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St. Augustine Of Canterbury
A complete biography of St. Augustine of Canterbury it is impossible to write: almost all that is known of him is his work as a missionary to the English, and almost the only source of our knowledge of that missionary work is the "Ecclesiastical History" of Baeda. But the mission of St. Augustine was one of the great crises, not only of the history of the Christian Church, but of the history of human civilization. The difference between a number of Celtic churches, with bishops largely subordinate to the abbots of monasteries, included (as it seems) in none of the great Catholic patriarchates, cut off from all communication with the great centres of human thought and life--and a Church of England taking her place, at once independent and subordinate, in the swift development of human progress, both conservative and creative--this difference is quite incalculable. And the mission of St. Augustine made the difference.
The triumph of Christianity depended--apart from its divine authority--upon the thorough organization of the Christian communities; and that organization had for its centre the Episcopacy. But as separate congregations without a bishop could never have escaped disintegration, so the united congregations, with their presbyters and bishop, would have been powerless without some further organization, uniting the bishops, with well-defined regulations, under some recognized hierarchy of authority. Thus arose metropolitan sees, and the great patriarchates of the Catholic Church--Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople. This centralization was rendered necessary by the course of events; but it had otherwise no divine authority and might be modified just as validly as it was created. When the Roman Empire was submerged under the deluge of barbarian races, a yet closer centralization became necessary, at least in the West; and the ark in which floated over that terrible deluge not only the Christian religion, but the remains of ancient civilization, both Greek and Roman, was the patriarchate of Rome. The man who not only clearly perceived, but was absolutely compelled to assume, his awful responsibility in the West, the Saviour at once of the Church and the world, was the splendid pontiff, Gregory the Great; the great pontiff who sent St. Augustine and his companions to preach the gospel to the English conquerors of Britain. If we would clearly understand the work of St. Augustine we must free our minds from the illusion produced by familiar names. One of these is the name Britain. In the time of Gregory the Great the island called by that name was, of course, the same as that on which Julius Caesar had landed. The barbarians whom Caesar encountered had been subdued by his successors, and a Roman province had been formed. Roman civilization had been introduced and, one might almost say, had flourished. The Christian religion had found its way thither; there had been Christian congregations and bishops, and even a heresiarch. But Rome, in the struggle for her own existence, had been compelled to withdraw her legions from the province of Britain; and to leave the people not only to their internal dissensions, but to the attacks of the "Scots" and "Picts," from Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland. Then followed the conquest of Britain by the English, as the Teutonic invaders began soon to be called. The Celtic people were largely driven out, including the Celtic Christians. The English were heathens, and the Celtic Christians seem to have made no effort whatever for their conversion. The English, again, were by no means consolidated into an English nation. It was to one division of these English heathens that Gregory the Great sent Augustine.
Even the term "the British Church" is somewhat misleading. There is not the slightest trustworthy evidence, either as to the time when, or the person by whom, Christianity was introduced into Britain. There, of course, as everywhere else, the Church was under the rule of bishops; but, excepting for the purpose of ordaining, the authority of the British bishops seems to have been entirely overshadowed by the authority of the abbots of monasteries. There seems, as we have said, no evidence of anything resembling the patriarchal system among them; nor of any close or frequent communication between the British churches and the rest of Christendom. This is proved, among other things, by their curious reckoning of Easter; which (as Gieseler shows, "Eccle. Hist.," ii., 164, English translation) was by no means identical with that of the Quarto-decimans. It was simply the survival of the use of an old cycle which had been elsewhere superseded by one more accurate and convenient.
