Asked by Pope Gregory to carry the Gospel to pagan Angles and Saxons in southern England in 595, they did not arrive at Canterbury, in the southern kingdom of Kent, until 597. Twice they went back to Rome to ask: ‘are you sure?’
They did not speak Anglo-Saxon English. Or the language of the indigenous Celtic Britons. Augustine and the 40-60 Benedictine monks who accompanied him were Italians. They were men of prayer and study. They were deeply committed to Christ and the mission of the Church.
But the Anglo-Saxons made them nervous. With good reason. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, mercenaries from Germany, had been invited by the Britons to come and defend them from the Scoti and the Picts after the Roman soldiers left in 410. But the Germanic pagans had other plans, and began to take much of England for themselves, pushing the Britons into modern-day Wales and Cornwall.
Thousands of Britons had come to know Christ in the centuries preceding the arrival of the Germans. But these Anglo-Saxons were decidedly ‘unchurched’.
Thankfully, Augustine and his colleagues were invited by Queen Bertha of Kent, raised a Frankish Christian in Paris, and her pagan husband King Aethelbert, to set up shop at St. Martin’s church in Canterbury. St. Martin’s was founded in the 4th Century, around the same time as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Bertha had been using it as a chapel.
Within months, Aethelbert was converted to Christ and baptized. That Easter, Bede writes that 10,000 were baptized. The rest is history.
To this day, the mother church of Anglicanism is Canterbury Cathedral, where Augustine’s successors built a Church that would take the Gospel to the American colonies, Africa, China, India, and the rest of the world.
Praying at St. Martin’s. Touching the Roman-built red brick in the walls. And gathering for our own service of Holy Eucharist, using the 1662 Prayer Book in the Jesus chapel at Canterbury Cathedral – these were moments I will remember for the rest of my life.
I thank God for those reluctant Italian monks. And the Anglo-Saxon pagans who responded to the message of the Gospel. They are my ancestors. Their blood flows in me. And the legacy of their conversion, and the Church they built, has been an instrumental tool in the advancement of the essential mission of the Church: to make disciples of all the nations.
We have climbed the mountain. And beheld His glory.