Saint Augustine of Canterbury was a missionary sent from Rome to England in the year 595. Great Britain and Ireland had heard the Gospel in the first century, and even had representatives at some of the Ecumenical Councils from the 300’s on, but significant decline had taken place. In the year 410, the Roman Empire retreated from Britain, and the Angles and Saxons invaded a few decades later, bring a new era of paganism to the isles. The centuries-old Celtic or British Church survived, but had limited success in converting the Germanic invaders; thus it was time for a fresh source of evangelism.
Pope Gregory the Great sent an apostolic band led by an Abbot named Augustine to establish a monastery in Kent, where the local Anglo-Saxon king had married a Christian woman. A foothold for the Gospel was recognized, and the opportunity was seized. Sure enough, King Æthelbert granted the missionaries some land in the town of Canterbury, and he was soon baptized on Christmas Day in 597, along with a reported crowd of thousands. Augustine himself was consecrated Bishop to oversee the newly-planted Anglo-Saxon churches, and he received additional support, both in money and manpower, from Rome in the following years.
Bishop Augustine of Canterbury died soon after, in 604, and was succeeded by other members of his original group. The strong start and sure foundation that he laid out, however, quickly earned him the status of a Saint, and he has been celebrated ever since as the first Archbishop of Canterbury and the Apostle to the English.
His legacy, on a personal level, has been overwhelmingly positive. English Christians, and Anglicans across the world, revere his role in re-establishing the church we call ‘Anglican’ and founding its spiritual home in Canterbury. He is of special importance to those of an Anglo-Catholic persuasion, too, due his both symbolic and literal role as a link between the specifically Anglican heritage and the broadly Catholic heritage that our tradition enjoys. In the Anglican Church in North America, there is a small society of priests named after Augustine: the Fraternity of Saint Augustine of Canterbury. To some degree it is the ACNA’s version of the Society of Catholic Priests in the Episcopal church and abroad: a group dedicated to teaching and continuing the Catholic faith as received within the Anglican tradition. Saint Augustine of Canterbury is commemorated also in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.
His legacy, on a more immediate level, proved a little tricky. Conflict eventually arose between the newly-planted Anglo-Saxon churches and the older churches of the Celts and Britons. Wrangling over the seniority of bishops, who has jurisdiction where, and even the validity of the Celtic Church’s ordinations took over fifty years to work out. Other liturgical traditions, too, proved difficult to reconcile, particularly the dating of Easter. There was a period of time when the Celts and Anglo-Saxons had misaligned liturgical calendars, and it took time to work out whether to “correct” the Celtic quirks with the more widespread Roman practice, or to maintain the integrity of local practice over against a foreign import. Fortunately, most of this was settled in 664 at the Synod Whitby.
Augustine is remembered with a feast day on the day he departed this life, May 26th.