet him at some place just on the confines of Wessex, still known in Bede’s day as Augustine’s Oak. There he urged them to comply with the practices of the rest of Western Christendom, and more especially to co-operate with him in evangelizing the Anglo-Saxons. Fidelity to their local traditions, however, made them unwilling. A second conference proved a said failure. Because St. Augustine failed to rise when they arrived, the British bishops decided that he was lacking in humility and would neither listen to him nor acknowledge him as their metropolitan.
The saint’s last years were spent in spreading and consolidating the faith throughout Ethelbert’s realm, and episcopal sees were established at London and Rochester. About seven years after his arrival in England, St. Augustine passed to his reward, on May 26, 605
7Butler’s Lives of Saints. Harper, 1991, pp. 158-159.