Today is the feast day of St. Augustine of Canterbury, and I am drawn back to one of the most moving moments in the enthronement of the current Archbishop of Canterbury the 104th successor to St. Augustine, when he stood before the Canterbury Gospels and showed his love for the Gospel, which is itself God’s declaration of love for us, by kissing the sacred text. It was moving because the book he kissed was the very book that Augustine of Canterbury brought to these shores in the 6th century. Like the gospel it contains, it has stood the test of time, like the gospel it contains it has persisted fresh and beautiful through all the vicissitudes of our history, the wars and betrayals, the making and breaking of governments, the wrecks of empire, declaring in time and in timely ways, the redeeming Love that comes to us from beyond time. It embodies the extraordinary and miraculous continuity amidst change, the apostolic succession, that links the first and the hundred and fifth Archbishop of Canterbury.
And for both men this same gospel book, and this same Gospel is a vital source of hope and inspiration, the story of strength made perfect in weakness, of Love triumphing against the odds. ‘Apostle to the English’ was a tough assignment then and it’s a tough assignment now. In fact St. Bede tells us that after Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine to our shores he got cold feet on the way (literally I expect as well as metaphorically) and Bede tells us he wrote to Gregory asking if he could be allowed to turn back and have an easier posting somewhere else! Bede quotes the letter back from Gregory in which he strengthens Augustine’s resolve and says, ‘you’ve put your hand to the plough, go on in faith, Christ and his gospel will see you through.’
As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the title or the play button.
Augustine of Canterbury
‘Oh loving Lord don’t send me to the English,
Boorish and brutal pagans that they are’
You prayed, you wrote to Gregory in anguish
But he replied ‘since you have come so far,
Your hand is on the plough, you must continue,
And reach them on their rain-drenched island shore
There’s something in the English that will win you
And Christ himself will open up the door.’
And so the gospel came to Canterbury,
The very gospel book we still possess,
Weathering the storms of history
In all its splendour and it’s hiddenness.
We bless you for that gospel you proclaim,
Bless your successors as they do the same