On this day: Augustine of Canterbury

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day we celebrate the feast of St. Augustine, Apostle to the Anglo-Saxons, first Archbishop of Canterbury.

For a brief video about his life, as illustrated in the windows of St. Augustine's Church, Wembly Park, London, click here.

In 596, Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine, prior of St. Andrew's Monastery, which Gregory had established in his family's villa on the Caelian Hill, to England to convert the Anglo-Saxons. The missionaries arrived at Thanet in 597 and were received by King Æthelberht and his Christian Queen Bertha.

In Saint Augustine of Canterbury, Henry Hoyle Howorth describes the successful mission and provides details about church architecture, social conditions, the various ecclesiastical issues St. Augustine faced, the cult that grew in the centuries after his death, the various translations of his relics, and much more.

Augustine served the Church in England for nine years until his death in 604. At one point he sent monks to Rome with questions for Pope Gregory. In Chapter XXVII of his Ecclesiastical History, Bede records the pope's answers and instructions about Easter, baptism, tonsure, various sexual matters, the consecration of bishops, marriage between close relatives, and what to do with pagan temples -- sanctify them with holy water and then use them for Christian churches.

See page 129 in Howorth for "Gregory's Advice About Pagan Customs." The Anglo-Saxons sacrificed oxen to the old Gods. Gregory suggested that "it would be well in this matter also not to break abruptly with old traditions; but on the occasions of the dedication of the churches, or the nativity of the martyrs, when their relics were exposed, to build booths of boughs about the church, and there to hold religious festivals where animals might be slain to the praise of God for their own eating".

The Anglo-Saxons' celebrations were great fun. See page 131 for "The Rushbearings of the North". Rushes were strewn on the clay or stone floors of churches, as they were in private houses, to keep the feet warm. "This old fashion presently gave way to a more elaborate display, in which the rushes were carried in a cart, and were cut transversely and laid down so as to form a long pyramid, and the cut surface of the rushes was then decorated with carnations and other flowers, . . . The cart was sometimes drawn by horses and sometimes by young men, . . . adorned with ribands, tinsel, etc., preceded by a man with horse bells and playing the part of a comedian. Then followed a band of music or a set of morris dancers, followed by young women carrying garlands, then a banner of silk . . . covered on both sides with roses, stars, etc., of tinsel. The whole procession was flanked by men with long cart-whips which they continually cracked."

Click here for the Catholic Encyclopedia article on St. Augustine, and here for Wikipedia's.

Click here for a 1986 video of the Canterbury Cathedral Choir singing Psalm 42.

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