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THE ENSIGN MESSAGE

THE BRITISH CHURCH PRIOR TO AUGUSTINE

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Courtesy Of ‘The National Message’ 1954  No: 1356                                                       England

HOW many people know that hundreds, possibly thousands, of Christians were murdered in Britain nearly three hundred years before Augustine came here? Very few, one imagines. Yet the historical fact remains. This religious persecution in Britain was the culmination of a vicious empire wide decree of the  Emperor Diocletian, who  hoped to stamp out Christianity and  restore the old pagan religion.

That there were enough Christians in this island to provoke imperial action is obviously a far cry from the persistent notion that  Britain  owes  her  Church establishment to the Roman  mission of Augustine in the year 597. Nor was the butchery directed against simple isolated groups of believers.

Much more was at stake. Diocletian was determined to eliminate all organized  forms of the  new faith: and Britain possessed just such an organized Church. In addition to the vast number of Christian martyrs who perished in this island during that year of blood, A.D.304-amongst whom was the saintly Alban-two archbishops, three bishops and an  unspecified number of presbyters also died.

Within  ten years,  however, the British Church had  recovered sufficiently to send episcopal representatives to a great international Church Council, at Aries, in the south  of France, convened by the Emperor  Constantine. Moreover,  British bishop delegates attended  four   such councils before Augustine’s arrival in Britain.

All this unquestionably emphasizes the antiquity of the early  Church  in this land. Its fame  was  great enough to claim the distant ear of Tertullian, in Africa. Writing in the year 208, this great  church theologian observed that Christianity  had  penetrated  places in Britain  inaccessible to the  Roman  armies.  And Eusebius, a third  cen tury  Bishop historian  of Caesarea, in Palestine, tracing the movements of our Lord’s  disciples, says: ‘And some have  crossed the ocean and reached the Isles of Britain.  Gildas, too, adds  his voice  to the claim  for an apostolic origin of Britain’s  Church, when he says  that  many  nations, including ‘the island stiff  with  frost  and   cold’, received the Gospel light in the last days of the Emperor Tiberius,  who ruled at the time when Christ was  crucified. Gildas  had  no notion  of any  Roman mission,  indeed he died twenty seven  years before  it was  sent. Add to all  this  the  comparatively  recent testimony of Pope Pius XI, who ‘advanced the theory that it was St. Paul himself and not Pope Gregory who first introduced  Christianity into Britain’,  and  the case for the apostolic founding of the British Church is well established.

Against this  vigorous indigenous Church, Augustine was destined to pit his wits. But the much extolled Roman  mission  was  really sent  to convert, not the wicked Britons, but the newly arrived  pagan Anglo-Saxons. Some  of their  children seem to have appeared upon  the  slave  markets of Rome,  where they attracted the sympathetic attention of Gregory. On his later  elevation to the  Roman  Pontificate he despatched a mission,  headed by Augustine,  to those Anglo-Saxons who had established themselves in the south  of Britain.

Augustine Conference0001The haughty Augustine holds a  conference on  the  hanks of the Severn, A.D. 605,

with the Celtic bishops who  are  seen leaving the conference in sorrow.

The Venerable Bede,  himself  a Roman  partisan, provides a most  informative account of Augustine’s high-handed actions towards the  British  bishops. Sponsored by his friend  and  patron Ethelbert, King of the Jutes,  he made a bid to enlist  their  aid in an effort  to bring  all the  unconverted of the  kingdom into the fold of the ‘Catholic Church’.

Augustine’s natural  intolerance was  aroused  by the irksome discovery that the British Church ‘did not keep  Easter Sunday at the proper time besides, they did several  other  things which  were against  the unity of the Church… (and) preferred their own traditions before all the churches in the world’. Accordingly, representatives of  the  Britons   were invited to  a conference to thrash  out the matter.

To this  synod, says   Bede, ‘there came (as  is asserted) seven bishops of the  Britons,  and  many most learned men,  particularly from their most noble monastery … to whom the man of God; Augustine, is said, in a threatening manner, to have foretold, that in case they would not join in unity with their brethren, they should be warred upon  by their enemies, and if they would  not preach the way of life to the English nation, they should at their hands undergo the vengeance of  death’.  Bede adds, with   obvious satisfaction, that ‘all which  fell out exactly  as he had predicted …. because they had despised the offer of eternal salvation’!

But these  were  not the least of the Romish band’s troubles. The Celtic Church, centred in Ireland at this time,  was  also  a source of concern to Laurentius, Augustine’s successor. ‘He not only took care  of the new Church formed among the  English, but endeavoured also  to employ his pastoral solicitude among the ancient inhabitants of Britain, as also the Scots, who inhabit the island of Ireland.

St.MartinsOne of England’s  lovely old churches,  on the site of an earlier  building  

which was in existence  before  the coming of Augustine;  

it is said to be the oldest church  in England.

This “pastoral solicitude” towards Ireland’s early Church – which had produced such stalwarts of the faith as Patrick and Columba – took the form of a motion of censure from the haughty papal emissary’ In a letter addressed to “our most dear brothers, the lords, bishops and abbots throughout all Scotland”, Laurentius complains: ‘But comingacquainted with errors of the Britons, we thought the Scots had been better; but we have been informed by Bishop Dagan, coming into this aforesaid island, and the abbot Columbanus in France, that the Scots in no way differ from the Britons in their behaviour; for Bishop Dagan coming to us, not only refused to eat with us but even to take his repast .in the same house where we were entertained.

Clearly the early Church in this land viewed with concern the encroachments of the Romanizing party, and the struggle continued until the time of Colman, Celtic Bishop of Northumbria. A show down was inevitable. And when it came, it took  the form of a dispute at Whitby in the year 664, concerning the correct date  of Easter-this still rankled the Roman party-and ended with  the  defeat and  resigntion of Colman. C 14l  The  way  was  thus  paved   for  further Romish  indoctrination, a process which  continued until the early apostolic Church  was smothered and eventually superseded by Roman  institutions.

During  the  period   which followed, the  Church grew so corrupt, in both doctrine and practice, that it ultimately generated an  urge  to reform.  In startling succession, factions within  the Church  broke  away to renew their stand  upon  ‘the  impregnable rock of Holy Scripture’. And  Britain,  long  since chafing  at Roman  supremacy, disestablished herself  from  the Continental Church and  returned, during  the first Elizabeth’s reign,  to her original  state of spiritual independence.                                            D.J. C.

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