St. Augustine of Canterbury: Apostle to the English

In previous articles centered on St. Bede the Venerable’s Ecclesiastical History of England, we have examined the life and influence of St. Bede, the author himself, and that of his friend and disciple St. Ceolwulf, king of Northumbria, to whom Bede dedicated this historic work. We now turn our attention to one of the most famous subjects of this history, St. Augustine of Canterbury. Much of what we know about Augustine’s mission to England comes from Bede, and as we’ll see, it is no accident that this saintly historian devotes so much space to this important “Apostle to the English.” 

Origin Story

Despite his title of “Apostle to the English,” Augustine was not the first to bring the Gospel to the British Isles. Conversions can be dated reliably to at least the time of St. Alban, whose martyrdom was in the 3rd century.  Christianity spread to Britain as it did throughout the rest of the Empire: slowly, and through the blood of martyrs.  

Despite the persecutions, by the time the Edict of Milan removed the previous proscription against Christianity, a thriving Christian community dwelt in Britain, particularly in Roman-based towns.  It was from Britain that the heretic Pelagius arose, and the British Isles struggled with a religious mix of paganism, Pelagianism, and orthodox Christianity.  

It took missionaries from outside the Isles to correct the theological chaos.  The most important of these earlier missionaries was St. Germanus, who traveled to Britain twice to root out the Pelagians and restore the Faith.  However, despite Germanus’ work, infighting and invasions from various pagan tribes prevented the Catholic Faith from solidifying in Britain.  Christians lived in Britain, to be sure; there were even nobles who were Christian, such as Bertha, queen to King Ethelbert of Kent.  However, Britain itself was not a Christian land, and those that were Christian lived virtually cut off from the rest of the Church.  

Such was the situation on the eve of Augustine’s missionary journey.  

A Promise for Angelic Angles

In 596, Pope St. Gregory the Great made good on a personal promise to share Christ with the pagan Angles in Britain.  The story is that he encountered young Angles for sale as slaves in Rome, and was inspired to evangelize them.  He attempted to travel to Britain as a missionary before his election as pope, but was retained in Rome instead.  Now, as pope, he sent to Britain a trustworthy monk, Augustine, who had been prior of Gregory’s own Benedictine abbey in Rome.  Augustine and companions arrived in Britain in 597.  Although they did not speak the  Anglo-Saxon language, they had with them translators from the kingdoms of the Franks (thanks again to Gregory’s influence and epistolary prowess) who did.  The kings of the Franks, to whom Gregory had written, helped Augustine in any way they could, partly in response to Gregory’s requests, partly because Bertha, the queen in Kent, was from Frankish royalty. 

The party landed near Kent and sent Frankish emissaries to King Ethelbert.  The king came to them, already somewhat familiar with Christianity (remember, his wife was Christian and had as her chaplain a bishop), but still a pagan.  He listened to Augustine’s preaching, and encouraged the missionaries to do their work in his kingdom and beyond, and even set up a place for them in Canterbury, the most important city in his kingdom.  From that small residence arose one of the great cathedrals of Britain, and one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Europe.  

From the start, Augustine’s mission was a success.  The king’s approval of the mission meant the preachers were not confined to Canterbury and the church there.  Their very lives were witnesses to their preaching, and many came to Christ because they saw the true, the good, and the beautiful in the lives of the missionaries.  Eventually, Ethelbert himself converted, and following him came thousands more.   

Augustine shared the good news with Gregory, who rejoiced in the success of the mission.  The pope also wrote a lengthy letter in response to Augustine’s practical questions about serving the people in Britain.  One of the key points to come out of the English mission, one which remains in Catholic missionary efforts to this day, is the idea of using existing religious practices and shrines and “baptizing” them.  Gregory encouraged Augustine to use the once pagan buildings and altars as places to build churches, retaining what was good in the people’s previous religion, but directing it towards God, rather than idols.  

