When one of the leaders of the contemporary Canterbury family writes about its founding father, expectations run high. Rob Mackintosh has not disappointed us. He is a thorough scholar as the frequent, though not intrusive, footnotes and the lengthy bibliography testify. Yet this is not a dry academic study but an accessible, and in many places exciting, read for anyone who has an interest in the character, the story and the legacy of Augustine.
The first two sections of the book are fascinating sketches of the history behind Augustine’s mission. First, a portrait of Pope Gregory and his vision against the background of the political disintegration of the Roman Empire. Mackintosh detects a deep change of the Church’s attitude towards mission which is reflected in the formation of Augustine and in the strategy of the mission to Britain. He claims that between the fifth and seventh centuries the question asked by Augustine of Hippo – ‘Who is a Christian’ – moved on to Gregory’s – ‘How shall we live’. The rule of St Benedict had pioneered this change and Gregory’s Regula Pastoris continued it as a response to the social crises of the time. Until the very end of the book Mackintosh is not explicit about the relevance of this for our time but one can pick up the subscript of a possible legacy.
Equally in the second section, dealing with Augustine’s journeys through Francia, touch on questions about Church and State and Rome’s position with foreign peoples, which have echoes of contemporary issues for both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. There is also some notable detail about the chief players in the Frankish kingdoms of that time when again Mackintosh summarises, in a very modest space, the concerns and disputes which faced the medieval church.
The final section on Augustine’s mission in England is, perhaps, what we have been looking forward to and what we picked up the book for in the first place. Nevertheless it now has depth because of the preparation we have been given. By this point we feel we have lived through all the surprises, doubts and convictions of the Augustine the man, the monk and the missionary.
From the details of Augustine’s channel crossing and landing to the development of plans for the building of a cathedral, the story of Augustine’s brief years in Canterbury will enthral people of Kent and even Kentish people for both Jute and Saxon contributed to the culture which Augustine found. Augustine’s relationship with King Aethelberht and Queen Bertha, the mass baptism on Christmas Day 597 and the lasting influence of monastic discipline and way of life are all described. The missionary work amongst the peasant farmers, the discussions with local nobles and the two influential conferences of the British Church at St Augustine’s Oak mark out huge achievements for a holy man who also had strong gifts of administration.
There is an Afterword, sadly of only about ten pages, when Mackintosh seeks to draw out some lessons for the contemporary church based on Augustine’s leadership style, monastic spirituality and mission strategy which need to be further developed. Hopefully he can be persuaded to write a sequel which could be a clarion call to the church today.
Some would say that Mackintosh has been too kind to Augustine. Certainly he underestimates the influence of the Irish and Celtic missionaries before Augustine, bearing in mind that Columba died the year Augustine arrived, that Aidan and King Oswald modelled church and state as successfully as Augustine and King Aethelberht and that the monasteries of Iona and Lindisfarne and Jarrow could match Canterbury for learning and missionary enterprise. So it seems that ‘all the founders of the English Church…Gregory…Augustine…Bertha….Aethelberht… ’ has a little cosmopolitan blindness to it.
Nevertheless this is a wholly satisfying book, fluently written and painstakingly researched which should find its way to the desk of every lover of Canterbury and every student of mission.Bishop Michael Turnbull