On May 26th we commemorate Augustine, who was a Roman monk sent by Pope Gregory I to convert the Anglo-Saxon pagans in England to Christianity. It was the mission that nearly didn’t happen. Augustine and his companions actually stopped travelling to allow Augustine to return to Gregory to ask if they all might return to Rome instead of travelling on to Kent. God and Gregory had other thoughts and the mission went ahead. The rest, as they say, is history. That mission resulted in the shape of the English church as we see it today very largely despite the many changes since the mission began in 597 AD.
The readings used at the service were Psalm 96, 1 Thessalonians 2:2b-8, Matthew 13:312-33.
I’ve been reading a book written by Steven Croft entitled ‘Learning for Ministry’. In a chapter about vocation he explains that an individual’s vocation is not necessarily fixed for life but gradually unfolds. That unfolding vocation may well face people with challenges. In his own case, Steven came to a point where he felt it might be time to move to a new post but he was not sure when he should go, which of the possible options he should go for, or even whether he should actually go at all. Faced with a variety of choices he was naturally anxious. Not knowing which way to turn, he took the problem to his spiritual director to seek his advice. The spiritual director gave what appeared to be very simple advice. He told Stephen to approach the new phase of his ministry by praying the prayer from Isaiah 6: ‘Lord, here I am. Send me!’
Far from being simple, Steven found the advice very difficult to follow. Although he wanted to pray the words, and do so ‘with integrity and openness’, he came to the conclusion that he was actually only wanting God’s answer to come in a few limited ways. Those ways would have affirmed Steven’s ambition and self-importance. It took some time of thinking about what was going on, talking about it and journaling about it until Steven actually got to the point when he could really pray that simple 6 word prayer and mean it. At the point when he managed that, Steven became absolutely sure of the way forward.
That time of struggle was when Steven was a curate. Since then he has been a successful vicar in Yorkshire. He became Warden of Cranmer Hall in Durham, a training college for priests, where every day he would have seen the Cathedral that our cathedral here is modelled on. He then moved on to become the Archbishops’ Missioner and Team Leader of Fresh Expressions. In recent weeks he has become Bishop of Sheffield, a neighbouring diocese to where I live. I imagine that with all the options he considered at that challenging time, he would not have been able to predict where he would end up and I have no doubt there are more changes and challenges to come yet.
Today we remember Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury. It seems he took a somewhat different approach to the challenges of vocation as you will see. Augustine was a monk in Rome, not just a monk but the prior of the monastery of St Anthony in Rome. The pope at that time, Gregory I, was the abbot but had to leave much of the day to day running of the monastery to Augustine.
In 595 Pope Gregory decided to send a mission to England to convert the Anglo-Saxons. There had been a church in Britain in Roman times and that continued after the Anglo-Saxon invasions but was mostly driven west where it was influenced by missionaries from Ireland, while the pagan invaders lived in the south of the country. There seems to have been no attempt made to convert the pagans to Christianity. At the time of Gregory’s mission, Aethelberht was king of Kent. Though a pagan himself, he had married Bertha who was a Christian Frank. She had brought her own bishop to England when she married and continued to worship as a Christian.
No one is quite sure why Gregory decided to send a mission to England. The story is told that he saw some Saxon boys for sale in the slave market in Rome and said that they were not Angles, but angels because of their fair hair. Others say that Queen Bertha asked for the mission. Another possibility is that Gregory wanted influence in the kingdom of Kent which was at that time the most important kingdom in England. Gregory chose Augustine to head the mission to England and 40 others went with him, some of them monks. Augustine was a good choice as he knew the Bible well and had excellent administrative abilities.
The whole mission nearly foundered, however. The group had not got far when, daunted by what Gregory was asking them to do, the party halted and decided to send Augustine back to Rome to ask Gregory if they might return to Rome and not go to Kent. Had Augustine done as Steven Croft did, and spent time getting to the point where he accepted God’s will for him, maybe he would not have gone back at all. As monks make a vow of obedience it seems strange that he didn’t just keep going. Perhaps he hadn’t realised that vocation can change through life. Maybe he was settled in his life as a monk in Rome, with no thoughts of doing anything else. Whatever was the case, God and Pope Gregory had other ideas. Gregory sent Augustine back to his party with letters of encouragement, urging them to carry on with the mission.
Augustine arrived in Kent in 597 and began preaching in Canterbury. It seems he soon converted the king. In those days, in order to convert the people, it was necessary to convert the king first. By 598 Gregory was able to write in a letter that 10,000 people in England had been baptised. In 601 Augustine received a pallium from Gregory, which is a woollen cloak, signifying that he was an archbishop, the first Archbishop of Canterbury. He went on to ordain 12 bishops and basically developed the structure of the English church as it now is. He also changed the church in England to one that was much more mission minded than before.
Just like Steven Croft, I have no doubt that Augustine could not have imagined what he might become. Had he stayed as a prior in a Roman monastery he would have had far less influence. Instead he was given the title of ‘Apostle of the English’. Just like Paul who went with the Gospel to the Thessalonians, Augustine took his knowledge of the Bible to England and preached there. He didn’t seem to be quite like Paul at first who said ‘we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition’. Eventually he overcame his reluctance and made a difference. Really, when you think about it, in just 4 years he had done amazing things, sending bishops as far as York.
The same God who directed Steven towards his next step and who enabled Augustine to make such an impact for the Gospel in England, also empowers us. We may not feel terribly bold or clever, or even particularly keen to go out to spread the good news but God can use us nevertheless. As the short Gospel passage shows, it only takes something tiny to make a big impact. A tiny seed makes a tree which shelters birds; a little yeast acts to cause a whole batch of bread to rise. A weak and not very bold disciple can make a difference to the world, if sent by God and filled with his Spirit.
Augustine and his companions were daunted at the prospect of going to another land full of people who were different from them and who didn’t have the same worldview. Here in SL, Christians face a similar challenge. Those who take the trouble to find out about SL know that some things which go on here are based on values that are very different from ours. Even so, as Augustine found, there are people who are searching spiritually and who are ready to respond to the gospel. If he could convert 10,000 in a year, just think what we could do.
Maybe like Steven, we need to get to the point where we can honestly pray, ‘Lord, here I am. Send me!’