Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Legacy of Augustine (of Canterbury)

In his book Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500, Charles Thomas wrote that
"until post-Constantinian times, British Christianity was numerically very insignificant, had no particular geographical focus, and had up to then produced no one Christian thinker, martyr, or expatriate champion whose name could be snatched up in polished circles as that of a distant soul prominently gained for Christ." ( p. 44.)
Nothing could be further from the truth. St. Hilary, St Athanasius, St. Chrysostom, St. Jerome and St. Augustine of Hippo can all applaud the vigour, soundness and extent of the British Church in the 4th century. Consider, British bishops were present at the Council of Arles in 314 AD, Council of Nicaea in 325, the Council of Sardica in 347 and the Council of Ariminium in 359. Records clearly state that the bishops of London, York, Llandaff, Glasgow and Carlisle, with over ten thousand other British Christians, were put to death for their faith in Christ in the Diocletian persecution that reached Britain in the early fourth century. 

It is clear that Christianity was fairly well established in Britain by the 4th century, well before Augustine’s memorable but hugely overrated little boat journey 
The rich tradition of ancient British Christianity was overlooked in all the fuss over the 14th Centenary of St. Augustine’s landing in Britain. Though most educated people recognize that there was some Christianity in England prior to Augustine (as Bede himself records), such Christianity is rarely believed to be either substantial or significant. On the other hand, Augustine’s mission to England heralded
"one of the principal chapters of the great missionary saga of the First Millennium, which saw the extension of the Gospel message and the plantatio Ecclesiae from one end of Europe to the other."
Thus wrote John Paul on 17th May 1997, in a letter to Cardinal Hume, in honour of the Centenary celebrations. Interestingly, the Pope’s letter did acknowledge that some “Evangelization had already begun in Britain in the third century,” though he is quick to remind us that “in the second half of the fifth century and during the sixth Christianity in Southern and Eastern England had almost disappeared under the onslaught of invaders from abroad.” The Pope went on to speak of Augustine’s mission leading to
the consolidation of Christianity in Britain, giving it strong links with the See of Rome. He and his companions sowed the seed of a Christian people remarkably gifted from the beginning with saintly men and women who spread civilization and learning, provided schools, established libraries and produced a wonderful array of literary and artistic works. And quite soon that healthy tree bore fruits beyond England, in the rise of major missionary ventures to other countries of Europe. The evangelising enterprise of Boniface and Walburga in Germany, of Willibrord in the Low Countries and, later, of Henrik in Finland: all these in a very real sense followed from Augustine's toils.
In this post I hope to show that the Pope’s words are not only a great exaggeration of Augustine’s accomplishments, but in some cases the exact opposite of the truth. But first we need a bit of historical background.

The Mission of Augustine

When the Romans began leaving Britain in the early 5th century, this created a power vacuum which allowed the Anglo-Saxons to invade Britain in droves. This pushed the original Britons into Wales and Cornwall.

The Anglo-Saxons were pagans and this is what prompted Gregory the Great (bishop of Rome from 590 to his death in 604) to send the Benedictine monk Augustine to convert the Anglo-Saxons. (He is not the same person as the great theologian Augustine of Hippo).

Thus it was in June 596 AD, Augustine set off with about forty other monks on a journey to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons in England. After reaching Gaul, the company took ship to England, where they landed in the spring of AD 597 at Cliffsend, near Ramsgate Kent. From there, messengers were sent to the Saxon King Æthelberht, who travelled out to meet Augustine at the place which is now Ramsgate Abbey. Being well received by the king, who later became a convert, Augustine was encouraged to move his base to Canterbury, which is why is he now considered to be the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

Opposition to Augustine

The Anglo-Saxons whom Augustine converted came under the authority of the Bishop of Rome whereas the Britons in Wales and Cornwall preserved a more primitive and simplistic type of Christianity, more like what we find in the early church. In his book
History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth writes,

But when Augustine came, he found in their province seven bishoprics and an archbishopric, all filled with most devout prelates, and a great number of abbeys; by which the flock of Christ was still kept in good order.

Bede records how conflicts arose between these indigenous believers and Augustine's people as a result of the Britons refusing to subject themselves to the bishop of Rome.

