Orthodox England

Excerpt from: Volume 5 Issue 1 Date 1st September 2001

St Augustine and the Reconversion of England

Troparion to St Augustine, Tone I

Sent forth by thy master the great Gregory, thou hast marched with the holy cross and the image of the Saviour, baptizing the multitude with the clear waters of faith into the spiritual flock of Christ. As thou hast enlightened and hallowed the English land, sowing the seed of heaven in the earth of Kent, so do thou now enlighten and hallow us anew, O thou boast of Canterbury, holy Archpastor Augustine.

Kontakion, Tone IV

O august Apostle of the English land, adornment of the holy city of Canterbury, Enlightener and Archpastor Augustine, confirm anew the Orthodox Faith within this land and among all thy people, and intercede with Christ our God that our souls may be saved.

A Sermon Preached on the Occasion of a Divine Liturgy served in St Martin's Church, Canterbury (26 May 2001)

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The centre of the Church is in Heaven. For Christ, the Head of the Church and Whose Body is the Church, has gone up to heaven in glory and sits on the right hand of the Father. But the centre of the Church is also in some sense in every person who carries God in his or her heart, for we are all called to be 'God-bearers'. The supreme example of this, and the first Christian, is the Mother of God. She literally bore Christ; this is the meaning of the Greek word 'Theotokos'. She bore Christ in Her heart and gave and bore the Body of Christ in Her own body. She is therefore the Mother of the Church, as we sing, 'more honourable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim'.

However, the Church on earth also has other centres. The supreme centre and for all time is Jerusalem. But there are other lesser historic centres - Rome, Constantinople, Kiev, Moscow. Very often such centres are or have been secular capitals also. This fact has down the ages led those centres into well-known temptation. In England we are fortunate in having a unique centre - Canterbury, a church centre which has never been the secular capital, and London, a secular capital which has never been the Church capital. Of course, there have in history been other spiritual centres in England: Glastonbury, the English Jerusalem, or Lindisfarne, Holy Island, the English Holy Mountain. Nevertheless for England and the English, Canterbury is the historic spiritual capital. It is Canterbury, in the south-east corner of England, nearest to and facing Jerusalem, that received the Orthodox Faith from Jerusalem via Rome and Gaul.

Today, we may not think of Canterbury as a spiritual capital. It has its supermarkets and chain-stores, its social problems and tattooed youths, car parks and bus-station, it is crowded with tourists, rather than pilgrims - it is just another overpopulated and overtrafficed town in the south of England. But for those with eyes to see, eyes in the soul, it is a spiritual capital, a holy city, a place of pilgrimage. Not a secular capital like London, but a spiritual capital. Spiritually, we go down to London, but we go up to Canterbury.

Canterbury was a place of pilgrimage long before Thomas Becket and the troubled politics of the Middle Ages. By 1066, 22 of its 35 Archpastors were being venerated as Saints. It contained the Mother-Cathedral and Mother-Monastery of all English Orthodoxy. And this church where we stand now was built even before this. It is in some sense the Mother-Church of all Orthodoxy in these islands. For it is a Roman church, whose original dedication is lost, but before St Augustine it had been re-dedicated to the great St Martin, the Enlightener of Gaul, the finest example of an Orthodox bishop in the whole of the West until that time. So great indeed that in France today some 4,000 churches are dedicated to him, 2,000 places are named after him and the French surname 'Martin' is the equivalent of the English surnames 'Smith' or 'Jones'.

But the greatest fame and glory of this church is that here, 1400 years ago, St Augustine, come from Italy, prayed, sang, praised God, preached the Gospel, baptized Ethelbert the King of Kent, the overking of all the English, and gave communion and all the other sacraments of the Church to the faithful. He was the first Archbishop of the English, the Archpastor of the Nation. All those who live in this country, whether they recognize it or not, are of his flock. He, affectionately known as 'Austin', is the Apostle of the English, who will present us to the Master Christ at the Last Judgement.

Archbishop Augustine was responsible for the conversion of Kent, the spiritual Garden of England, a bridgehead among the pagan English kingdoms. How?

His technique has been used by all Orthodox missionaries, whether St Nina in Georgia, Sts Cyril and Methodius in Bohemia, St Herman in Alaska or the great St Nicholas, Bishop of Tokyo and Japanese Orthodoxy. St Augustine came here with forty monks, establishing a monastery with them, bringing a Cross and an Icon of the Saviour, and then set an example by singing and praising God. By the Cross, he preached the Faith that is against this world, the Faith of God Crucified and Risen; by the Image of the Saviour he preached salvation through God become Man; by personal example he convinced and baptized. Our spiritual origins are here.

This conversion was historic. Within 100 years of his coming, the English themselves were going out to Holland and Germany, and later to Scandinavia, to bring to those peoples the Light of Christ. Every single English-speaking Christian, whether in this country or the Commonwealth, owes their Faith to St Augustine. To take but one minor example, in distant New Zealand there is a city called Christchurch. It owes its name to the icon of Christ brought here by St Augustine, which gave its name to the dedication of Canterbury Cathedral - Christchurch. But we owe to him not only our Faith, but also our literature, our architecture, our statehood, our whole culture and identity, for without the Orthodox Christian Faith that he brought, none of this would have existed as we know it.

Today we live in very different times. We must speak not of the Conversion of England, but rather of the Reconversion of England. A new Evangelization, a new spiritual Enlightenment is needed. How can this be done? Perhaps first we should consider how this cannot be done.

This cannot be done if we are faithful only to human, cultural customs, recommended or imposed by governments or worldly fashions. It cannot be done, as is now the fashion, in superficial, emotional, revivalistic, self-praising, essentially self-worshipping, humanistic, secular ways. These ways are spiritually dead and will be seen to be dead within a few years time. They are dead, because they are not of the Spirit, and therefore cannot be lasting.

The Reconversion of England can be done only if we are faithful to Christ, if we are faithful to our roots. We need new Apostles who bear the same Cross, the same Icon of the Saviour and set the same example as St Augustine. This worked before, it will work again. For such authentic Orthodox Christianity as St Augustine's ceased in this country only when the Cross and the Icon of the Saviour and personal example were forgotten. If therefore, we recall it and relive such authentic Faith, it will work again.

Moreover, this appeal to historic example also has an appeal of Unity. Though Orthodox Christians are few in these islands today, the vast majority, Non-Orthodox, still honour and venerate such Orthodox Saints as St Martin and St Augustine. If therefore we can be faithful to such Saints as these, then others too will discover and see the source of our Faith and example, and they will be converted. The pieces of a puzzle, long scattered in this country, can come together and make again in this land the Image, the Icon, which is the Face of Christ, 'the Countenance Divine', over this land.

The Reconversion of England will never happen if we are faithful to mere human culture and custom, it will happen only if we are faithful to God, faithful to Divine Tradition, inspired from above, that we have received through the Orthodox Church of Christ, Which alone guards in Faith the memories and deeds of all the Saints of God.

At this point in the liturgical year, we commemorate the going up of Christ in the Ascension and we await the coming down of the Spirit at Pentecost. Let us recall that this day we have gone up to Canterbury, because St Augustine has gone up to God, following in the footsteps of his Master Christ. Let us then also go up after our Apostle and ready ourselves for the Coming Down of the Spirit. Amen.

Holy Father Augustine, pray to God for us!

to top of page



(c) Orthodox England - Published within the English Deanery of the Church Outside Russia: with the blessing of the Very Reverend Mark, Archbishop of Great Britain and Ireland.