Cultural Contact in the Mission to the English
In AD 596, Pope Gregory the Great sent a band of monks, headed by the man known to history as Augustine of Canterbury, to the court of Ethelbert King of Kent. Ethelbert’s wife, Ethelburga, was a Frankish princess. The Franks had been Christians since the conversion of their King Clovis in 496. Gregory wrote to Ethelburga, urging her to get Ethelbert to allow the missionaries to come. What would the clash of cultures represented by the Roman Christians have seemed like to the Kentishmen of that day, and to the Angles and Saxons over the next hundred years?
Augustine and his companions would have worn the black habit of the Benedictines for daily wear. That would have seemed different to their new target audience. At least, the appearance of a “uniform” would have been something new; the actual cut of the clothes would probably have seemed simply “Continental” to the Anglo-Saxons. This monastic uniform, which is hallowed by centuries of use in our eyes, was then comparatively new. Benedict of Nursia, who wrote the Rule that reorganized Western monasticism, founded Monte Cassino early in the Sixth Century; he himself had only died 50 years before Augustine landed in Kent. The Benedictines were the latest thing!
For worship, Augustine would have worn the vestments typical of the day. These vestments are still worn today (usage varies according to denomination): alb; stole; chasuble; cope; pallium. Of these, only the stole and the pallium were liturgical dress by design. The alb, chasuble, and cope were all adaptations of what had been the “business suit” of the Roman gentry in the late Empire. In effect, the clergy of the day (most of whom probably thought of themselves as “Romans”) were dressing in a very fine, though slightly out of date, fashion. Today, a Protestant minister wearing a suit and tie would strike much the same effect as a Christian priest in the late Empire presiding at mass. Ethelbert and his people would have noted the difference from their dress-up fashion, but Augustine and his clergy would not have seemed quite as out of place as the first missionaries to Hawaii preaching in their clawhammer coats.
For that matter, ordinary people in the East, in what was still, technically, the Roman (Byzantine) Empire, wore very similar clothes on the street. The last Western Emperor had been overthrown in 476, but the Eastern Emperor of the Romans still controlled part of Italy and North Africa, and the sense of belonging to that culture was still strong for the clergy. Their status had risen in the last 250 years or so; bishops were on a par with nobles, and the Pope was, if not a prince, at least a person of standing in the eyes of the imperial court. One of Augustine’s successors at Canterbury in the next generation was Theodore of Tarsus, a Greek sent by Pope Vitalian in 668 to bolster the missionary efforts in England.
Augustine would have preached in Old English (through interpreters), but spoken Latin among his co-workers. Augustine’s Latin, however, was not the classical dialect of Cicero, nor even what Pilate would have used with his contemporaries in the baths while they discussed troublesome Jewish prophets. The dialect of Latin current in the West was still a tongue used in public, not yet on the way to becoming Italian. St. Jerome translated the Bible into contemporary Latin just under two hundred years previously. Older Latin versions existed; Jerome’s was the Vulgate, or “common people’s” translation: a sort of “Bible in Today’s Latin.” Latin was a unifying tongue at the time, not an antiquarian nod to some hallowed past. It continued to be used because it was useful. At the same time, the English were very quick to translate parts of Scripture (especially through the use of paraphrases in Anglo-Saxon alliterative metre) as well as liturgical texts into Old English. If these were not used in the liturgy itself, at least they enabled the worshipers to understand what was being said by the priest, and to pray along.
Augustine brought with him the liturgical pattern known as the old Roman Rite, which in its original form had been around since at least the Second Century; however, there was still a lot of variety in the order and the prayers. A major updating of the standard prayers of the Roman Rite was done around 750, in Paris. It is called the Gelasian Sacramentary (in reference to Pope Gelasius (d. 496), to whom the edition was long attributed. The Gelasian Sacramentary itself was updated to unify the liturgy of the Western Church during Charlemagne’s reign. Tradition and the ability to adapt were both accommodated in the Old English Church.
Within a hundred years of the first missionaries from Rome reaching the British Isles, there were quite a number of thriving monasteries and convents among the Old English kingdoms. Church building was expensive and lagged behind, but the clergy were energetic and took worship to the people, much as the Circuit Riders of early American Methodism did. St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne, had a portable golden altar, rather like a modern music stand, which he took with him as he traveled about his diocese. He preached and served communion in the open air on a regular basis. Archbishop Deusdedit (d. 664) was the first native Anglo-Saxon to head the English Church. Sussex was the last of the English kingdoms to be evangelized (c. 681-6). At the same time, the recently converted English began sending missionaries to the Continent to aid in the conversion of the Frisians, the Germans, and the Danes. And by the time of Bede (d. 735), we reach the “pregnant moment of poise” described by J.R.R. Tolkien, in which a Christian poet could look back on paganism and admire their character and their culture while still mourning for their lost condition. Beowulf was, in many ways, the forerunner of the Christian knight.
In the Church today, there is a lot of sniffing going on between the Traditionalists and the Emergent Church folk. They tend to talk past each other, and neither knows much about the history of Christian missions.
The Traditionalists tend to like stuff just because it’s old. Ancient things acquire a patina of sanctity, I suppose. It’s comforting to think that an action or an object has been used for a very long time, and that by our participation we are placing ourselves in direct contact with those who came before us. At the same time, we forget that back in the day, things now hallowed with age were brand new. I imagine a lot of people griped about Jerome’s Latin phrase-turning.
At the same time, the Emergent folk assume that anything newer is better than anything older. They discount the fact that the unconverted always have some barriers to learning their way around the culture of the Church. They did so even back when dress and language were a lot closer to each other than now. Trying to be hip, or “seeker-sensitive,” as the term is now, can only get you so far. If you lose the sense of encountering a whole different way of processing reality, then it’s easy to assume a slovenly spiritual attitude that does not encourage one to change to match the demands of the gospel.
A special kind of arrogance also shows that the Traditionalists and the Emergents are brothers under the skin. The Traditionalists sweep away with scorn those who get bored with liturgical minutiae; the Emergents blithely assume that there is no value in studying the past. If Jesus Christ truly is “the same, yesterday and today and forever,” then both sides have a lot to learn from each other, and from him.