Sermon preached at St Augustine, Kilburn on 27 May, 2015
Patron Saint was a bit of a failure! There
are almost no churches under his patronage north of the Trent. Now why this
St Augustine was sent from Rome in the year 597 by the very holy and very outstanding Pope Gregory the Great, maybe - and only maybe - because in the slave market in Rome he saw blond and blue eyed youngsters offered for sale and such people were exceedingly rare in the Mediterranean area. So let us have some history.
597 Kilburn didnít exist. Swampy hills led down from Hampstead Heath towards
the Thames, the minute city of London camped out among the Roman ruins on the
top of Ludgate hill above what remained of a timber bridge across the river,
probably in ruins because after the Romans left in 410 wave upon wave of
invaders from the continent, Angles, Saxons and Jutes came and sort of settled.
There were tiny pockets of the Britons but most of them had managed to
flee into the far west; most into Wales and some into Cornwall and some crossed
the sea to Ireland. There may have been
some isolated pockets of Christians in places like the present day St Albans,
where the first martyr in these islands was venerated.
So the main population was Saxon, not one united conquering power but
lots of tribes, really, each with their chief usually known as the King.
Many were at war with each other, nothing was settled and nearly all
building was from the abundant wood. What
is now Kilburn High Road, going all the way to Holyhead, would have existed,
sort of, for there was little travelling about. The stone of the road would have
been dug up for dwellings and nobody in London would have a reason even to go to
Verulamium, the Roman name for St. Albans and the essence of a tribe is that all
live closely together. The Saxons were
heathen but they were not crude warriors; excavations have revealed some
exquisite jewellery and they loved music and poetry. The soldiers were rough but
they have to be and because they were always moving about conquering and being
conquered meant that all buildings were wooden and temporary.
Pope Gregory knew of these Barbaric Islands where for most of the year it is damp and cold and he also know of the Irish monks at Iona who did manage to make contact with Rome occasionally but it was a long and very fraught journey. So he was minded to do something about it and told a fellow Benedictine monk, Augustine, that he was to lead a group who would be charged with bringing the Gospel to the far distant islands. So our Saint set off with a hand-picked party of Benedictine monks but when they got further into Gaul, present day France, they turned back: the prospect was too awesome and they were told of the wildness of the people, the awful climate and bloodthirsty battles between heathen armies. So back he went to Rome where the Pope was not best pleased and this time sent him back with official letters and much support along the way. Thus they landed in Kent where the heathen King was married to a Christian. The rest, perhaps, is history! The Pope had insisted that if these monks were to do the job required they could not remain walled up in a monastery waiting for people to call, so they were dispensed from their vow of stability - staying put - and the great work began.
These rough islands were not totally bereft of Christianity, for in the North the Saxons were being permeated by monks from Iona and it was about the same time that the monastery on Lindisfarne began to grow in eminence and the northern Kings were being converted. These monks had no attachment to place like the Benedictines and went out from Lindisfarne. One of the most articulate was Wilfrid, who even managed the journey from Ripon to Rome more than once and so, in 664, after Augustine had died, a great conference took place at Whitby with the result that there was unanimity about, for instance, the way of calculating Easter. However, it wasnít a victory, rather an agreement, much due to the chairman, Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, who was a disciple of St Aidan who had prevailed upon her to stay in England. The artistic gifts of the Saxons were subsequently revealed in the Lindisfarne Gospels and there are a very few churches that go back to the seventh century. Later still comes Alfred the Great, a convinced Christian who translated Pope Gregoryís important book on Pastoral Care into Anglo Saxon and gave copies to all his senior subordinates. It has remained a standard work ever since. That is probably the greatest gift that the journey of Augustine made to these islands has given to us. Ultimately the North and the South would be united with a more stable society and easier travel but the presence of black Benedictine monks in many places and in a comparatively short time also speaks volume for the ultimate success of his labours, the awful climate and incomprehensible language difficulties being overcome.
So your Patron was not a failure. Like so many, the result was a bit different from what he expected: slowly Dioceses were created and Bishops ordained who no longer walked over huge areas baptising in local rivers but, as stability came, so did church building and, more importantly by far, so did holiness. So we thank God first for St Gregory, for his foresight and huge ability and for Augustine who left the comparative comfort of a Roman monastery for the cold unknown of what was then regarded as the remotest parts of the known world.
What can we learn from him? First comes the monastic vow of obedience; he came because he was sent. Yes, he turned back, not out of fear but because he needed more support from the Pope. Having met people who had travelled into Britain, when he got into Gaul, he realised the immensity of the task, larger I guess, than Gregory had imagined, beset as he was by attacks on Rome itself and his own failing health. St.Benedict recommends that obedience should not be blind but informed and there is a subtle difference between a task which is dangerous and one which is impossible, hence the grant of permission for the monks to live and work outside the monastery. By 664 monasteries had been established; some lasted, others suffered from the later attacks from the Danes but the unity of the church was fortified and under the Normans the hugely impressive Cathedral at Durham was built to honour another Saint of these times, the great St Cuthbert. So your St Augustine, while not a star and perhaps because of that, enabled great and wonderful works and the very existence of Archbishops of Canterbury from 597 to the present day is sufficient testimony. So, dear Augustine, we thank you for your life and witness in the past and the certainty of your prayers for us, your people in this very difficult present.