How do you get on with Christians of other denominations? Are you able to share worship with them happily, or do their differences grate on you? And what of the differences we have in the Church of England, which, after all, is very broad and stretches, on the one hand, towards Rome and, on the other, towards the Charismatic and Evangelical? Are you able to learn about different forms of worship from experiencing a variety of Christian traditions, or do you "Know-what-you-like and Like-whatyou-know"?
It is interesting to reflect, as we get older, that our tastes in worship can change, from noisy and busy, to quiet and reflective -or the other way around! We often need different forms for different purposes. It was uplifting to share in the worship this Easter Morning in Berkeley with a congregation of well-over 100 adults , not to mention a large number of younger people -but for discussion we would need a small house group and for ordinary weekly worship, we might be more comfortable with smaller numbers. Each year, we have a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity to remind ourselves that Jesus' command that we should all be one is something that has yet to be achieved. But is the splintered Christian church just a modern problem? Have the divisions all come about since the Reformation nearly 500 years ago?
This week, I received my copy of the Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society in which an article by David Higgins discusses whether the Meeting of St Augustine of Canterbury and the British Bishops really took place at Aust on the Severn . The Venerable Bede recounts the story of how Pope Gregory saw fair-haired slave boys in the Roman market place and made several puns about them and their country "Not Angles, but Angels" is the most famous of them (parodied by 1066 and All That as "not angels but anglicans".) Gregory wanted to convert the pagan English and sent Augustine to this country to do so. After initial success in Kent, he went westward to meet the continuing Christians of the British population, which was being displaced by the Angles and Saxons, and at a place called St Augustine's Oak, he held his meeting. The similarity of Aust to the Mediaeval form of Augustine, "Austin", led scholars to think that the meeting had taken place on the banks of the Severn. The British bishops could have come across the Severn from Wales using the ferry crossing and it would have been convenient for all.
The meeting was not a success and a second conference was called. This time the British Bishops went to see a hermit first, who advised them only to listen to St Augustine if he were a humble man . They deliberately arrived late to the meeting and Augustine did not get up to greet them. His arrogance meant that they rejected all he had to say and the meeting ended in discord. Following the local tradition of Aust being the meeting place, I should mention that a tradition, at least going back to the 17th century, claims that the hermit, whom the British bishops visited, lived at Tortworth, on Anchorite Hill, overlooking the lake!
But no, we must reject the link with Aust. The name cannot be connected with the name of the first Archbishop of Canterbury and probably means East(cliff), a vantage point for sailors on the Severn sea. However, the link with the area can be maintained and the suggestion is that the oak tree grew on what is now College Green in Bristol. Bristol Cathedral was St Augustine's Abbey, founded in the 12th century by Robert Fitzharding , ancestor of the Berkeley family. In the middle of College Green, which was the monks' cemetery in the Middle Ages, there was a mausoleum chapel dedicated to St Jordan. Jordan was a follower of St Augustine and it is conjectured that he remained after the confrontation between the British bishops from the West and Augustine and continued the missionary work, perhaps as a peace-maker also? It cannot have been an easy job making the best of matters with the local people after the great men had moved on.
As the story is told, the Conference became a Confrontation because of suspicion and anxiety on one side and arrogance and insensitivity on the other. The result could, perhaps, have been different if it had been handled differently. This is also relevant to ecumenism to-day, as it is to parishes being asked to work together and share an incumbent. It is easy for us to see how they could all have benefited from cooperation to get the missionary work done and how foolish it was to quarrel about procedures and who was the most important and should be leader, but it is also easy for us to see that this is human nature and people are no different today. Rather than looking at one another in confrontation, they all needed one united vision. Perhaps Hebrews 12 verse 2 would do -for them and us?
Hebrews 12v2 (NIV) fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.