May 26: Augustine, First Archbishop of Canterbury, 605

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Although Christianity had existed in Britain before the invasions of Angles and Saxons in the fifth century, Pope Gregory the Great decided in 596 to send a mission to the pagan Anglo-Saxons. He selected, from his own monastery on the Coelian hill in Rome, a group of monks, led by their prior, Augustine. They arrived in Kent in 597, carrying a silver cross and an image of Jesus Christ painted on a board, which thus became, so far as we know, “Canterbury’s first icon.”

King Ethelbert tolerated their presence and allowed them the use of an old church built on the east side of Canterbury, dating from the Roman occupation of Britain. Here, says the Venerable Bede, they assembled “to sing the psalms, to pray, to say Mass, to preach, and to baptize.” This church of St. Martin is the earliest place of Christian worship in England still in use.

Probably in 601, Ethelbert was converted, thus becoming the first Christian king in England. About the same time, Augustine was ordained bishop somewhere in France and named “Archbishop of the English Nation.” Thus, the see of Canterbury and its Cathedral Church of Christ owe their establishment to Augustine’s mission, as does the nearby Abbey of SS. Peter and Paul, later re-named for Augustine. The “chair of St. Augustine” in Canterbury Cathedral, however, dates from the thirteenth century.

Some correspondence between Augustine and Gregory survives. One of the Pope’s most famous counsels to the first Archbishop of Canterbury has to do with diversity in the young English Church. Gregory writes, “If you have found customs, whether in the Roman, Gallican, or any other Churches that may be more acceptable to God, I wish you to make a careful selection of them, and teach the Church of the English, which is still young in the faith, whatever you can profitably learn from the various Churches. For things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.”

This counsel bears on the search for Christian “unity in diversity” of the ecumenical movement of today.

Augustine died on May 26, probably in 605.


I.    O Lord our God, who by thy Son Jesus Christ didst call thine apostles and send them forth to preach the Gospel to the nations: We bless thy holy Name for thy servant Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury, whose labors in propagating thy Church among the English people we commemorate today; and we pray that all whom thou dost call and send may do thy will, and bide thy time, and see thy glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

II.    O Lord our God, by your Son Jesus Christ you called your apostles and sent them forth to preach the Gospel to the nations: We bless your holy Name for your servant Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury, whose labors in propagating your Church among the English people we commemorate today; and we pray that all whom you call and send may do your will, and bide your time, and see your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Psalm 66:1–8

Tobit 13:1,10–11

2 Corinthians 5:17–20a

Luke 5:1–11

Preface of Apostles

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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12 Responses to May 26: Augustine, First Archbishop of Canterbury, 605

  1. Pingback: May 26 – St. Augustine of Canterbury : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

  2. Michael Hartney says:

    This commemoration is already included in the Calendar. The Hebrew Scripture reading new.

  3. Michael Hartney says:

    Bio: He needs a ‘Who he is’ and ‘Why he is important’ statement.

  4. Nigel Renton says:

    The title should read “Augustine of Canterbury”. Although in England he is generally known as just “St. Augustine”, elsewhere that usually refers to St.Augustine of Hippo.

    A more fitting subtitle would be “Apostle to the English”. (I hope we honor him more for his evangelical efforts than for becoming an Archbishop.)

    Line 5, first paragraph: add “(born in the sixth century)” after “Augustine”.

    Final one-line paragraph: add “in Canterbury” after “died”.

  5. Bill Moorhead says:

    I agree with Nigel — “Augustine of Canterbury, Apostle to the English.”

  6. Leonel L. Mitchell says:

    Augustine of Canterbury obviouly should remain in the calendar. Everything is carred over from llf, except Tobin, which is an interesting and worthwhile addition.

  7. John LaVoe says:

    I liked the narrative, and would like it better if it were extended sufficiently to include tomorrow’s proposed recognition of Ethelbert and Bertha in a single (Augustine-centered) presentation of this story. (See comments on tomorrow’s blog page.)

    The readings are good for the most part. The gospel is perfect, the epistle apropos, the psalm is tolerable, but I found the first reading (Tobit) debatable, since its sense presumes in its context in Israel’s exile. But it is masterfully extracted from its canonical context to look like it makes sense for Augustine and the British Empire, or perhaps the C of E and the See of Canterbury. (I’d prefer a different selection.)

    The collect is good. I don’t know what is intended by including the words “bide your [God’s] time.” The possibility that all the baptized are meant by “those you call … and send … to bide your time and see your glory” was not my first impression on praying the collect.

    I need to find an explanation of why Gregory sending Augustine & Co. as missionaries (and eventually as archbishop) to a place where Christianity already existed is not like an African bishop appointing bishops and priests for North American Christians in our age.

    The title “archbishop” confuses me as applied to what might be the one and only bishop in a region at the time. Does the “arch” part of the title really apply historically, or is it just a conventional honorific retrojected back, reflecting later customary usage and deference?

    I’m glad to have this commemoration in the calendar.

    • Michael Weylandt says:

      Wikipedia suggests that Augustine was an Archbishop from the get-go because the see of Canterbury was founded the transference of a prior archepiscopal see dating from the time Britain was a Roman providence.

  8. Michael Weylandt says:

    Quite good overall — three little questions:

    1) In the bio, “an image of Jesus Christ painted on a board, which thus became, so far as we know, “Canterbury’s first icon.”” What’s up with the reference to Canterbury’s first icon being in quote marks? Either it truly was an icon (and I really don’t think it was; an icon being much more than just a picture on a piece of wood) and doesn’t need skepti-quotes or it wasn’t and we shouldn’t be calling it that…. I know icons are sort of trendy in TEC right now, but, I’m not sure I get what’s going on in this sentence.

    2) That next to last sentence about the ecumenical movement: why does it merit its own paragraph? It seems much more connected to the lengthy quote before. That idea should also probably be fleshed out a little further…

    3) Big fan of the collect generally, but in the phrase: “we pray that all whom thou dost call and send may do thy will, and bide thy time, and see thy glory,” what exactly does it mean to bide someone else’s time? The OED suggests that that phrase can only be used reflexively. (i.e., she bides her time)

  9. Philip Wainwright says:

    John LaVoe’s question about boundary-crossing is a good one, and I question whether Augustine’s role in bringing the English church under Roman rule is anything to celebrate. If I were writing the bio I’d major on his role in unifying, or beginning the process of unifying the English church.

    Having commemorated Bede so recently, I’d add a clause somewhere pointing out that Bede is our sole source for knowledge of Augustine’s mission.

    The Episcopal Church would do better to achieve its own Christian “unity in diversity” before talking about ecumenical possibilities.

  10. Pingback: May 26 – Augustine of Canterbury : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

  11. Pingback: May 29 – Augustine of Canterbury (tr. from May 26) : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

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