By Kirk Smith
On March 21st, when Justin Welby take his vows as 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, he will place his hands on an object that physically and spiritually binds him to his predecessors. It is an ancient Gospel book, the oldest in England, given to the first Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Augustine, by Pope Gregory the Great around the year 597.
The “St Augustine’s Gospels” has a history rich in importance for Anglicans and indeed for Christians everywhere. It is the oldest non-archeological object in Great Britain, having remained on English soil continuously since its arrival nearly 1400 years ago. It contains some remarkable illuminated illustrations, among them the earliest portrayal of the Last Supper in existence. Its very preservation was due to Archbishop’s Matthew Parker’s desire at the time of the English reformation to prove the historical continuity between the ecclesia primitiva, the church of the Apostles, and the newly reformed English church of which he was the spiritual head, the ecclesia anglicana.
The manuscript, when not being used at enthronement ceremonies of new Archbishops in Canterbury, resides among other priceless national treasures in the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where it goes by the name known to scholars of medieval history, MS CCC 286.*
Apart from its historic and artistic importance, this treasure of our faith embodies some lessons which are as important for the church today as they were for the infant English church of the 6th Century.
It first of all reminds us that Anglican history is intimately connected with the idea of mission. Indeed there would be no Church of England if it had not been for Pope Gregory’s desire to bring the Good News to those Anglo Saxon boys he encountered in the Roman slave market whom he famously called, “non Angli, sed angeli, (not Angles, but Angels)”. That spirit of mission has prevailed throughout the history of the Church of England. The Church of England accompanied the expansion of the British Empire, and as a result, “the sun never sets” on some part of the world-wide Anglican Communion.
By sending a Gospel book with Augustine that contained the very earliest illustrations of the life of Christ, Gregory displayed a willingness to embrace the newest technology in the service of the Gospel. For a sixth century Anglo Saxon to see a painted portrait of Jesus must have been as breathtaking and revolutionary as the effect our smart phones have on our own lives. Sadly, the 21st century church has been reluctant to follow Augustines’ lead in using the new technology of our own day. For example, only a small handful of American Episcopal bishops have Twitter accounts, and less than 20% of all American churches have up to date websites, although 80% of those looking for a church to attend first consult the web.
Archbishop Matthew Parker’s desire to establish the continuity of the ancient church with the church of his day is a powerful example to those who believe that embracing the “ancient/future” church is a powerful evangelistic tool. Many churches now make use of such ancient practices as chant, incense, walking the labyrinth, icon’s, and methods of meditation as a regular part of their spiritual offerings. There is room for more use of such disciplines which have an enormous appeal, especially to unchurched young people.
Finally, the symbolic veneration of MS 286 by both the former Archbishop Rowan Williams and Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to England in 2010, should remind Anglicans of goal of unity we have with our catholic brothers and sisters. The manuscript was given as a gift by pope to the people of England. It is fitting that it should be a focus of our common mission.
*Thanks to the Parker Library,and the work of its librarian, Dr. Christopher De Hamel, this manuscript along with others in its important collection may be viewed on-line
The Rt. Rev. Kirk Stevan Smith is the Fifth Bishop of Arizona, and holds a Ph.D in English church history from Cornell University. He is currently completing a book entitled, “The Oldest Book in England And What It Can Teach Our Church. ” He can be reached on both Facebook and Twitter or at firstname.lastname@example.org.