Friday, April 25, 2014

Letter to Mellitus

St. Mellitus, converter of Anglo-Saxons
We have the story, handed down from Bede, that Pope Gregory I sent a mission to England in 597 to convert the population to Christianity. The 40 missionaries were allowed by Æthelbert of Kent to preach there, and the conversions began. Æthelbert himself converted some time prior to 601.

The story goes that the pope wrote letters to England in July of 601, with what was considered extraordinary advice at the time. He had written to Æthelbert , asking him to destroy pagan shrines, but a separate letter to the missionaries took a different approach. Rather than engage in forcible conversions, which usually required converting the ruler first and then having him force his entire nation to convert en masse, Gregory advised them to use persuasion and a gradual conversion process.

Rather than destroy pagan shrines and temples, Gregory suggested converting them. Instead of stopping pagan sacrifices, they should be made into Christian festivals. He suggested that the pagan Anglo-Saxons be considered as if they were the early Israelites, and introduced to early  Jewish practices, like building huts during the Jewish festival of Sukkot. Gregory thought they could be "gradually" introduced to Christianity this way.

The source of this advice is the Epistola ad Mellitum ["Letter to Mellitus"]. Mellitus was head of the missionaries in a second group in 601 (the first group was headed by Augustine). He brought a great number of books and other religious materials with him. Mellitus was made the first Bishop of London. Mellitus' patron was King Sæberht of Essex (Æthelbert's nephew, whom Mellitus baptized), but after Sæberht and Æthelbert died in 616, Mellitus was exiled by Sæberht's three pagan sons, and went to Gaul. Æthelbert's successor converted to Christianity a few years later, however, and Mellitus returned to become the third Archbishop of Canterbury.

As archbishop, he is supposed to have performed a miracle: after a fire started in the town and threatened the cathedral, the wind changed direction when Mellitus entered it and saved the building.

Mellitus died on 24 April in 624 and was buried in St. Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury. He was considered a saint from shortly after his death. Bede tells us that Mellitus suffered from gout, and gout sufferers used to be brought to his shrine looking for a cure.

1 comment:

  1. Pope Gregory does NOT say that pagan sacrifices should be made into Christian festivals. He says that the people can continue to have feasts but "on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs whose relics are there deposited". Seems people thought that becoming Christian meant giving up feasting anbd they are being reassured it didn't - they just had to hold feasts on significant Christian dates.