St. Augustine of Canterbury Church, Leeds Centenary Book.1905-2005

St Augustine – Our Patron Saint

Saint Augustine, our patron saint, was entrusted with the mission of the evangelisation of the English. Although the Christian faith of England dates from the era of the Apostles and we read that about 200AD “British districts were inaccessible to Roman arms but subdued by Christ” the Saxon conquest of England had forced these Christians into refuge in Wales, Cornwall and parts of Scotland. Augustine’s mission was to bring these Christians back into the fold and convince the Saxons to become Christians themselves.

 

Augustine’s Early Life
Nothing is known about Augustine’s family but his name might well have been taken after he entered the monastic life. Many later English writers described Augustine as a very tall man. He was a pupil of Felix bishop of Messana. Augustine reached the level of assistant to the abbot, a monastic position that was usually obtained after some years. Leo III described Augustine as holding the office of companion in the cell or private room to St. Gregory. Gregory described Augustine as “having a wonderful capacity for business, with his wide, various and minute supervision”.

Mission to England
When Gregory became Pope, he chose Augustine and about forty monks from the monastery of St. Andrew on Mount Coelius in Rome to make the unexpected and dangerous journey to England. Bede wrote: “Gregory, prompted by divine inspiration, sent a servant of God named Augustine and several more God-fearing monks with him to preach the word of God to the English race. In obedience to the pope’s commands, they undertook this task.” Most of our information about Augustine’s journey is deduced from the letters of St Gregory to Augustine recorded in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.

They started their journey in 596AD but were soon disheartened and afraid when rumours reached them about the savage Anglo Saxon race and their barbarity. They began to contemplate returning home rather than going to a barbarous, fierce, and unbelieving nation whose language they did not even understand. They all agreed that this was the safer course and so they sent back Augustine, (who had been appointed to be consecrated bishop in case they were received by the English,) that they should not be compelled to undertake so dangerous, toilsome, and uncertain a journey. The pope, in reply, sent them a letter persuading them to proceed in the work of the Divine word, and rely on the assistance of the Almighty:

“Gregory, the servant of the servants of God, to the servants of our Lord. Forasmuch 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 our Lord, you have undertaken. Let not, therefore, the toil of the journey, nor the tongues of evil speaking men, discourage you; but with all possible earnestness and zeal perform that which, by God’s direction, you have undertaken; being assured, that much labour is followed by an eternal reward. When Augustine, your chief, returns, whom we also constitute your abbot, humbly obey him in all things; knowing, that whatsoever you shall do by his direction, will, in all respects, be available to your souls. Almighty God protect you with his grace, and grant that I may, in the heavenly country, see the fruits of your labour. Inasmuch as, though I cannot labour with you, I shall partake in the joy of the reward, because I am willing to labour. God keep you in safety, my most beloved sons.”

Augustine in England
The monks resumed their journey and when they eventually landed in Kent in 597, they sent a message to King Ethelbert that acquainted him of their arrival and as Bede says “signified that they were come from Rome, and 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.”

King Ethelbert, whose wife Bertha was a Christian, assured them that all their needs would be provided for and that he would meet with them. Some days later, at Ethelbert’s command, a meeting was held in the open air. The monks arrived in procession, bearing aloft a silver cross and an icon of Our Lord. They sang a litany of salvation to the Lord and then they preached the Word of Life to the King and his attendants.

Ethelbert wished to deliberate for a few days: “Your words and promises 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. 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 favourable 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.”

He gave them permission to reside in the royal city of Canterbury, which was the capital of his domain. Here Augustine and his monks made a great impression on the king and his people by the way in which they lived their monastic life and soon there were many converts.

The King and People are Converted
There was at that time in Canterbury a little church dedicated to St Martin built in the times of the Romans. This had become the private chapel of the Christian Princess Bertha. The church was made over to Augustine and the new converts, whose numbers were rapidly increasing and it was not long before the king himself was baptised in this little ancient church at Pentecost 597AD. The greater number of his nobles and people followed his example. The king insisted that no one should be forced to accept Christianity; he knew that true service of Christ must be accepted freely, in faith.

