There were Christians in Britain when it was part of the Roman Empire, and this laid the foundations for an English church. Plagued by both external pressures and internal dissension, the Roman Empire effectively lost control of Britain by the end of the fourth century. The Saxon invasions of the fifth century submerged the earlier Celtic culture. The Celtic church was more and more confined to the west of Britain. They found missionary work among the invading Saxons extremely difficult and they became increasingly isolated. It is Augustine therefore who is known as the apostle of the English for his missionary work among the Anglo-Saxons. He became the first archbishop of Canterbury in 597.
It was Pope Gregory the Great who conceived the idea of a mission to the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, having seen, according to Bede, some fair-skinned slave boys in the market-place, and on discovering that they were Angles remarked on their angelic faces.
In 596 Gregory sent a team of monks from his own monastery in Rome under the leadership of their abbot, Augustine. They nearly turned back, daunted by the prospect of living in what must have appeared a barbarous and dangerous outpost. However, they eventually landed in Britain in 597.
Kent provided the obvious place to establish the mission as it was the part of Britain most in-fluenced by the continent of Europe. The local king, Ethelbert, whose wife Bertha was a Christian, tolerated their mission and allowed them to establish themselves at Canterbury, using the old Roman Church of St Martin.
The historian Bede notes:
Here they first assembled to sing the psalms, to pray, to say Mass, to preach, and to baptise, until the king’s own conversion to the Faith gave them greater freedom to preach and to build and restore churches everywhere.
Ethelbert accepted Christianity and was baptised, as were a great many of his subjects. Augustine could now go to Arles, where he was consecrated archbishop of Canterbury. So successful had Augustine been that in 598 he sent to Rome for more monks.
Augustine continued to seek the advice of Gregory on even quite small matters. It was Gregory who gave him the following famous counsel over the variety of religious practices in England:
If you have found customs, whether in the Church of Rome or of Gaul or any other that may be more acceptable to God, I wish you to make careful selection of them, and teach the Church of the English, which is still young in the Faith, what-ever you have been able to learn with profit from the various Churches. For things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.
Gregory empowered Augustine to appoint another archbishop in York and to ordain a dozen bishops in southern Britain. Augustine did not carry this through. Gregory also appointed Augustine archbishop of all the bishops in Britain, meaning the successors of Celtic bishops from Roman times. Augustine made efforts to contact these bishops and establish his primatial authority over them, but understandably, as he represented the newer Anglo-Saxon culture, they regarded him with great suspicion, and attempts at ecclesiastical unity in Britain at that time came to nothing.
By the time of Augustine’s death in 604 or 605, the Anglo-Saxon church was well established in eastern and southern Britain.