After Augustine told the Britons that they needed to come under his authority and submit to the Roman church, the British Bishop Diaothus wrote to Augustine as follows:
"Be it known and declared that we all, individually and collectively, are in all humility prepared to defer to the Church of God, and to the Bishop in Rome, and to every sincere and Godly Christian, so far as to love everyone according to his degree, in perfect charity, and to assist them all by word and in deed in becoming the children of God. But as for any other obedience, we know of none that he, whom you term the Pope, or Bishop of Bishops, can demand. The deference we have mentioned we are ready to pay to him as to every other Christian, but in all other respects our obedience is due to the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Cærleon, who is alone under God our ruler to keep us right in the way of salvation." [Cited in Henry Spelman’s Concilia, Decreta, Leges, Constitutiones in re Ecclesiarum Orbis Britannici: Volume 1, 1636, republished Haddan & Stubbs (Wilkins), Cambridge England,. pp. 108-109].
The problems between the Christians Brits and the now Romanized Saxons prompted the Synod of Chester in 601. Augustine was there with some of his followers, and there were seven British bishops and many men of great learning from the Welsh monastery Bangor-on-Dee. At this Synod, Augustine attempted to bring the Britons under the authority of Roman ecclesiology, but the general assembly refused to submit. The fact that the Britons associated Augustine’s church with their Saxon enemies only fueled their antagonism to Augustine’s claims.

In his Ecclesiastical History, the Venerable Bede writes as follows about these ‘Protestant’ Christians (if I can use the adjective without anachronism):

"For they did not keep Easter Sunday at the proper time, but from the fourteenth to the twentieth moon…Besides, they did several other things which were against the unity of the church…but, preferred their own traditions before all the churches in the world… [Augustine] said to them, "You act in many particulars contrary to our custom, or rather the custom of the universal church, and yet, if you will comply with me in these three points, viz. to keep Easter at the due time; to administer baptism, by which we are again born to God, according to the custom of the holy Roman Apostolic Church; and jointly with us to preach the word of God to the English nation, we will readily tolerate all the other things you do, though contrary to our customs." They answered they would do none of those things, nor receive him as their archbishop…. Augustine, is said, in a threatening manner, to have foretold, that in case they would not join in unity with their brethren, they should be warred upon by their enemies; and, if they would not preach the way of life to the English nation, they should at their hands undergo the vengeance of death. All which, through the dispensation of the Divine judgment, fell out exactly as he had predicted." [Book II, chapter II; see also D’Aubigne, History Reform, Vol. V; Milman’s History of Latin Christianity, Vol. II, p. 234.]

Massacre at Bangor

In AD 664 the Synod of Whitby was convened over the problem of the British celebrating Easter at the wrong time. The result "brought the Northumbrian church into the mainstream of Roman culture." [Colgrave, Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, p. 9.] The Synod of Hertford occurred in 673 in which British bishops agreed to meet with one of Augustine’s predecessors. The Church in England agreed to acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope. However, the promise of a smooth working, amicable relationship between the Church in England and the Papacy was not to be.

The dispute between the Christian Brits vs. Augustine and his now Romanized Saxons did not remain purely theological. Geoffrey of Monmouth describes the sad incident of the Massacre at Bangor, where the Saxons took their revenge on the Brits for refusing to submit to Augustine. The event is described in the Penguin Edition of Geoffrey's Histories, pp. 266-267, or Book XI, chapters 12 and 13 of THIS online version.

This massacre accentuated the conflict between the two groups, a conflict that would continue to foment right up until the reformation.

