A Voice From The Isles:
During the Paschal season we read the Acts of the Apostles for the Epistle, starting from our recent reading of the book in its entirety on the night of Holy Pascha. This decision by our Church to read the Acts of the Apostles is because we are now entering liturgically the Age of the Church. Over the next two Sundays we shall learn much from the acts of two particular Apostles or Enlighteners of England, so that we may have a clearer and deeper appreciation of the enduring characteristics of Orthodox Christian mission for our own day. Two Orthodox saints have been chosen: this week, St. Augustine of Canterbury; and next week, St. Theodore of Canterbury. Both have much to teach us.
In 597 AD St. Augustine of Canterbury, whose feast we celebrate today, arrived in Kent on an evangelising mission, launched by St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome. St. Augustine did little more than begin the process of the conversion of the Anglo Saxon tribes and kingdoms, but his contribution was highly significant. The Britons, who were predominantly Celts, had been pushed back by the invading Saxons into the west and far north. They had their own thriving Christian communities which had subsequently evangelised the Saxons adjacent to their territories, including our own St. Aidan, being a notable example in the north east in the Kingdom of Northumbria. However, the south and south east remained obdurately pagan; and it was to those parts that St. Augustine came with the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. He was well received by the local king, Ethelbert, who had a Christian wife and queen, Bertha, who herself of course supported the mission and may even have requested it. St. Bede, the great ecclesiastical historian gives us an account of that crucial first meeting between St. Augustine and King Ethelbert. It contains interesting details that emphasise what of course we know, that this was an Orthodox Christian mission, the west being still Orthodox at this time. Here is what St. Bede records:-
“Some days later the king came into the island and, sitting in the open air, ordered Augustine and his companions to be brought into his presence. For he had taken precaution that they should not come to him in any house, lest, according to an ancient superstition, if they practiced any magical arts they might impose upon him, and so get the better of him. But they came furnished with divine, not with magic, power, bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a board; and singing the litany, they offered up their prayers to the Lord for eternal salvation both of themselves and of those to whom they came.”
So we observe that this first preaching of the gospel in Kent was both grand and simple. Grand because it involved an audience with the king, simple because in true Orthodox style it involved, worship, beauty and dignity … a procession with silver cross and icon of the Saviour accompanied by a litany for the salvation of all. This was enough to melt the king’s heart and to carry forward the witness of his own Christian wife, Bertha. He therefore welcomed St. Augustine and his monks, kindly assuring them of his protection and his blessing for them to preach unhindered in his kingdom. King Ethelbert, the King of Kent soon joined his wife and accepted baptism himself, thereby beginning the great journey towards the conversion of the southern Saxons. It is striking that this immense evangelisation began with a single act: the father of Bertha, Charibert, the Frankish king, had insisted that when his daughter Bertha married Ethelbert, she should be free to continue to practice her Christian faith. Never underestimate the importance of drawing one person to Christ, especially if that person is your daughter, your son, your wife or your husband.
To call St. Augustine “the Enlightener of the English” is somewhat overstating things. He would perhaps be better described as the Enlightener of Kent and missionary to Saxon London. We note that his work suffered setbacks after King Ethelbert’s death following the resurgence of paganism at court, but he certainly laid the foundations for Anglo Saxon Christianity in the south. This then is what we learn first from St. Augustine of Canterbury concerning our Christian lives … simplicity, beauty and prayer. Nothing else can melt the human heart. These lie within the reach of all of us.
We can also learn more about the enduring principles of Orthodox mission in this period by examining a letter written by Pope Gregory the Great to St. Mellitus, one of St. Augustine’s monks who became Bishop of London at this time. St. Gregory addressed the issue of how the Church should deal with local pagan customs and shrines in the context of her mission. This is what he wrote:-
“When Almighty God shall bring you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have, after mature deliberation on the affairs of the English, determined upon, namely, that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed, but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples - let altars be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts and, knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be substituted for them on this account, as, for instance, that on the day of the dedication, or of the nativities of the holy martyrs whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, no more offering beasts to the devil, but killing cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and returning thanks to the Giver of all things for their sustenance; to the end that, whilst some outward gratifications are permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God. For there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds, because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place rises by degrees or steps and not by leaps. Thus the Lord made himself known to the people of Israel in Egypt: and yet he allowed them to use the sacrifices which they were wont to offer to the devil in his own worship, commanding them in his sacrifice to kill beasts to the end that, changing their hearts they might lay aside one part of the sacrifice whilst retaining another: that whilst they offered the same beasts which they were accustomed to offer, they should offer them to God, and not to idols, and thus they would no longer be the same sacrifices.”
There is incalculable wisdom in these words. Just as the pagan temples were not to be destroyed but rather consecrated to the Church’s use, so the Orthodox Church must never embark on any sort of cultural vandalism based on some misconceived taboo of religious purity but rather seek to hallow for God the deepest, finest and most noble pre-Christian traditions and places. We, however, live in a post-Christian nation that has largely neglected God and apostatised from the Faith. The remedy is the same nonetheless. The way back to Christ is by building upon the ancient Orthodox Christian heritage of these isles and never by setting up (as somehow superior) languages and customs that belong elsewhere. Honour and transform what is local - St. Gregory says. Proceed gradually and gently and humbly by small steps, not arrogant leaps and bounds. We shall see next week how Pope St. Vitalian embraced the same principles when he sent the Greek Antiochian monk and bishop, St. Theodore of Tarsus, to these shores and to the same archbishopric of Canterbury some 65 years and two generations later. These Orthodox saints of the West, crucial in the establishment of Orthodox Christianity in this country, bear lessons that we need to hear and heed afresh in our own times. “Honour the saints of Britain” said St. Arsenios of Paros “and the Church will grow again in your lands.” (paraphrased).