The ascertainable biography of St. Augustine begins with his mission, by command of Gregory, to the heathen English; and especially to the subjects of Ethelbert, King of Kent, who had married a Christian lady. There is not the slightest reason for discrediting the story related by Baeda, of the incident which first excited Gregory's interest in the heathen English. The relations between Britain and Rome having come to an end, it is not in the least surprising that even a person so exceptionally well informed should have known nothing about the Teutonic peoples--Angles, Jutes, Saxons--which had driven out the British. That he should have played upon words so suggestive as Angli, Deira, and AElla, is exactly what might be expected from the author of the "Magna Moralia." The familiar story--he calls it "opinio quae de beato Gregorio traditione majorum ad nos usque perlata est"--as told by Baeda, is as follows ("Hist. Eccl.," ii., 1):--
It is reported that some merchants, having just arrived at Rome on a certain day, exposed many things for sale in the market-place, and abundance of people resorted thither to buy; Gregory himself went with the rest, and, among other things, some boys were set to sale, their bodies white, their countenances beautiful, and their hair very fine. Having viewed them, he asked, as is said, from what country or nation they were brought? and was told, from the island of Britain, whose inhabitants were of such personal appearance. He again inquired whether those islanders were Christians, or still involved in the errors of paganism? and was informed that they were pagans. Then, fetching a deep sigh from the bottom of his heart, "Alas! what pity," said he, "that the author of darkness is possessed of men of such fair countenances; and that being remarkable for such graceful aspects, their minds should be void of inward grace." He therefore again asked, what was the name of that nation? and was answered that they were called Angles. "Right," said he, "for they have an angelic face, and it becomes such to be co-heirs with the angels in heaven. What is the name," proceeded he, "of the province from which they are brought?" It was replied, that the natives of that place were called Deiri. "Truly are they De ira," said he, "withdrawn from wrath, and called to the mercy of Christ. How is the king of that province called?" They told him his name was AElla; and he, alluding to the name, said, "Hallelujah, the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts."
Gregory was eager to go at once on a mission to the home of these beautiful children, and the then pope gave his consent; but the Roman people could not bear the loss of one already so useful and distinguished, and almost before he had started he was recalled. When, during his own pontificate, Gregory carried out his purpose, it was probably due to a request of Queen Bertha, speaking, most likely, in behalf of some of the Kentish people, made to the Frankish bishops for missionaries. "It has come to our knowledge," writes Gregory, "that, through the mercy of God, the people of the Angli are eagerly desiring to be converted to the Christian faith, but that the priests of their own neighborhood neglect them." When Bertha married Ethelbert it was on condition that she should retain her own religion; and she was accompanied to Kent by a French bishop, named Luidhard, who must have acted chiefly as her private chaplain. Ethelbert nobly kept his word, and thus the piety of Bertha, and her religion, may easily and deeply have impressed the Kentish heathen. That the Celtic bishops and clergy--"sacerdotes e vicinio"--did nothing for the conversion of the heathen English can scarcely be matter of surprise, though possibly of regret. For they were not only Christians, but belonged to the conquered race; whom, apart from their religion, it was the policy of the conquerors to drive out of the country, and who were compelled to take refuge in the remotest districts of the land. The Frankish bishops seem to have done little or nothing in response to Queen Bertha's solicitations; and Gregory ordered Candidus, administrator of the Patrimony of St. Peter in Gaul, to bring up English youths, and have them trained in monasteries, and fitted to be made missionaries to their own land. At length, in the sixth year of his pontificate, he determined to undertake the work himself; and sent from his own monastery of St. Andrew, on the Caelian Hill, in Rome, a company of forty monks, headed by their prior, Augustine.
Their progress at first was rapid. Starting in the summer of A.D. 596, they soon arrived in the neighborhood of Aix, in Provence. But the nearer they came to what should have been their journey's end, the less inclined they were for the work to which they had been appointed. The heathen English were represented as barbarians of unusual ferocity; and the companions of Augustine were as frightened as the companions of Caleb and Joshua. They induced their prior to return to Gregory and seek a release from their perilous task. But Gregory was not a man to be frightened himself, or to have much sympathy with cowards. He wrote, however, with great gentleness: "For as much as it had been better not to begin a good work than to think of desisting from that which has been begun, it behoves you, my beloved sons, to fulfil the good work which, by the help of the Lord, you have undertaken. Let not, therefore, the toil of the journey, nor the tongues of evil-speaking men, deter you: but with all possible earnestness and zeal, perform that which by God's direction you have undertaken." He furnished them with letters to the bishops of Tours, Marseilles, Vienne, and Autun, and also to the metropolitan of Arles. After the lapse of a year they slowly continued their journey, and landed at last at Ebbe's Fleet, in the Isle of Thanet.
As soon as they had landed Augustine sent the interpreters, whom he had obtained from "the nation of the Franks," to tell Ethelbert of his arrival. Ethelbert seems to have been a really noble-hearted man, and had doubtless been attracted by the piety of his wife Bertha. The missionaries told him that they had come from Rome, the great capital of the West, and "had brought 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." The king ordered them to remain in the island where they had landed, and promised that they should be furnished with all necessaries till he should consider what he would do with them. Soon after he came to the island, and conferred with Augustine and his companions in the open air; fearing the possibility of magic enchantments if he met them under any roof. He was much impressed by their ceremonial, their bearing, and their teaching. "Your words and promises," he said, "are very fair, 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 ["cum omni Anglorum gente:" this by no means implies, it is scarcely necessary to say, an English nation in the modern sense of those words]. But because you are come from far into my kingdom, and, as I conceive, are desirous to impart to us those things which you believe to be true and most beneficial, we will not molest you, but give you favorable entertainment, and take care to supply you with your necessary sustenance; nor do we forbid you to preach, and gain as many as you can to your religion."
