Reflections on Gregory the Great

Today we celebrate Gregory the Great of Rome. Gregory was born in Rome in 540, was elected Bishop of Rome in 590, and died in 604. Gregory was great. His liturgical reforms formed the basis of the Roman liturgy until the Council of Trent in the 16th century and he is credited with bringing plainchant into the church. He also carried out various church reforms. But for us, it is the missionary work of St. Gregory to the pagan Anglo-Saxons that we celebrate. Christ is the founder of our Church, but it is Gregory that was her midwife.

In his book, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in 731, St. Bede describes how Gregory came to found the Church of England. Gregory was in the marketplace in Rome and came upon some slave boys for sale. These boys had a fair complexion, fine-cut features, and beautiful hair. Gregory inquired from where they came and was told the island of Britain. He then inquired whether they were Christian, and were told that they and their entire nation were still ignorant of Christ. He exclaimed how sad it was that such bright-faced folk were still in the grasp of darkness. From that moment forward, Gregory began to devise a plan to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons. (Book II.1)

The Anglo-Saxon land was composed of seven kingdoms. The kingdom of Kent was located in the southeast corner of England. It was ruled by the pagan King Ethelbert. The king was married to a Frankish princess, Bertha of Paris, who was a Christian. Gregory planned to have her relatives join the missionary endeavor to give him a beachhead in England.

Before Gregory can journey to Anglo-Saxon Britain, he is elected to be bishop of Rome. In his stead, he sends a priest named Augustine (not THE Augustine of the Confessions and the City of God who lived two hundred earlier). Augustine set off for England and was ordained a bishop on the way. Augustine was to establish a Christian presence in Kent and eventually establish an archbishopric in London (which was under the jurisdiction of the kingdom of Mercia) with twelve dioceses and an archbishopric of York (which was under the jurisdiction of Northumbria) with another twelve dioceses. (Book I.29)

The plan worked. In 597, Ethelbert allowed Augustine to set up a monastery in his capital in an old Roman church dedicated to Martin of Tours and to seek converts. After several years, Ethelbert himself was baptized and thereafter most people in Kent were as well. (Book I.26). Ethelbert convinced Augustine to allow him, Ethelbert, to build Augustine’s cathedral church in Kent, not London. (Book I.33). The capital of Kent was the city of Cantwareburh (stronghold of Kent) or as it is pronounced in modern English – Canterbury. And so it is today, that Justine Welby is the 105th in line to Augustine. If you visit Canterbury today, Augustine’s original building lies beneath the nave of Canterbury Cathedral.

Gregory did not simply establish Christ’s Church in England, but he gave our church its very practical outlook. And in a series of letters to Augustine, Gregory establishes that very Anglican characteristic (going back to Jesus’ teaching) that the rules are made to serve us, not us to serve the rules

As to existing pagan temples, Gregory writes:

The temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their sustenance; to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God.  (Book I.30)

What Gregory is telling us is that we are free to take whatever custom we find to be profitable regardless of its origin and consecrate it to the worship of God. We can have Christmas or Yule logs. If you go out West, Native American churches will use pre-Christian worship aids such as smugging pots. And, of course, we can take a strip mall and make it into a church of God.

Augustine asks: Whether a bishop may be ordained without other bishops being present, in case there be so great a distance between them, that they cannot easily come together?

Gregory answers. ­ As for the church of England, in which you are as yet the only bishop, you can no otherwise ordain a bishop than in the absence of other bishops; unless some bishops should come over from Gaul, that they may be present as witnesses to you in ordaining a bishop. But . . . when, by the help of God, bishops shall be so constituted in places everywhere near to one another, no ordination of a bishop is to be performed without assembling three or four bishops.” (Book 1.27.6)

In the Episcopal Church rules are important, but we must always keep in mind that the rules exist to serve us and not us the rules. There are times and places and exigent circumstances when the rules and the rubrics must be disregarded.

Augustine asks: Whereas the faith is one and the same, why are there different customs in different churches? and why is one custom of masses observed in the holy Roman church, and another in the Gailican church?

Pope Gregory answers. ­ You know, my brother, the custom of the Roman church in which you remember you were bred up. But it pleases me, that if you have found anything, either in the Roman, or the Gallican, or any other church, which may be more acceptable to Almighty God, you carefully make choice of the same, and sedulously teach the church of the English, which as yet is new in the faith, whatsoever you can gather from the several churches. For things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things. Choose, therefore, from every church those things that are pious, religious, and upright, and when you have, as it were, made them up into one body, let the minds of the English be accustomed thereto. (Book I.27.2)

“Choose, therefore, from every church those things that are pious, religious, and upright, and when you have, as it were, made them up into one body, let the minds of the English be accustomed thereto.” If you go to our 1979 BCP you will find Gregory’s very words in action where our church has taken what is devout, religious, and right from Rome, from the East, from Scotland and Geneva and created what we have today that we have grown accustomed to. There is nothing more Anglican than taking the very best of other traditions and making them our very own.

And so today we celebrate St. Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome, the apostle to the English, and midwife of our Anglican way of life.  

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