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’.