The first Archbishop of Canterbury, St Augustine, was no coward. Yet when Pope St Gregory the Great sent him to England, Augustine turned back en route. He lost his nerve when travelling to England after he heard tales of Saxons savagery and feared he would fall prey to them.
In earlier years, missionaries had come to Britain. But after the Saxon conquest they had retreated to the margins of society, keeping quiet about their faith.
When Augustine returned to Rome, Pope Gregory encouraged Augustine with the news that Ethelbert, King of Kent, had taken Bertha, a Christian, as his wife. A far-seeing Holy Father, Gregory believed that Ethelbert would give Augustine his blessing and help in evangelising the English. And he was right.
When St Augustine and his band of 40 brothers arrived on the shores of the isle of Thanet, King Ethelbert was there to greet them. Augustine was from a high-born Italian family and Ethelbert was impressed by his good manners and gentility. Giving Augustine free rein to convert as many people as he could, Ethelbert also gave him the church of St Martin of Tours as his base.
Ethelbert himself was baptised in 597, after which many of his subjects were eager to become Christians. On Christmas Day 597, Augustine baptised 10,000 people – this was only months after Augustine’s arrival.
Ethelbert did not compel his subjects to be baptised. To have compelled them might have had the effect of reverse psychology, meaning that those born and raised pagans would have revolted.
If anything, the amazingly successful mission of St Augustine owed a lot to Pope Gregory’s foresight and to the humility and goodness of King Ethelbert, who was not so proud of his pagan roots that he clung to them and resisted the Gospel.
All of us who are Christians in England today have inherited a share of St Augustine’s spiritual bequest. It is auspicious that the live Facebook Q&A with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and Cardinal Vincent Nichols is taking place today, on the feast of St Augustine. Archbishop Welby and Cardinal Nichols will, in effect, be continuing the work of St Augustine.
If St Augustine consecrated pagan temples so they could be used as sites for Christian worship, then Cardinal Nichols and Archbishop Welby are hoping to turn a corner of Facebook into a place that inspires modern people to worship Christ. Facebook is a place where many engage in empty self-worship, and this is exactly where such direct evangelism is needed which invites us to reorientate our lives towards Christ.