Continuing Tensions

The Celts in Scotland also remained fiercely independent from the papacy. St. Columbanus (c.543 – 615) was an Irish saint, poet and scholar (whose biography I have written up here) who had also written to Gregory the Great, making striking claims for the purity and independence of the Celtic Church. Later Columbanus also wrote to Pope Boniface IV as follows:

“Your Chair, O Pope, is defiled with heresy. Deadly errors have crept into it; it harbours horrors and impieties. Catholic? The true Catholicism you have lost. The orthodox and the true Catholics are they who have always zealously preserved in the true faith.” [Elder, Celt, Druid and Culdee, p. 28, available online HERE.]
The Britons, whom we now call the Welsh, continued to be strongly independent of the Roman church. In AD 610, Cadvan, Prince of Wales, said:

"All men may hold the same truths, yet no man can hereby be drawn into slavery to another. If the Cymry believed all that Rome believes, that would be as strong a reason for Rome obeying us, as for us to obey Rome. It suffices for us that we obey the Truth. If other men obey the Truth, are they therefore to become subject to us? Then were the Truth of Christ made slavery and not freedom.” [Caerwys, MSS, cited Ibid, p. 125]

Even as late as AD 705, the Roman Catholic Adelm wrote to the Britons complaining that“ The precepts of your bishops are not in accord with Catholic faith.” (Adelmi opp., ed. Giles, pp. 24 ff. Monumenta Germ. History Tom, III, pp. 231 ff.) “We adjure you not to persevere in your arrogant contempt of the decrees of St. Peter and the traditions of the of the Roman Church by a proud and tyrannical attachment to the statutes of your ancestors.” [Montalembert,
Monks of the West, Vol IV, p. 233].

Christianity in Iona

For some time after this, part of the British church (based in Iona and part of an ancient monastic order known as ‘The Culdees’), was considered distinct from Rome. This is acknowledged by the Venerable Bede tells says how in AD 679 he visited the churches of Northumbria and Ireland and succeeded in bringing most of them under the dominion of Rome apart from the ones that were under the dominion of Iona. In chapter 4, the Venerable Bede tells how they “[practiced] only such works of piety and chastity as they could learn from the prophetical, evangelical and apostolical writings.”

The Culdee monastery at Iona remained free from Rome even after the rest of Britain came under the dominion of the Papacy. For years the church at Iona sent missionaries out to other parts of Europe, despite continual opposition from the Roman Church. [D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, Vol. IV. Also McLauchlan,
The Early Scottish Church, p. 216.] Indeed, the Culdees even held services in the same Churches as the Roman priests as there were two parallel systems operating simultaneously in certain areas. It is on record that the Culdees officiated in the Church of St. Peter, York, up to AD 936 (Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum, Vol. V, II, p. 607).

Gradually, however, the Roman church began to dispossess the Culdees of their property and ancient privileges, until by the eleventh century, they had been fully absorbed into the Roman church. [Alexander, Ten-Centenary of the Scottish Reformation (Edin. 1860), pp. 13, 17]

In Ireland the Culdee church did not come under Rome until 1172. As one Roman Catholic historian notes: “The ancient Order of the Culdees existed in Ireland previous to Patrick; and all their institutions proved that they were derived from a different origin from that of Rome.” [O'Driscoll, cited in Elder, pp. 133-34.]

In Views of Ireland, O'Driscoll writes that “The Christian Church of that country, as founded by St. Patrick, existed for many centuries free and unshackled. For about seven hundred years this Church maintained its independence. It had no connection with England, and differed on points of importance from Rome.” [O'Driscoll, Views of Ireland, pp. 26-27]

Archbishop Ussher says similarly: the Northern Irish “continued in their old tradition in spite of various papal bulls.”
This backdrop is often overlooked when people study the English reformation. When Henry the VIII broke with the Pope in 1534, much of England was ready and had been ready for centuries. In fact, England had been ready to break with Rome ever since Augustine's memorable little boat ride.
Final Remarks
Returning then to Pope John Paul's words quoted earlier, we see that far from consolidating Christianity in Britain, Augustine's mission divided it. Far from sowing the seeds of a Christian people, he landed on an island that was already rich with years of Christian heritage.
It is true that Augustine converted the non-indigenous Saxons, but this was itself a mixed blessing since it fueled the existing tensions between them and the Brits, a tension that found expression in the tragic incident at Bangor (an incident which raises questions about just how real the Saxons' conversion really was). None of this is to overlook Augustine's very real accomplishments in converting the Saxons, but it is to attempt to put those works into some much needed perspective.

Further Reading

The Landing of Augustine in Britain

The Celts Vs. Roman Catholicism

Taming the Storm with Manly Strength: The Courage of Saint Columbanus

Run Towards the Roar: the courage of Boniface

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