Theology & Spirituality

The Pun That Saved Britain

For the Christians of Britain, the fifth century was a dark time. Their homeland was attacked and partially taken over by Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, non-Christian Germanic people from Continental Europe, and these aggressors behaved ruthlessly toward the Christian inhabitants of the land. They killed innocent people mercilessly, even slaughtering Christian priests at the altar, and enslaved many who, unable to survive in hiding, surrendered themselves.[1] Some believers must have been concerned about the future of the faith in Britain; if the attackers continued their advance, perhaps there would eventually be no believers left to practise and pass on the holy religion.

But the ancient writer St. Bede tells of a short conversation in the sixth century that would change the course of history for the residents of that Atlantic land. One day, an Italian monk in Rome saw some light-complexioned men who were to be sold as slaves. The monk asked someone their nationality and was told that they were pagans from Britain called Angles. Instead of treating the men with contempt, the monk pretended he misheard their name as “Angels” (the pun works in Latin too), saying it was fitting because of their faces’ angelic appearance and because it was right for them to share with the angels in the heavenly inheritance. As the conversation went on, the monk made two more puns conveying similar ideas.

Admittedly, we cannot be totally sure the monk said these things, though many scholars have regarded the account as authentic.[2] But one thing is unquestionable: the monk, who became Pope Gregory I and is commonly known as Gregory the Great, had a heart for the Germanic invaders of Britain, and he took efforts to bring the good news of Jesus to them. While serving as pope, he launched a mission to these people, entrusting its leadership to a man named Augustine (not the famous Augustine of Hippo).[3] Bede tells us of the trials and successes of this mission. In one interesting episode showing the boldness of the missionaries, they are given an audience with a Germanic king. Bede writes,

But they came endowed with divine not devilish power and bearing as their standard a silver cross and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a panel. They chanted litanies and uttered prayers to the Lord for their own eternal salvation and the salvation of those for whom and to whom they had come. At the king’s command they sat down and preached the word of life.[4]

It took a great deal of effort and a considerable amount of time, but the mission was ultimately successful. The gospel spread through Britain once again, and many of the Germanic settlers decided to become followers of Christ. Instead of approaching altars with swords drawn, they approached them with reverence and humility. Instead of threatening the future of Christianity in Britain, they ensured it. Over time the mission matured into a church organization, with Canterbury as its first bishopric and Augustine its first bishop.[5] Today, millions of Anglicans are inheritors of this ecclesiastical organization, which, though it has seen change over the centuries, has always remained intact.

I am continually challenged by Gregory’s love for the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. It would have been easy to be controlled by disgust and fear, but he chose to show mercy and love. His decision truly changed the world, and today the church—inside and outside the boundaries of Anglicanism—has much to owe to the gentle heart of the pun-wielding pope.

We should take a moment to consider how we might love the aggressive, the bitter, the violent. Yes, we need to uphold justice, but we also need to ask how we can show the love of God to the perpetrators of injustice. This is a question that does not usually come with easy answers and always requires wisdom. It is a question that should send us on a lifelong journey of growth and exploration, a journey on a path trod by Pope Gregory more than 1,400 years ago.

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David Doherty

David Doherty

David works in Christian higher education in Ontario, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Religious Education from Emmanuel Bible College (Kitchener, Ontario) and a Master of Theological Studies from McMaster Divinity College (Hamilton, Ontario). His research interests include the Gospel of John, metaphors in religious thought, and the development of Christian theology in the West. Together since their mid-teens, he and his wife adventure through life together and encourage each other in their faith and research.

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