Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Landing of Augustine in Britain

If you had been at Hugin Green, near Ramsgate, Kent, on June 9th 1997, you would have witnessed a curious procession slowly making their way through a wheat field. An unusual site, it is not every day that you see a group of two hundred and fifty men and women slowly marching in single column through a field of wheat.

If it were not for the crosses and banners some of the company were carrying, you might have thought this was just an ordinary group of people out for a walk, albeit a rather large group.

Yet this was no ordinary walk. For fifty of the walkers, this was the final stretch in a seven day journey that had begun at Rome after receiving a blessing from the Pope. More curious still was the diversity of these fifty travellers, which included forty-seven Britons, two Americans and one Frenchwoman, all from a variety of Christian backgrounds including Anglican, Catholic, Baptist, and American Episcopalian. In this final day of their journey, these fifty men and women had been joined by two-hundred other Christians to walk from the beach at Cliffsend, through Hugin Green, to Ramsgate Abbey. Waiting to greet them at the Abbey were such notorieties as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster and Dr. George Carey.

The occasion was the 14th Centenary of St. Augustine’s landing in Britain, an event Esther and I have been thinking about recently as a result of Miriam studying Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation in her Omnibus curriculum.

An inscription on the plaque marking Augustine’s burial spot in Canterbury explains why his landing in Britain is remembered with fondness:

"Here lies the most reverend Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury, who was formerly sent by St Gregory, bishop of Rome; being supported by God in the working of miracles, he led King Ethelbert and his nation from the worship of idols to faith in Christ and ended the days of his office in peace he died on the twenty-sixth day of May during the reign of the same King."

To commemorate Augustine’s work turning Eltherbert's nation “from the worship of idols to faith in Christ”, the entire year of 1997 saw a voluminous increase in the hype around which Augustine’s mission has always been surrounded, culminating in this monumental pilgrimage.

There must have been something moving as the two-hundred fifty pilgrims retraced the steps from Augustine’s landing place, at Cliffsend, to Ramsgate Abbey where he met with the King and, allegedly, first began his work bringing Christianity to this God-forsaken land. There must have been something especially touching for the fifty pilgrims who had started out from Rome six days earlier, retracing Augustine’s entire journey (or “pilgrims’ way”, as it is called). But while the sixth century Benedictine had taken nearly an entire year to complete the journey from Rome to Kent, the modern-day group managed the journey in seven days, using coaches and high-speed trains to dart between various European centres of Christianity before finally arriving in Kent for the final walk.

The day after the pilgrims’ arrival at Augustine’s reputed landing place, they travelled to Canterbury Cathedral, where an even more auspicious company awaited them. In the Cathedral was an audience of nearly two thousand people, including Prince Charles and Cardinal Hume. This august company had gathered to hear an address from the Archbishop of Canterbury in memoriam of the great “Apos
tle to the English.” With characteristic eloquence, the Archbishop eulogised the man who, he suggested, was an ambassador of Christ to the English in the same way that the Apostle Paul had been an ambassador of Christ to the Gentiles of the first century.

The next day, the 27th of May, people gathered at Westminster Cathedral for an ecumenical mass at 10:00. Prince Charles was again present, as well as most of the bishops and a vast array of ecumenical guests. Shortly afterwards, at 12:00 noon, another Mass was organised at the Diocese of Southwark in the ruins of St. Augustine’s Abbey, Longport, Canterbury. This time, five thousand people took part in the Mass, including the Archbishop, his three assistant bishops and two hundred priests. This abbey, founded by Augustine as the Abbey of St. Peter and Paul, is also where Augustine is buried. There must have been something very moving when they used Augustine’s tomb as the alter for the mass.

Moving perhaps, but misplaced. In my next article I will attempt to show that Augustine’s legacy in Britain was hardly everything it has been made out to be.
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