Today, being the feast of St Augustine of Canterbury, is a good day for us English-speaking Catholics to remember our origins as a community. One can read about the saint at the Universalis website (a wonderful resource by the way), which can be found here. This tells us the story of the way the English Mission was inspired in the heart of Pope St Gregory the Great by the sight of English children for sale in the Roman slave market. It is good to know that the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons was a Papal initiative.
It is said that the monk Augustine came to Kent with very clear instructions to respect local customs. If that is so, it is no more than what the Catholic Church still does in Africa and other mission lands. This concept is named “inculturation” and the underlying theology is that Christ comes not to abolish cultures but to complete them. This theology is given elegant expression by St Thomas Aquinas at several points in his Summa where he says, in these or similar words: gratia naturam supponit et perfecit eam. In English: grace presupposes nature and brings it to perfection. In other words, to be converted is to grow as a human being; it does not mean having to abandon previous beliefs in their entirety and to start over; though some previous beliefs will have to be corrected or extirpated, if they contradict the Gospel.
Nowadays missionaries are criticised by the politically correct as religious and cultural imperialists. This reveals that the politically correct know few missionaries or have seen few of them in action. But let us be honest about these things. St Augustine of Canterbury was no multiculturalist. Being from Rome, he would, I am guessing here, like his namesake of Hippo, and like St Gregory, have had a firm belief in the civilising power of romanitas. If he travelled with a Bible, and a breviary and a Roman missal, I bet he also had room for a copy of Virgil too. But, and this is the key point, one can be equipped with all three and still not be opposed to all that is good and true in the other cultures one encounters. Bible, Missal and breviary will find a fit of some sort with any culture on earth – as they did in Kent at the beginning of the seventh century. For the Christian proclamation is one whose meaning is not exhausted by geographical distance or the passage of time. (And the same is true of Virgil, by the way.)
We can ask ourselves today whether the Britain that Augustine was sent to convert is still a Christian country. That it was once seems to me beyond doubt, though where we would locate the high-watermark of Britain’s Christianity, I am not sure. Equally beyond doubt is that we now live with an ebbing tide. That has been the case for at least a hundred and fifty years. Matthew Arnold was right when he heard the receding of the sea of faith on Dover beach. Where did it all go wrong? What can we do about it? These are still hard questions. But one thing is surely beyond question: the deChristianisation of Britain is a disaster for all, believers and unbelievers alike. Nature abhors a vacuum. Into that vacuum will rush other creeds and ideologies, many of which will be downright silly, and some of which will be sinister. Now more than ever, we need to pray for the reChristianisation of the English-speaking peoples.