Pilgrims Set to Descend on Europe

By Currie, Nicola | Anglican Journal, February 1997 | Go to article overview

Pilgrims Set to Descend on Europe


Currie, Nicola, Anglican Journal


THIS YEAR marks a number of significant anniversaries for the church. It is the 1,600th anniversary of the deaths of St. Martin and St. Ambrose and the founding of St. Ninian's monastery in Scotland. It is also the 1,400th anniversary of the death of the great Irish visionary St. Columba and 1,400 years since St. Augustine arrived in Britain. The American Church remembers an additional anniversary. In 1697, the King of England chartered the first Church in the Province of New York, the Parish of Trinity Church, now said to be one of the richest Anglican parishes in the world.

FOR THE Anglican Church it is perhaps the anniversaries of Augustine and Columba which are of most significance. In Augustine and Columba we have exemplified the two great theological traditions which have come together in Anglicanism -- the Celtic and the Roman.

Columba was one of the great saints of Celtic Christianity. St. Columba, also known as Columcille, came from a noble Irish family in Donegal. He was trained in Irish monasteries and went on to found several monasteries himself including Derry and Durrow.

In about AD 563 he left Ireland with 12 companions and crossed the seas to Iona off the Scottish coast. Here he set up a monastery and spent 34 years evangelizing the islands and the mainland. Bede says of him: "Whatever type of man he may have been, we know for certain that he left successors distinguished for their purity of life, their love of God, and their loyalty to monastic rule."

Columba was a scholar, poet and ruler with a fearless commitment to God. Iona became a great centre for missionary activity and learning for the Celtic Church in Scotland and beyond. It was from Iona that St. Aidan set up a monastery on Holy Island (Lindisfarne).

THE HISTORY of Christianity in Britain did not start with Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, but with Alban and with great saints of the Celtic Church -- Ninian, Patrick, David, and Columba. But following the Anglo-Saxon invasions from Northern Germany in the 5th century Christianity had almost disappeared in parts of Britain.

In Rome, Gregory, an Abbot at a local monastery, noticed some fair-skinned slaves in the market one day. When he asked who they were he was told they were Angles. He is supposed to have replied "non Angli, sed Angeli" -- not Angles but angels or, as the humorous book 1066 and All That would have it, "not angels but Anglicans." When he became pope years later he chose Augustine to go and teach these fair-skinned people about Christ.

AUGUSTINE, AN Italian, was a monk and prior of St. Andrew on the Celian Hill in Rome before he left on his new mission in 596. Augustine was a reluctant missionary. When he and his party arrived in Gaul, modern France, they wanted to turn back from their mission: "They became afraid, and began to consider returning home. For they were appalled at the idea of going to a barbarous, fierce and pagan nation." (Bede: Ecclesiastical History) Pope Gregory urged them on and arranged for Augustine to be consecrated bishop.

Augustine used the existing St. Martin's Church in Canterbury before a monastery was built nearby. St. Martin's Church was used by Queen Bertha, Ethelbert's wife, who was a devout Christian. The king became so impressed with the sincerity of Augustine and the miracles he performed that he was baptized. Thousands of his subjects followed him.

Like many later churchmen, Augustine was a great writer. He constantly referred to Pope Gregory for advice on practical and ecclesiastical questions. Thirty of Pope Gregory's letters of reply survive. He sent Augustine several colleagues and clergy. He also provided a type of "Wippells mail-order service" and sent sacred vessels, altar coverings, church ornaments, vestments, relics and books.

A cathedral was built in Canterbury. Augustine, as the first Archbishop of Canterbury, was successful in establishing a basic ecclesiastical structure in the country. …

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