By the king's invitation they crossed from Thanet and took their abode in the then rude town of Canterbury, and before long were allowed to worship in St. Martin's Church, with the queen. Their influence gradually increased, and a considerable number of the English were converted. At last Ethelbert himself received baptism (Whitsunday, A.D. 597); and following his example, it is said that on December 25th following--mid-winter!--upward of ten thousand were baptized in the waters of the Swale. Of course, it cannot be supposed that in these mediaeval "conversions" of whole tribes or "nations," there was any rational acceptance of the complete theology of the Church. The conversion was rather the acceptance of a discipline, a mode of life; founded indeed on Christian doctrine and in all kinds of subtle ways symbolizing it; but primarily an imitation of a sweeter and purer life, and a more spiritual and suggestive worship. The words of Baeda (i., 26) are worthy of note as indicating the temper both of Gregory and Augustine: "Their conversion the king so far encouraged, as that he compelled none to embrace Christianity, but only showed more affection to the believers, as to his fellow-citizens in the heavenly kingdom. For he had learnt from his instructors and leaders to salvation, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not by compulsion."
Conversion of Ethelbert by Augustine.
Having so far succeeded in his mission, Augustine went to Arles and was consecrated archbishop of the English by the Metropolitan Virgilius. [Baeda says (i., 27): "Archiepiscopus genti Anglorum ordinatus est," the actual see probably being then undetermined.] On his return he despatched Lawrence and Peter to Rome to tell Gregory that the Angli had been converted to the faith, and that he himself (Augustine) had been made a bishop. They were also to bring back the Pope's answers to sundry questions respecting the conduct of the mission which Augustine proposed to him. Both the questions and the answers are highly suggestive. The first question was as to the division of the offerings of the faithful. The second as to differences of "Use" in the celebration of Mass and other divine offices. The answer of Gregory is almost classical, and may well be repeated here: "You know, my brother," he says, "the custom of the Roman Church.... But it pleases me that if you have found anything, whether in the Roman Church, or the church of the Gauls ["Galliarum"], or any church whatever, which may be more pleasing to Almighty God, you carefully make choice of the same and diligently teach the church of the English, which as yet is new in the faith ... whatever you have been able to collect from many churches. For things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things." The fourth and fifth questions of Augustine refer to prohibited degrees of marriage, and Gregory replies, as to the marriage of first-cousins, among other objections, "we have learned by experience that no offspring can come of such marriage." To Augustine's inquiry as to his relations with the bishops of Gaul and Britain ["Galliarum Brittaniarumque,"] Gregory replies that Augustine has no authority whatever within the jurisdiction of the metropolitan of Arles; but he adds: "As for all the bishops of Britain ["Brittaniarum"], we commit them to your care, that the unlearned may be taught, the weak strengthened by persuasion, and the perverse corrected by authority." Considering the context--Augustine had been asking whether, under the circumstances, he could consecrate bishops without the presence of any other bishops; and, moreover, he had not as yet come into any kind of contact with the Celtic bishops--it seems probable that "the bishops of Britain" here placed under Augustine's jurisdiction were the bishops to be afterward consecrated by himself, with or without the presence and witness of Gallic or other bishops. Gregory's advice to Augustine, conveyed through the Abbot Mellitus, may well be pondered by the managers of modern missions. He says: "The temples of the idols in that nation [the English] 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 ... adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed." He even suggests that their sacrifices--which were largely festivals, as much social as religious--should be discontinued, indeed, as sacrifices, but changed into banquets and associated with the day of the dedication of a church, or the "nativity" of a holy martyr. And all this on the perfectly sound principle, too often forgotten, that "he who strives to reach the highest place raises himself by steps and degrees, and not by leaps [gradibus vel passibus non autem saltibus elevatus]."
