St Augustine of Canterbury and the E.U. Referendum

There are two things I find especially attractive about St Augustine of Canterbury, whose feast we celebrate today: his reluctance to come to Britain in the first place, and his modesty once he arrived. Gregory the Great had to keep chivvying him as he dawdled through Gaul — clearly, the Anglo-Saxons either terrified Augustine or disgusted him or both. Then there was the problem of the miracles. Gregory wasn’t keen on them, and said so. Augustine took his rebuke to heart and to this day we know nothing about the miracles contemporaries ascribed to him. In fact, there is something very English about this obscure Roman monk, plucked from the cloister and sent to Kent to begin the huge work of conversion. He was dutiful rather than brave (though he could be firm in the face of opposition); loyal and hard-working rather than showily magnificent; a monk at heart wherever he went. These are not spectacular qualities, but they are very sound ones. Augustine was not a Benedictine, but he more than fits Benedict’s idea of the utilis frater, the reliable brother.

With the E.U. referendum just a few weeks away, it may be helpful to think about St Augustine and what followed from his mission. For several centuries England was to be part of the Catholic Church and, as such, to have horizons that stretched well beyond national self-interest. Many of her important churchmen were foreigners. Among Augustine’s successors we number Theodore of Tarsus who gave us our parish system, Lanfranc who reformed our monasteries and cathedrals, and Anselm of Aosta who, in addition to being a Doctor of the universal Church, played a significant, if uncomfortable, role in the so-called Investiture Contest. Our idea of the nation-state has tended to obscure the older, more fluid conception of Europe which these men understood. Has that anything to contribute to our current debate? When we come to vote on 23 June (incidentally the feast of All Holy English Nuns) we shall have made our decision on the basis of economic and political arguments that will, I suspect, have largely concentrated on ‘what’s best for us’.  I suggest that before then we need to think about how we define ‘us’.


7 thoughts on “St Augustine of Canterbury and the E.U. Referendum”

  1. Thank you Sister. As I prepare to leave the CofE as a Priest and join the Catholic Church as a layperson, l have spent so much time thinking about ME. US is the new ME.

  2. It is interesting to view how Augustine undertook his task Despite his reluctance to come, in the end his obedience overcame his resistance.

    How did his Roman monastic views influence how faith developed in England? And what happened when it came into contact with the existing Celtic Christianity, already embedded in the North, West and South West of England.

    We have to remember that in his time, England wasn’t a United Kingdom, but a series of Anglo Saxon provinces, with separate Kings, and the original Celtic Britons pushed out, but with their own versions of either Christianity or Paganism.

    Did Augustine convert the country? Perhaps his influence is exaggerated, but surely, once he got going, he established the foundations for all that followed.

    It’s a strange fact that now, the Anglican Church is seeking in Mission to re-evangelise the Country, working hopefully with our fellow Christians, against a growing militant, secularism or humanism, that seeks to destroy whatever remains of faith in Jesus Christ in our public or private lives.

    Perhaps we need to revisit Augustine of Canterbury and persevere through prayer and his example of obedience, and be , united to evangelise those who have no experience of God’s grace and love, which is to my mind, a bigger deal than whether or not we stay or leave the European

    Christian unity is Jesus’ command to us – but we struggle with that, and how I wonder can we evangelise the country when we’e so divided?

    • Ah, Ernie, you knew I’d rise to that, didn’t you?! I think the Christianity Augustine encountered was not so much Celtic as Frankish (south-east) and Romano-British elsewhere. The myth of a native Celtic Church displaced by a Roman import is one I don’t subscribe to, I’m afraid. Whatever one decides about the E.U., one cannot separate that decision from the rest of one’s Christian life. As you say, we must pray; and pray hard.

  3. Prior to the Reformation, I understand that Cistercian Abbots used to meet regularly. They shared and exchanged ideas that they had used to develop their farming interests, which of course formed the bulk of their income. This is co-operation just as monasteries today are largely independent, but co-operation is not control. I value independence with co-operation on matters of common interest.

    • We are fortunate to have the statutes of the Cistercian General Chapters from early times, although not quite as early as sometimes alleged (cf Canivez). When I was working on my Ph.D. I was entranced by them and the detail they went into on some subjects. For the rest, common interest or common good? And how shall we decide, I wonder.

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