So pleased was the Pope with Augustine’s work that he raised Canterbury to the status of an archdiocese and made Augustine the archbishop.  He sent liturgical books and items, more priests to serve the rapidly growing parishes, and even gifts to the king and queen.  The pope wrote to other ecclesial and secular leaders about the success of the mission in England, as a proud father writes of his son’s achievements.  He likewise cautioned Augustine not to become too inflated with the success of the mission and the wonders produced through his, Augustine’s, prayers.  

A Dating Dilemma 

Having triumphed in his first mission, that of evangelizing the Angles, Augustine turned to his second major task, one which he would not see accomplished in his lifetime (the Church in Britain ultimately resolved the issue with the Synod of Whitby in 664, a full sixty years after Augustine’s death).  That task was to reunite the Church in Britain with the Church of Rome.  This was not a doctrinal issue; heresy had not returned to Britain since St. Germanus turned recalcitrant Pelagians to the orthodox Faith.  The issue was that pre-Augustinian British Christians followed the liturgical and spiritual disciplines of Celtic Christians, specifically those from Ireland.  The Irish had missions throughout Europe, beginning in the British Isles (for example, St. Columba evangelized the Picts in modern-day Scotland), and they brought with them their particular Celtic Christian culture.  

This led to some discrepancies between how the Faith was lived in the Isles.  Most controversial was how to determine the date of Easter.  The Celtic Christians used one method for determining the date on which Easter fell each year, while Christians geographically closer to Rome began following a different method (the details of the Easter Controversy are beyond our scope here, but such details are important if readers want to dive deeper into the context of Augustine’s life).  

The issue went deeper than merely a date on the calendar; the debate hit on the nature of the Church’s authority and the importance of traditions.  The Celtic Christians argued that their way of dating Easter was ancient, taught to them by great saints like Patrick and Columba, while Augustine and his successors argued that they were following the pope, and that papal authority trumped local traditions.  Augustine had little patience for what he saw as liturgical rebels.  He explained why it was important to be united as a Church regarding such important customs.  He worked miracles for them, staging a trial by wonder to support the Church’s dating method.  

Despite all of Augustine’s endeavors, the British and Celtic clerics claimed they could not abandon what was handed down to them from the ancients.  Upset, Augustine prophesied that disaster would befall them if they remained obstinate.  They did, and disaster came from the north: King Ethelfrid of Bernicia (later Northumbria), a pagan king, led a raid that devastated the land, particularly the ecclesial land of the Britons. 

Augustine and the New Evangelization

Might we see in Augustine a model for the New Evangelization?  Nearly fifteen centuries separate us from his mission to Britain, and our respective worlds are radically different.  Yet in his mission to Britain we see something quite like our own vocation today.  

Like Augustine, our mission territory is not entirely pagan.  The New Evangelization is to a world whose culture traces its roots to that of Christendom.  Like Augustine, we can use the resources available to us.  If we are lacking in some essential skill, we have the Church behind us, as Augustine and his missionaries did with Frankish translators and the support and encouragement of Pope Gregory.  

Encouraged by what Pope Gregory instructed Augustine regarding preservation of pagan temple structures, we too can see what is good, true, and beautiful in our contemporary culture and build on that.  We can speak of human dignity with those who seek justice, authenticity with those tired of falsity, and completion in the midst of a shattered world.  

While we might not get into heated fights regarding Church discipline, we can follow Augustine’s example and side with the pope, even when the prevailing culture around us shouts to ignore him and the Church. 

We would do well to hold Augustine as our model as evangelists, for the New Evangelization will only succeed if we, like him, evangelize in charity, fidelity, and sincerity.  

image: statue of Saint Augustine of Canterbury at Palermo Cathedral / Shutterstock.

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Matthew B. Rose received his BA (History and English) and MA (Systematic Theology) from Christendom College. He is the chairman of the Religion department at Bishop Denis J. O'Connell High School in Arlington, VA. Matthew also runs Quidquid Est, Est!, a Catholic Q & A blog, and has contributed to various online publications. He and his family live in Northern Virginia.

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