At last Augustine was brought into contact with the Celtic bishops. It was clear that their assistance would be very valuable in the endeavor to convert the English, and also that their peculiar usages would convey the impression of far greater diversity of doctrine than actually existed. Augustine was willing to make much concession. There were three conditions of union which seemed to him indispensable: agreement as to the time of keeping Easter; agreement as to the mode of administering baptism; and hearty co-operation in mission work among the heathen. We may leave out of consideration alleged miracles; also the curious, or even the ludicrous, test of a divine mission suggested by "the aged hermit" of the story. The Celtic bishops refused any sort of co-operation, and Augustine left them, not without a solemn warning: "If they would not have peace with their brethren, they would have to accept war from their enemies; if they would not preach the way of life to the nation of the Angli, they would have to suffer at their hands the vengeance of death." It is scarcely credible--though in religious controversy almost anything is credible--that a warning so obviously wise, and even charitable, should have been interpreted as a mere threat, and as evidence that Augustine himself was the author of the calamities that afterward befell the Celtic Church.
Such is the simple story of the mission and the life--for we read nothing about his life but his mission--of Augustine, the first archbishop of Canterbury. He was not able to carry out the whole scheme of Gregory. He was not the first to introduce Christianity into Britain. But, apart from Queen Bertha's private chaplain, he was the first to introduce Christianity to the English--those Teutonic tribes which were the ancestors of the English of to-day. Who first brought the gospel to the Roman province of Britain no one knows; nor is it of the slightest importance that anyone should know. But that there should have been two Christian religions in England when the nation was being consolidated, would have been fatal both to nation and church. We conclude this brief notice by a passage from two historians, neither of whom could possibly be suspected of any undue subservience to the modern Church of Rome. The first is from Mr. Green's "The Making of England" (pp. 314, 315); he is speaking of the results of the Synod of Whitby (A.D. 664).
"It is possible that lesser political motives may have partly swayed Oswin in his decision, for the revival of Mercia had left him but the alliance of Kent in the south, and this victory of the Kentish Church would draw tighter the bonds which linked together the two powers. But we may fairly credit him with a larger statesmanship. Trivial in fact as were the actual points of difference which parted the Roman Church from the Irish, the question to which communion Northumbria should belong was, as we have seen, of immense moment to the after-fortunes of England. It was not merely that, as Wilfrid said, to fight against Rome was to fight against the world. Had England, indeed, clung to the Irish Church, it must have remained spiritually isolated from the bulk of Western Christendom. Fallen as Rome might be from its older greatness, it preserved the traditions of civilization, of letters, and art and law. Its faith still served as a bond which held together the nations that sprang from the wreck of the Empire. To repulse Rome was to condemn England to isolation. But grave as such considerations were, they were of little weight beside the influence which Oswin's decision had on the very unity of the English race. The issue of the Synod not only gave England a share in the religious unity of Western Christendom; it gave her a religious unity at home. However dimly such thoughts may have presented themselves to Oswin's mind, it was the instinct of a statesman that led him to set aside the love and gratitude of his youth, and to secure the religious oneness of England in the Synod of Whitby."
The other is from Milman's "History of Latin Christianity" (ii., 198, 199, Amer. Edition): "The effect of Christianity on Anglo-Saxon England was at once to re-establish a connection both between the remoter parts of the island with each other, and of England with the rest of the Christian world. They ceased to dwell apart, a race of warlike, unapproachable barbarians, in constant warfare with the bordering tribes, or occupied in their own petty feuds or inroads, rarely, as in the case of Ethelbert, connected by intermarriage with some neighboring Teutonic state. Though the Britons were still secluded in the mountains, or at extremities of the land, by animosities which even Christianity could not allay, yet the Picts and Scots, and the parts of Ireland which were occupied by Christian monasteries, were now brought into peaceful communication, first with the kingdom of Northumbria, and through Northumbria with the rest of England. The intercourse with Europe was of far higher importance, and tended much more rapidly to introduce the arts and habits of civilization into the land. There was a constant flow of missionaries across the British Channel, who possessed all the knowledge which still remained in Europe. All the earlier metropolitans of Canterbury and the bishops of most of the southern sees, were foreigners; they were commissioned at Rome, if not consecrated there; they travelled backward and forward in person, or were in constant communication with that great city, in which were found all the culture, the letters, the arts, and sciences which had survived the general wreck."
Nobody need disparage the Celtic Church; but it is not too much to say that the Celtic Church could never have preserved Christianity in Britain against the victorious Saxon or English heathen. But from the very beginning the Church of England has retained the traces of her early origin, when Gregory the Great was Pope, when the claim to be universal bishop was deemed untenable, when even the ritual of the Mass was still in unessential details flexible.