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Today and tomorrow I am in Canterbury, an extremely important city to England’s Christian history.  I’ll talk more about Canterbury Cathedral tomorrow, but today the focus is on St Martin’s Church.

After the Romans left Britain around 410, the Christian religion was largely replaced by the beliefs of the Angles, Saxon, and Jutes over the next couple of centuries.  Christianity (and this is a gross generalization) shifted more to the western parts of the British Isles, especially Wales and Ireland, and its believers became isolated from the Roman Catholic world, evolving into a “Celtic” Christianity.  The fundamental beliefs remained the same, but practices such as when Easter should be celebrated or how a monk should wear his tonsure were different.

Trade and communications with the European continent were ongoing, however, and when it came time for Ethelbert, King of Kent, (one of the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdoms) to find a bride, he looked to the daughters of Frankish kings.  Bertha was the lucky girl, and as a Christian, agreed to the marriage only if she could retain her religion and bring her own priest.  Ethelbert and Bertha married in 580 and Queen Bertha worshiped at an old building which is now called St Martin’s Church.  St Martin’s has the distinction of being the oldest church in the English speaking world. 

Before too long, Pope Gregory was looking to expand Rome’s influence and saw an opportunity through Queen Bertha.  He sent Augustine to Kent who in 597 established his headquarters in Canterbury and created England’s first permanent cathedral.  King Ethelbert,  being a smart man, eventually converted.  It is unclear if this conversion was sincere or if he saw the advantages of closer ties with a powerful pope – perhaps it was a bit of both.  In any case, Augustine (eventually a saint) went on to establish bishoprics  in other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (including York, coming up in a few days) and Roman Catholicism was thus reintroduced to the Britains,  eventually replacing the Germanic religions.  It is interesting to note that the church in Britain was united long before the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms united to become the country of England.

On a personal note, this was the first time I was able to see St Martin’s.  I had studied the church and its history, and seen  photos, but shorter day trips never allowed me the time to walk over there.  What a special treat!


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