Augustine, 1st Archbishop of Canterbury

When did Christianity first come to Britain? Certainly not with the missionary monk St Augustine of Canterbury.

In the Church of England it is his day today - more of Augustine, 1st Archbishop of Canterbury in a moment.

Pictured in this stained glass with blond hair and pale complexion, Augustine looks more like an Anglo-Saxon than the Italian born immigrant that he was. 

There are medieval traditions (and legends) of Christians in Roman Briton in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. There is good evidence that by the 3rd and 4th centuries there were churches and bishops in the British Isles. Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with Augustine of Hippo) was certainly not the first Christian missionary in this small corner of northern Europe.

On the old Roman Road from Dover to London was an ancient Celtic town on the River Stour which the Romans developed into the walled city of Canterbury as a centre for Roman regional government. At the time when Pope Gregory sent a group of Benedictine monks on a mission to Britain, led by Augustine, the Romans had left and Kent was ruled over by the Anglo-Saxon King Ethelbert. The religion of the Anglo-Saxons was mostly polytheistic. When Augustine landed in Kent in 597 A.D. there was a small Romano-British church building in the largely abandoned town of Canterbury. Ethelbert's Christian wife worshipped there.

I tend to feel rather sorry for Augustine. He was a reluctant missionary who turned back at first having heard of the savagery of the people who lived in the kingdom of Kent. I doubt if he liked the climate either. I wonder why Pope Gregory chose Augustine to lead his mission to the kingdom of Kent? Augustine was a well educated Benedictine monk with a good knowledge of the Bible and as an Abbot was probably also skilled in administration. Was that why?

Ethelbert was friendlier than Augustine might have expected and became a convert, along with many of his subjects. He gave Augustine the old Romano-British church (still in use today - St Martin's) and gave Augustine permission to build an abbey outside the walls of the old Roman town of Canterbury. The remains of this abbey is beneath Canterbury Cathedral which in present form was largely rebuilt by the Normans. It is a spectacularly beautiful building.

Augustine was advised by Pope Gregory to purify rather than destroy pagan worship places and to Christianise pagan feasts rather than forbid them. As the good news of Jesus is for all times and places then for it to be understood and received it has to be appropriately embedded within local culture. This produces rich diversity but also problems and tensions.

To cut a long story short, Augustine became Archbishop of Canterbury - the first of a long and unbroken succession to this day. On the current Archbishop of Canterbury's official website you can find a brief article about Augustine - 1st Archbishop of Canterbury.

If you prefer to look at a pictorial history, here is one told entirely in images from the stained glass windows in St Augustine's Church, Wembley Park, London.

Previous posts about Augustine of Canterbury


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