The Apostle of the English

On 26th May the Church of England celebrates the life of the first Archbishop of Canterbury, St Augustine. A stained glass window in the north aisle of St Chrysostom’s Church honours Augustine of Canterbury.

Detail from the St Augustine window in St Chrysostom's Church

Detail from the St Augustine window in St Chrysostom’s Church

The Venerable Bede tells the story of how Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome, saw fair-haired Saxon slaves from Britain in the Roman slave market and was inspired to try to convert their people. In 595 Gregory decided to send missionaries from Rome, a group of monks led by their prior, Augustine. They arrived in Kent (the southeast corner of England) in 597, and the king, Æthelberht, whose wife Bertha was a Christian, allowed them to settle and preach. Their preaching was outstandingly successful, the people were hungry for the Good News of salvation, and they made thousands of converts in a short time. In 601 Æthelberht himself was converted and baptised. Augustine was consecrated bishop and established his headquarters at Canterbury. From his day to the present, there has been an unbroken succession of archbishops of Canterbury.

In 603, Augustine held a conference with the leaders of the already existing Christian congregations in Britain, but failed to reach an accommodation with them, largely due to his own tactlessness, and his insistence (contrary, it may be noted, to Gregory’s explicit advice) on imposing Roman customs on a church long accustomed to its own traditions of worship. It is said that the British bishops, before going to meet Augustine, consulted a hermit with a reputation for wisdom and holiness, asking him, “Shall we accept this man as our leader, or not?” The hermit replied, “If, at your meeting, he rises to greet you, then accept him, but if he remains seated, then he is arrogant and unfit to lead, and you ought to reject him.” Augustine, alas, remained seated. It took another sixty years before the breach was healed.

First page of the Canterbury Gospel brought to England by St Augustine (in Corpus Christi College Library, Cambridge)

First page of the Canterbury Gospel brought to England by St Augustine (in Corpus Christi College Library, Cambridge)

At the time of Augustine’s death on 26 May 604 his mission barely extended beyond Kent, but the foundations he had laid were strong and his initiative introduced a more active missionary style into Britain.

From the collect for St Augustine’s Day:

Almighty God, whose servant Augustine was sent as the apostle
   of the English people:
grant that as he laboured in the Spirit
to preach Christ’s gospel in this land
so all who hear the good news
may strive to make your truth known in all the world;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

Here is a puzzle. At the bottom of the stained glass window of St Augustine of canterbury in St Chrysostom’s there is this Latin incsription. How does it translate and what is its significance? Replies welcome in comments below.

Aug Ins U

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About stchrysostoms

St Chrysostom’s is an Anglican (Church of England) parish church in Manchester. We’re an inclusive, diverse and welcoming faith community where people of differing backgrounds make friends. Find our Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/2364267899/
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