Under the wise orders of Gregory the Great, Augustine aided the growth from the ancient traditions to the new life by consecrating pagan temples for Christian worship and turning pagan festivals into feast days of martyrs.

Augustine sent two of his monks to Pope Gregory with news of their success and a request for more help. Gregory responded by sending more missionaries and stores of ecclesiastical furniture “such especially as could not be obtained in England”. Among these treasures was a copy of the Gospel of St Luke, which can still be seen.

Augustine travelled to France for his consecration as Archbishop of the English nation and on his return set about building a larger church and monastery in Canterbury, very little of which now remains.

He now began to turn his thoughts towards those Christian communities that were in these islands before his arrival. These Christians had kept aloof and refused to have any communion with him. As we have seen, most of the ancient Celtic Christians were at this time settled in Wales, Cornwall and in parts of Scotland and some had moved to Ireland. The main cause for contention was the date for the observance of Easter. So Augustine with Ethelbert’s co-operation invited the chief Doctors and Bishops of the Welsh to a conference in 602 but no agreement could be found. A second meeting was arranged, but this was to no avail. Augustine’s efforts to reconcile the British Christians met with no success.

The Death of St Augustine
Not long after this Augustine was taken to his rest; few particulars are given of his death not even the exact year but it was possibly 604AD. Bede only tells us “After this, the beloved of God; Father Augustine, died, and his body was deposited without, close by the church of the apostles, Peter and Paul, above spoken of, by reason that the same was not yet finished, nor consecrated, but as soon as it was dedicated, the body was brought in, and decently buried in the north porch thereof. On the tomb of St Augustine is written this epitaph “Here rests the Lord Augustine, first archbishop of Canterbury, who, being formerly sent hither by the blessed Gregory, bishop of the city of Rome, and by God’s assistance supported with miracles, reduced King Ethelbert and his nation from the worship of idols to the faith of Christ, and having ended the days of his office in peace, died the 26th day of May, in the reign of the same king.”

St Augustine’s Legacy
Augustine was only in England for eight years before he died but in those years he laid the foundations of a reviving English Church. When Christians were to suffer persecution again the Archbishopric would remain in Canterbury and thus form a base for later re-evangelising missions. It is for us to continue Augustine’s work. As Cardinal Hume said “What Augustine did in his day, we must do again in ours”. We as a parish must try to follow the example of St Augustine in bringing the Gospel of Jesus to all those around us.

ST AUGUSTINE’S ABBEY
(Extract from “Grace-filled Days” for the Friends of
St Anne’s Cathedral to commemorate the visit to Leeds
of His Holiness Pope John Paul in May 1982)

Tread softly o’er this sacred ground
as evening shadows lengthen so
and in the fading light remember
another Spring so long ago.
Nigh fourteen hundred years have passed
as Winter gave way to Spring
from across the sea came a holy man
who would keep counsel with Kings.

To this quiet corner of England
blossom-clad ‘neath a deep blue sky
the gambol of lambs and bird-song
would greet him as he passed by.
With his band of forty shaven men
a silver cross borne on high
to peasants in their wattled homes
a strange procession passes by.

They hear an even stranger chant
in tongues they cannot understand
a King obeys the Voice of God
as many follow throughout the land.

Outside the walls of the city
journey’s end on this Pilgrim Way
Augustine built his Abbey Church
there rests his tomb today.
We owe what happened in England
to a Saint both holy and wise
who kept faith long ago with his “angels”
with the searching look in their eyes.

Tread softly still in the twilight
upon these hallowed lawns and pray
for another holy man who came
within our midst in the month of May.
To this noble city of Cantuar
as in days of yore St Augustine trod
his Blessing gave ‘neath the same blue skies
a man who brought the Peace of God.