The First Anglicans

Anglican |an•gli•can| adj. or n.
Of, relating to, or denoting the Church of England or any Church in communion with it. A member of any of the Anglican Churches. Origin: Early 17th century: from medieval Latin Anglicanus (its adoption suggested by Anglicana ecclesia ‘the English church’ in the Magna Carta), from Anglicus, from Angli. — Oxford Dictionary

When asked, “When was the Church of England founded?” most people would respond, “During the 1500s under the reign of King Henry VIII.” However, many Anglicans have argued that the Church of England has existed since a time much earlier—during the Gregorian Mission to Britannia. Although I am not an Anglican, I have a great appreciation for the rich liturgy and tradition of our Anglican brothers and sisters. When my wife and I have a free Sunday, we occasionally enjoy worshipping in an Episcopal or Anglican Church.

Today, I want to spend time looking at the missionary work of Augustine of Canterbury, Pope Gregory I, and the Anglo-Saxons. I believe that this period in time is the foundation of the Anglican Church. I also believe that had it not been for this work, we might be living in a very different world today. The Anglican Church has played a significant role in shaping leaders throughout history that have impacted both global and North American Christianity.

The 6th century historian Gildas, wrote about how the first Christian missions to Britannia likely happened during the mid-1st century, shortly after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Unfortunately, that is difficult to validate because Gildas was so far removed from the situation. Nonetheless, we know that prior to the 500s, Celtic variations of Christianity were definitely present in Britannia. Roman control of Britannia certainly brought a Roman flavor to the Christianity and life of Britannia. However, as Rome began to withdraw from the island, conflict ensued as invaders began taking over the Romano-British people. Celtic Christians from Ireland moved into Scotland and parts of Northern Britain spreading Celtic Christianity throughout the region. Although this post isn’t about the accomplishments of the Celtic Christians, it is worth noting that they did a great amount of work in rescuing Europe from becoming theologically overrun by pagan religions, when the Roman Church was very weak.

Some historians concluded that Anglo-Saxons (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from the northwestern part of modern Germany and Denmark) were hired to help defend the island from the attacks of Irish and Scottish. However, some historians also wonder if the Anglo-Saxons were invading the Romano-Britons the same way that Irish and Scottish people were. Nonetheless, we find that the Anglo-Saxons decide to “stick around.” What ends up happening is a dispersion of Romano-Britons and Celtic Christians toward the northern and western parts of Britannia. But it also appeared as though the Anglo-Saxons began intermarrying with the Romano-Britons in the southern and eastern part of Brittania. There is a great deal of conflict over this subject.

Some people have assumed that a young Pope Gregory I (before assuming the papal office) had developed a passion for evangelizing the pagan Anglo-Saxons. It is believed by some historians that he might have even ventured to doing some missions work among the Anglo-Saxon people. Some have even concluded that he was a failed missionary to the Anglo-Saxons. However, very little is known whether those assertions are accurate.

After Gregory was appointed to papal office, he commanded a team of more than forty missionaries, led by Augustine (not the famous theologian Augustine of Hippo) to take the gospel to the Anglo-Saxons. During their trip, the missionaries became incredibly overwhelmed thinking about the task of evangelizing the Anglo-Saxons. I don’t know exactly what they were feeling, but my guess is that it was something like: “What are we getting ourselves into? These people are dangerous!” So Augustine returned to the Vatican, asking permission to return from this mission. His request was denied and they continued to go to Britannia. The truth is, they were mostly received very well—one of the Anglian kings was married to a Britannic Christian wife. However, imagine with me for a moment what it would have been like if Augustine had not continued his mission? What if they had returned to Rome and refused to preach the gospel to the Anglo-Saxons?

There is a whole lot more to this story than this. In fact, there was a significant theological debate that developed between Augustine and the Celtic Christians. But I really want to focus just on this piece of history right now. The Church of England was founded under the work of Augustine, as the first deliberate mission to the Anglo-Saxons. Without this mission, it’s possible that we may have never had influential Christian leaders like: Thomas Cranmer, John Wesley, C.S. Lewis, Desmond Tutu, and even Bono (all of which were/are Anglicans). I will even make the case that it’s possible that Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, or the Anabaptists might have never come to lead the Protestant Reformation had it not been for the work of Augustine and the Gregorian Mission. In my next post, I will talk about an English missionary who would bring the gospel to Germany—without Augustine’s work this missionary might never have brought Christianity to Germany.

Something might be difficult and we might fail, but if we give up, think about the lasting impact we might be forgoing. Your work in the kingdom of God might change the world hundreds of years from now. We may never understand right now how impactful our work could be in the future.

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