The Epistle of Gregory to Mellitus: The “absorb-to-transform” model of mission

non angli

Gregory meets some Anglo-Saxons, and conceives to send missionaries to England

Introduction

In this post, I want to look at some ways in which Christian mission both absorbs and transforms its surrounding culture. As a case study, I’ll use St. Gregory the Great’s mission to England (in A.D. 596) as a historic example of a Christian mission that absorbed and transformed aspects of the culture it was evangelising. I’ll then land by relating this model of mission and evangelism to present day applications for Christian interaction with contemporary culture.

 

Transform

Gregory the Great was bishop of Rome from 590 to 604. Tradition has it that he met some young Anglo-Saxons in the market place in Rome one day perhaps in 590. Discovering they had not yet heard the Good News about Christ, he resolved to send missionaries to their homeland in order to evangelise their people. Over the next few years, he began educating young Anglo-Saxons in the Christian faith, to send them as missionaries to England.

However, in 596 Gregory decided to accelerate the work and sent an Italian – St. Augustine – with a team to Kent to begin the work. At that time, Kent was ruled by a pagan king, Æthelberht, who was also overlord of other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms covering much of what is now England. Æthelberht’s wife Bertha was a Christian, and Æthelberht tolerated his wife’s religion and may even have been personally interested in it. It is therefore possible that the king actually invited Gregory to send missionaries, perhaps after his wife’s chaplain, bishop Liudhard died (in 596).

The mission consisted of about forty missionaries, who landed in Kent in 597. The king permitted them to settle and preach in his capital, Canterbury, and he became a Christian himself soon afterwards. Certainly, by 601, Gregory was writing to him as his ‘son’ in the faith, and referring to his baptism.

In the letters back and forth between Canterbury and Rome, we learn a lot about the mission’s commitment to transformation. For example, in 601, St. Mellitus carried a letter from Gregory to King Æthelberht, urging the conversion of his people, and the destruction of pagan shrines. These aspects of Gregory’s letter suggest an uncompromising transformational attitude, whereby pagan Saxon culture was to be completely replaced with Christianity.

Æthelberht subsequently promulgated laws, perhaps in 602 or 603, reforming such matters of social policy as marriage. His law code refers to bishops, priests, and deacons in the very first article. This evidences the influence of Christianity completely transforming early English society in the wake of Gregory’s mission.

bertha augustine ethelbert

Bertha, Augustine, and Æthelberht

 

Absorb

However, to some extent, the missionaries were also willing to absorb aspects of their surrounding culture. For example, Gregory also wrote a letter to Mellitus which explicitly allowed for some absorption of Anglo-Saxon culture. As such, Mellitus received instructions from Gregory to adapt pagan temples into Christian churches, instead of destroying them outright as Gregory’s letter to Æthelberht had implied. Similarly, Gregory encouraged Mellitus to adapt pagan sacrifices into Christian festivals, instead of abolishing them altogether.

Consequently, to this very day we have retained some English pagan references in English Christian culture. For example, the name ‘Easter’ for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection: Easter was the name of a pagan springtime festival that celebrated new birth around peak lambing season in March and April. This conveniently coincided with the time of year Christ was crucified and raised from the dead, and the missionaries were clearly willingly to keep the name ‘Easter’ for the springtime festival, ‘baptising’ it so it was no longer a pagan festival but a Christian one.

Collectively, the instructions in the epistle to St. Mellitus show that those early Christian missionaries, instead of completely destroying pagan culture, were willing to absorb aspects of it, at least when this served the spread of the Good News about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

 

Absorb to Transform

It is essential, then, to note that the missionaries absorbed elements of the pagan English culture specifically to aid in transforming it. Gregory the Great’s missiology explicitly transformed and absorbed Anglo-Saxon culture. While at first glance his letters Æthelberht on the one hand and Mellitus on the other might seem contradictory (destroy the pagan shrines/adapt the pagan shrines), we can see a strategic synthesis in that Gregory’s strategy allowed for some absorption so that the surrounding culture could be transformed.

Gregory’s approach enjoyed much success, as the mission clearly transformed the culture of Anglo-Saxon England, which ultimately converted from paganism to Christianity. The fact that the mission survived and grew evidences the success of Gregory’s adapt-to-transform model. The fact that Augustine, Mellitus, and their colleagues have gone on to be revered as saints in the English church evidences the transformation of culture in England from pagan to Christian, celebrating Christian heroes who brought the Gospel to the English.

Indeed, Gregory’s mission was sufficiently transformative of Anglo-Saxon culture that by the early 8th century indigenous English missionaries would go on to transmit their Christian faith across Europe on missions of their own. For example, St. Boniface was born in Devon around 675, and he left for the continent to evangelise there in 716. He was martyred by pagans while evangelising in Frisia in 754.

Boniface-Martyrdom

Martyrdom of Boniface

Conclusion

England’s culture by the beginning of 8th Century was clearly very different to that at the start of the 7th: the English had gone from worshiping pagan gods before 601 to sending Christian missionaries to convert other pagans to Christianity by 716. This shows that the mission to the English was successfully transformational, bringing about an end to pagan practices and introducing Christian ones.

However, the mission also absorbed aspects of its surrounding culture, for example Gregory’s willingness to adapt pagan shrines into Christian churches, and pagan festivals into Christian ones.

Nevertheless, such adaptation arose from a strategic choice of ‘absorb-to-transform’. For Gregory, any absorption that was permitted was done so in context of a theology of transformation. This means that such absorption is not vacuous syncretism which dilutes the Christian mission, but a missiological method of evangelism and cultural transformation.

I believe this strategy can be applied to Christian mission and ministry in our ‘post-Christendom’ society today. For example, Gregory and his missionaries made decisions as to what aspects of pagan Anglo-Saxon culture to transform, and what aspects to adapt: we can do similarly in post-Christendom. Can you see some aspects of non-Christian culture which we need to work to transform, and some aspects we can more effectively absorb, ‘baptising’ them for the transformational purpose of serving the Gospel?

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