Mission in Kent

Daily Reading for May 26 • Augustine, First Archbishop of Canterbury, 605

Why did Gregory choose Augustine to head his mission? For those to whom Augustine appears as an unintelligent coward and bigot it is naturally a puzzle why so shrewd a man as Gregory should have sent him. . . . There were indeed plenty of able clergy in Rome on whom Gregory’s choice might have fallen, but perhaps they would not exactly have leapt at the opportunity to come to this island, ridden as it was with fogs, swamps, forests and kings with unpronounceable names. On the other hand, Augustine was a monk. He was the prefect of Gregory’s own monastery, with responsibility for its discipline and the supervision of its estates. His companions on the journey were likewise monks. They were all bound to Gregory by the vow of obedience; and to Augustine, especially when he was appointed their abbot. Moreover, there were by now many precedents, both in the East and in the West, for the use of monks as missionaries, near to their monasteries and far away from them. . . .

It is worth considering briefly the nature of the establishment founded by Augustine at Canterbury. Was it a monastery, with ascetic and contemplative monks, living a communal life according to a monastic rule? Or was it a cathedral church, staffed by clergy who were essentially administrators, engaged in pastoral work, and perhaps even living in private quarters on their own stipends? In Rome at this time the distinction was a perfectly clear one. Monks lived a contemplative life in monasteries, while the secular clergy were responsible for organizing the finances, the pastoral work and the celebration of mass in the city’s basilicas. Gregory the Great insisted that the duties of each way of life were so onerous that nobody should combine the two; nobody in the daily service of the church should be bound by the restraint of the monastic life. But in Canterbury, and in the early Anglo-Saxon church in general, the distinction was not nearly so clear. Augustine himself was a monk, and Gregory advised him that, as he had been instructed in the monastic rule, he should not live apart from his clergy. Gregory also envisaged, however, that Augustine would be taking in Anglo-Saxon boys and training them for the ministry, and that some of these, while remaining in the service of the church in minor orders, might wish to marry, receive stipends and live in separate houses. In fact, it was probably envisaged that the cathedral church would become in the future a corporation of secular clergy, of the kind common in city and country churches on the Continent. And so Augustine also founded the church of SS. Peter and Paul, just outside the city, as a specially monastic centre.

From The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England by Henry Mayr-Harting (Avon: The Bath Press, 1972).

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