This is the text of a sermon preached at St Paul's Cathedral on Thursday 2nd May 2019, when the Cathedral was celebrating St Mellitus' Day
If it wasn’t for St Mellitus we would not be here. Let me explain. Christianity came to these islands in the 2nd century, and apparently there were bishops around this area near the Thames from that time onwards, but the records and the dates of those early leaders of the church in Britain are very uncertain.
It is the Venerable Bede who tells the famous story of Pope Gregory going to the market in Rome and seeing some young slaves with “fair complexion, handsome faces and lovely hair.” He asked where they came from, and was told they came from the island of Britain. He asked were the British Christians, and was told (inaccurately as it happens) that the country was still pagan. He then asked what was the name of their race, and was told they were Angli. His well-known reply was: “Good – they have the face of angels and such men should be fellow-heirs of the angels in heaven.”
Partly as a result of this encounter, and maybe some more prosaic factors, Gregory launched his mission to the English in 595 AD. He chose Augustine, Abbot of the Monastery he had founded in Rome, dedicated to St Andrew, to lead the mission. Augustine arrived on the shores of Kent two years later, settled in Canterbury as a base for their activities, and started to evangelise the locals. They were helped by the fact that the local king’s wife, Bertha, was a Christian – and the king, Aethelbert, was himself baptised soon after. Augustine’s mission was hard work though, and it wasn’t long before he was asking Pope Gregory for reinforcements. And this is where Mellitus comes onto the scene. He was a well-born Italian, had been appointed as Augustine’s successor in the monastery of St Andrew, and was now asked to help Augustine by travelling to England to support his mission – a request he could hardly refuse!
He arrived in 601 and three years later was appointed the first Saxon Bishop of London. He was to be bishop of the East Saxons – the territory north of the Thames (south of the Thames was considered Kent, which is why to this day the diocese of London only contains the land north of the Thames.) Bede then says this “after this race had accepted the word of truth through the preaching of Mellitus, King Aethelbert built the church of the apostle St Paul in the city of London in which Mellitus and his successors were to have their episcopal seat.” It was of course on this very site, what later became known as Ludgate Hill, that the original St Paul’s church, presumably a small wooden structure, was built for Mellitus and his mission. I always like to imagine Mellitus preaching right here on this spot, doing his best to convert pagan London around him.
About 13 years ago, the 132nd successor to Mellitus as Bishop of London, Richard Chartres and John Gladwin the Bishop of Chelmsford, wanted to start a new theological college serving their two dioceses. As their combined territory covered the old land of the East Saxons, they decided to call the college after St Mellitus. I was privileged to be asked to be the first Principal of the college, and remain its President today, so have had good reason to think about the ministry of Mellitus over the past few years, and I have come to think that his story is all about redemption.
Our Bible readings tonight highlight two aspects of his story. The first reading from 1 Corinthians 3.10-17 highlights the way which St Paul saw his ministry as laying a foundation which others built on. In the same way, Mellitus built on the foundations that Augustine had laid before him in sharing the good news of Christ with the people of England. By all accounts, Mellitus was a pretty good missionary. Many people embraced the Christian faith through his preaching, and the fact that he was made the first Saxon Bishop of London may suggest that he played a major role in the initial conversion of a good many in this city to Christianity.
So why did his mission meet with some success? Bede cites a letter written by Pope Gregory to Mellitus, which maybe gives us a hint as to why his mission worked.
Remember that Mellitus was preaching to a pagan society, one where people were not atheists, but regular worshippers of the pagan gods in the temples and sacred groves that were scattered across the Roman Empire of the time – and the Christians viewed these gods as essentially demonic powers. The instinct for someone like Mellitus might have been, once people were converted to Christianity, to destroy their previous pagan buildings and replace them with newly built churches. In his letter, Gregory recommends something different – he suggests that the Christians use these pagan temples for their worship. Only the statues of the gods should be taken out, to be replaced with Christian altars and relics of the saints. The idea is that these former pagans will be more likely come to worship in places they are more familiar with, and be able to transition to Christian faith more easily.
As they were used to sacrificing animals in worship, Gregory also suggests that they continue to kill animals, but only for food, not for worship. In other words, he wants to make it as easy as possible for a person to leave paganism and embrace the Christian faith. This is not an aggressive, imperialist approach to evangelism, but one that looks for what can be redeemed within the existing culture and can be enriched and find its fulfilment in Christ. It is grounded in a strong doctrine of creation, which sees God at work in different aspects of human culture. It sees any particular human culture as a mix of createdness and fallenness, good and bad, neither denying the goodness that can be found any human society, yet not being naïvely uncritical about that culture. It sees Christianity as enriching and fulfilling the best aspirations of human culture, not destroying them. What strikes you is the confidence that a culture can be redeemed, transformed, enhanced, re-directed by the coming of the gospel.
At a time where our own culture seems at a crossroads, not knowing quite where to go after (or if) Brexit happens, haunted by fear of knife crime or modern slavery, with growing anxiety over climate change, Gregory and Mellitus’ confidence that a similarly directionless Britain in their own time can be changed is remarkable and an inspiration for us, their successors in C21st London. Just as those pagan temples were re-used, re-directed to the worship of the true God, so human lives and cultures, baptised into the gospel are not destroyed but re-directed, re-focussed to their true end, the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Yet Mellitus’ story does not just speak of the redemption of culture but also of people. The gospel reading for this evening (John 10. 11-16) speaks of the good Shepherd, and the ‘hired hand’ who runs away at the first sign of trouble because he does not care for the sheep. This would have been an uncomfortable story for Mellitus.
After he had been made Bishop of London, Mellitus had an argument with the still pagan sons of a later King – King Saeberht - who insisted that he give them the special Communion bread which they thought had magic powers, despite the fact that they had not been baptised as Christians. Mellitus refused, at which point the king’s sons expelled him from the city. Mellitus went to confer with his fellow bishops Laurence and Justus, and it seems they were so fed up with these pesky, obstinate Saxons that they decided to give up on them, planning to return home to Italy to live a quieter life. However in a dream, St Peter appeared to one of them – Bishop Laurence – who rebuked him for deserting his post. He quickly persuaded Mellitus to return, which he did.
This must have been a distressing episode for Mellitus. Banished from his Cathedral church here on this site, his mission, despite its initial success, seemed to have failed, London remaining stubbornly pagan. Faced with a little difficulty, he had run away, just like Peter had done in denying Christ.
Yet, as it had been for Peter, failure was not the end. Mellitus did return. Even though the people of London did not accept him back, he ended up succeeding Augustine as the third Archbishop of Canterbury. The last we hear of him is it as a sick old man, suffering from gout, yet still full of faith. There is a story of him as an elderly man being carried out from his rooms to face a fire which was ravaging Canterbury, and threatening the church in a fashion that reminds us of the recent fire in Notre Dame in Paris. This time however, Mellitus’ prayers were answered, the wind turned, and the disaster was averted. As Bede puts it “so brightly did the man of God burn with the fire of divine love, so often had he repelled the stormy powers of the air from harming him and his people by his prayers and exhortations, that it was right for him to be able to prevail over earthly winds and flames so that they should not injure him and his people.”
Failure did not define him – but faith did. His story is one of redemption. That in Jesus Christ, culture can been redeemed and enriched. But even more, people can be. Even you and I can be. Failure, rather than the end of the story ,can be the beginning. It can be the gateway to humility, true self-knowledge and wisdom. At this Easter time, the story of St Mellitus can point us back to the truth that through the cross and resurrection of Christ, we and the whole world can be redeemed, forgiven, restored.