Monday, 26 December 2011

The Origins of the English Church

The origins of the English Church date back to the sixth century, following the marriage between a Kentish prince and a French princess.

The Royal Marriage in Kent
Christianity reached the shores of England by way of a royal marriage in the Kingdom of Kent. Prince Ethelbert, son of King Eormenric of Kent, married Princess Bertha, daughter of Charibert King of the Franks. In this marriage lay the origins of the spiritual foundation of the English Church.

The Anglo-Saxons Prior to the English Church
When the Anglo-Saxons settled in England in the fifth century, Christianity was unknown to them. They came into contact with the Britons, who had already converted to Christianity, but, owing to the hostility between the two populations, there was no immediate exchange of cultural identity between them. As a result, the Anglo-Saxons continued following their own religion, which was that known to all Germanic and Scandinavian populations prior to their conversion to the Christian faith. Traces of this ancient religion have remained intact in England over the centuries and are present in everyday language, namely in the days of the week, the most notable being Thursday, dedicated to Thor.

During the early Anglo-Saxon period, contacts of a commercial nature existed between England and the European continent, mainly with the Frisians and the Franks, yet no missionary from any Christian Church ever visited England. In this same period, the British Church of the Celtic speaking Britons had lost contact with Rome and the other Christian metropolitan centres of the Mediterranean Sea. Little is known about cultural relations between British Celts and Anglo-Saxons, but the difference between Celtic and English undoubtedly prevented missionary work on the part of the Christian Britons, as there was no translation of the Gospel in the language of the Anglo-Saxons.

The Anglo-Saxons formed independent kingdoms, each ruled by a king. Some of these became important names in English history, such as Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, but there were many others, including East Anglia, Essex, Sussex and Kent. The kingdom of Kent in south-east England was the closest to Europe, and in the latter half of the sixth century the Kentish king, Eormenric, sought to establish a matrimonial bond with the Franks by way of a marriage between his son Ethelbert, who was heir to the throne, and Bertha, daughter of King Charibert.

Kent and Christianity in the Sixth Century
Ethelbert, like all Anglo-Saxons, was not a Christian, as no missionary activity had reached the shores of England, whereas the Germanic speaking Franks living on the other side of the sea were firmly dedicated to the Christian faith, as were the Latin speaking Celts among whom they shared the same land.

A marriage between a Christian princess and a heathen prince was unusual, yet Ethelbert must have made a good impression on the Frankish royal family. The Kentish prince set sail for France, for it is stated that he received Bertha from her parents. Ethelbert returned with Bertha to Canterbury, Kent’s capital at that time, where his father ruled as king. In course of time, Bertha’s Christian faith would make Canterbury the centre of the English Church and eventually a destination for pilgrims travelling from all over England and Western Europe.

Around 590 Ethelbert succeeded his father as King of Kent. He took great interest in the faith of his consort and restored for her an ancient chapel that had been built in Canterbury by the Christian Britons. This chapel, dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours, was in fact the first English church, and it was in function before Saint Augustine’s arrival in England in 597. It preceded Canterbury Cathedral and all other churches built or restored by the Anglo-Saxons.

The English Church came into being not because the Roman Church had sent a missionary to England to make known the Gospel in a land where it was not known, but owing to the marriage between Ethelbert and Bertha. The Frankish princess brought with her the Gospel of Jesus Christ and imparted the Word to her husband. They spoke similar languages – the Anglo-Saxons and the Franks both speaking Germanic tongues – and Ethelbert believed in the faith of his wife.

When King Ethelbert took the decision to become Christian, he consulted with the noble families of Kent in order to remain king, for it meant breaking with the old religion. He succeeded owing to the persuasion of his consort’s faith, and a number of those surrounding him also chose to convert to Christianity, as did many more people among Kent’s inhabitants. When a papal envoy came from Rome to Kent to help establish ecclesiastical administration, King Ethelbert had already spiritually accepted the Christian faith and thereby set the foundations for the English Church.

The pope’s envoy came in the person of Augustine with about forty ecclesiastics accompanying him, and they set about baptising in water the people who converted. The actual arrival of the Gospel, however, and the spiritual conversion of King Ethelbert, came about prior to Augustine, namely in the heart of Bertha the new Kentish princess and in the copy of the Gospel which she brought with her, and in her ability to convert her husband.

Written by D. Alexander
Read also about Celtic foundations within the English Church:

The English Church came about through a marriage between man and woman. Marriage is between man and woman:

Photo 1: reproduction of an ancient Kentish grail in Dover district.

Photo 2 and 3: A Kentish church in Walmer, Dover district.

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