Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 597. Soon afterwards, he wrote this letter to Pope Gregory with a series of questions concerning matters of church order and doctrine.
Of the eleven questions that he asked:
Six are about sex;
Two are about bishops, one specifically about the limits of authority when dealing with foreign bishops;
Two are about money;
One is about diversity in church liturgy and order.
As the Primates of the Anglican communion gather at Lambeth next week to discuss very similar things, the vatican has lent the crozier of Gregory, the pope 'who initiated the conversion of England' to edify and inspire the meeting.
|The crozier, from the Anglican Communion website linked to above|
Apparently it is a 'symbol of ecumenical encouragement' and 'a mark of the bond that spiritually unites the Catholic and Anglican Churches'. (Nice to see the Vatican spokesman there calling the Anglican Church a Church).
Maybe, then, the meeting might also be inspired by reflecting on the advice that Pope Gregory gave to Augustine of Canterbury?
|Pope Gregory I dictating, from a C10th manuscript (via wikipedia)|
He is very widely considered to have been A Good Pope. Commonly known as Saint Gregory the Great, he is one of the Doctors of the Church, and was considered by Calvin to the be last pope worth listening to!
So, what does he have to say on the big issues facing the Angles then, and the similar issues facing the Anglican Communion now?
On Diversity in the Church:
Augustine's third question: Since there is but one faith, why are the uses of Churches so different, one use of Mass being observed in the Roman Church, and another in the Churches of Gaul?
Answer: Your Fraternity knows the use of the Roman Church, in which you have been nurtured. But I approve of your selecting carefully anything you have found that may be more pleasing to Almighty God, whether in the Roman Church or that of Gaul, or in any Church whatever, and introducing in the Church of the Angli, which is as yet new in the faith, by a special institution, what you have been able to collect from many Churches. For we ought not to love things for places, but places for things. Wherefore choose from each several Church such things as are pious, religious, and right, and, collecting them as it were into a bundle, plant them in the minds of the Angli for their use.
This seems pretty clear that diversity in liturgy is perfectly acceptable, and that choosing things fit for purpose in particular contexts is fine. Of course, we can argue til the cows come home (and no doubt the Primates will indeed do so) on what is 'pious, religious and right' - but Gregory seems fairly clear that this is left to Augustine's good judgement.
It is also worth noting that all the complexities and sensitivities in our Communion about colonialism are put into a much longer historical context here - the Church in England was itself first a church which was planted alongside occupation by a colonial power, the Romans, long before Gregory's mission, and was then re-planted by the Roman church (with some inevitable tensions - fast forward to the Synod of Whitby).
On Sex, Marriage, Morality and the Bible:
Isn't it interesting that matters of sex and marriage law (albeit with different specific hang ups) were as much of an obsession then as now?
Six of the eleven questions relate to sex:
2. Whether clerics can get married (Gregory says yes)
5. Whether two brothers can marry two sisters (Gregory says yes)
6. About the permitted degrees of kinship for marriage
7. About whether those in marriages that controvene (6) should be denied communion
10. Various questions about pregnant and menstuating women, and regulations for cleansing men after marital sex
11. About wet dreams
Here there is no easy reading-across of answers from Gregory to present day controversies. However, there are a few things that it is worth noting.
First, some of Gregory's answers are based on current empirical understanding, or a view of what is 'natural', as much as, or more than, theology. For example, he says that although Roman law permits the marriage of cousins (as English law currently does), church law forbids it because
'we have learned by experience that progeny cannot ensue from such marriages'.
More positively, he rules (clearly against the cultural expectation of the Angles) that menstruating women should not be barred from communion as
' the menstruous habit in women is no sin, seeing that it occurs naturally'.
It would seem, then, that Gregory's example encourages the Primates to consider up to date scientific views on matters of sexuality, and the question of what is natural (for example, the scientific consensus that homosexual behaviour occurs naturally in animals?) as well as what the Bible has to say.
In fact, what Gregory has to say about what the Bible has to say is also worth reflecting on:
For while the law forbids the eating of many things as being unclean, the Lord nevertheless says in the Gospel, Not that which goes into the mouth defiles a man, but the things which come forth from the heart, these are they which defile a man Matthew 15:11. And soon after He added in explanation, Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts (Ib. 19). Hence it is abundantly indicated that what is shown by Almighty God to be polluted in act is that which is engendered of the root of polluted thought. Whence also Paul the Apostle says, All things are pure to the pure; but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure Titus 1:15.
That's again in the context of menstruating women, so he is quite happy to read from dietary laws to matters of sex and gender as they relate to purity: and indeed to elide 'what goes in' with 'what comes out'.
Not that I am arguing that Gregory was a wishy washy liberal! Immediately after that passage he declares that although menstruating women can take communion,
'a man after sleeping with his own wife ought not to enter the church unless washed with water, nor, even when washed, enter immediately'.
This is because, he argues, it is impossible to have sex without thinking impure thoughts, and taking sinful pleasure in the act, and so those thoughts have defiled you.
Interestingly, he then again refers to local diversity of practice, and seems to rest his prohibition more on secular Roman custom and practice than on theology per se:
'For, although in this matter different nations of men have different notions, and some are seen to observe one practice and some another, yet the usage of the Romans from ancient times has always been for a man after intercourse with his own wife both to seek the purification of the bath and to refrain reverently for a while from entering the church.'
I am reminded, reading this and the sections on who can marry whom, of Prof. Linda Woodhead's point that our debates about same sex marriage echo very closely indeed past historic moral panics about other marriage questions. She pointed out line by line how the Hansard debates on the C19th Deceased Wife's Sister Act mirrored closely the debates this decade on same sex marriage. Here, Gregory and Augustine (and Augustine is clearly passing on concerns of the society to which he has been sent) have similar debates about going to church after having (marital) sex, and about the marriage of cousins.
Finally, about Bishops:
I also find it amusing that two of Augustine's questions (three, if you count the first one about where the money goes) are about bishops, and specifically that question 9 is about jurisdiction.
Reading between the lines, it is clear that Augustine has been given a mandate to reform the church in Gaul as well as establish one in England (Gregory seems not to have known about the existing church structure and bishops in England - who were understandably narked at having this new Archbishop suddenly put over them). How, he asks, does he deal with the bishops in Gaul?
Gregory's reply is clear: you will need to influence them by persuasion and by the evident holiness of your life, as you have no authority over them:
Over the bishops of Gaul we give you no authority, since from the ancient times of my predecessors the Bishop of Arelate (Arles) has received the pallium and we ought by no means to deprive him of the authority that he has acquired. If therefore it should happen that your Fraternity should pass into the provinces of Gaul, you should act with the same bishop of Arelate in such a way that vices in bishops, if any, may be corrected. And, if he should by chance be lukewarm in the vigour of discipline, he must be stirred up by the zeal of your Fraternity...you yourself will not have power to judge the bishops of Gaul by authority of your own; but by persuading, alluring, and also exhibiting your own good works for their imitation'.
The letter doesn't give easy answers, but I very much hope that reading it may help to problematise the questions a bit. Adding in to all our discussions of context and morality some curve balls from a very different context - but one that still has all the complexities of a past empire and colonial thinking - might help the primates to discuss these issues more abstractly and with less heat, at least for a brief pause for thought.