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’.

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Of Barack and Boris: a Cautionary Tale

I wonder whether St Mark, whose feast we celebrate today, ever stopped to think how his account of the Good News of Jesus Christ would be received. Did he weigh his words carefully, or did they simply tumble out in his enthusiasm for his subject? We can certainly see signs of redaction, and we all silently bless him for some of the little details, like the green grass on which the 5,000 sat to eat their loaves and fishes, but we shall probably never know how much art or artifice has gone into his gospel’s composition. We do know that if we look too long at the gospel’s construction, we may miss the message it contains. Similarly with Barack Obama and Boris Johnson. Their words provoked such squeals of protest over the week-end that we may be in danger of missing the message they wished to convey.

Take President Obama’s forthright remarks about British membership of the E.U. No one likes being told by a foreign Head of State what we should or should not do, but what he had to say was worth pondering. Dismissing his remarks as bullying is unfair and, I think, unhelpful. My American friends won’t like my saying this, but the tendency to give the benefit of their advice to others unsought is one of their characteristics. It is no good taking umbrage, because it is usually kindly meant. Personally, I find it endearing more often than I find it irritating. But President Obama struck a nerve because he touched on a sensitive topic which has not yet been properly debated. We have had plenty of opinion voiced, and various figures have been published, but we have not yet had time to weigh them and think through the consequences.

Boris Johnson’s reaction to President Obama’s remarks was typical of the man. His questioning of the President’s motivation and underlying prejudices was perfectly valid, but the way in which he expressed himself was definitely not. However, it would be as wrong to dismiss his underlying argument as it would Mr Obama’s. Those of us who will be voting in the E.U. Referendum do need to think about sovereignty, economics, immigration and so on and so forth. There is, however, one more thing we must consider: the common good, and the common good not only of our own nation state but of all the other nation states that make up the E.U. and, indeed, the whole world. The Long Ending of St Mark’s Gospel contains the command to proclaim the Good News to the whole of creation. Maybe today we could spend a few moments reflecting on how we understand that injunction in the light of our place in Europe and the world as a whole. Neither staying in, nor leaving, the E.U. is without profound moral and ethical consequences.

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