Now Augustine should be patron saint

St George, with all his heroics and dragon-slaying, was not a very Anglican kind of chap. Paul Handley thinks he has found a more appropriate role-model for the nation.
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In the early afternoon of tomorrow, 50 pilgrims from Rome ought to be wading out of the sea on to an east Kent beach, to be greeted by a waiting band of the faithful, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. Ought to be, but won't. Instead they will clamber down out of their coach, having disembarked earlier at Folkestone. There are limits to historical re-enactment.

Still, their arrival marks the beginning of a fortnight-long jamboree to commemorate two important Christian events in this country's history: the arrival of St Augustine and the death of St Columba, which both happened 1400 years ago.

Columba is one of the senior Celtic saints, having travelled from Ireland to the west coast of Scotland to found an abbey on the island of Iona. We are currently in the middle of another Celtic revival, and Columba basks in fashionable warmth. If only the bishops were more switched on, we might all be worshipping in Irish theme churches by now - all harps and green paint and uncials, and renamed St Mungo's or St Ninian's.

Augustine's revival is more significant. The degree of interest, both official and popular, being shown in the supposed father of English Christianity suggests that something lasting is taking place. Where it might lead, nobody knows. But try saying this out loud a few times: "Cry `God for Harry, England and Saint Augustine!' "

The scansion will not please Linda Snell, currently putting the Ambridge thespians through their paces. But it is not too far-fetched to imagine St George stepping down after his long period in office to join John Major on the terrace at Lord's.

Augustine for patron saint. The idea has much to recommend it. First of all, Augustine existed. St George might as well not have done, for all we know about him. The dragon-slaying episode, inspiring but perhaps lacking the absolute ring of truth, was attached to his cultus about 800 years after his probable death.

Second, Augustine came to live in Britain; George, if he lived anywhere, is said to have hung around in Lydda, wherever that is. It must be admitted that Augustine did not come willingly: after Pope Gregory had given him his orders, it took him a year to cross France, and he went all the way back to Rome at one point to see if he'd left the gas on. Once here, though, he stuck it out until his death.

Of course, to be a patron saint it helps to have done something heroic. George hadn't, and thus the dragon was brought in as a bit of add-on hardware. Augustine ought to have no worries here, with nothing less than the conversion of England on his score-card; but this, perversely, is where his bid for power falters. George's dragon-slaying is so obviously a myth that nobody bothers to challenge it; Augustine's paternity of English Christianity, however, has proved to be just as subject to fashion as those Celtic pubs.

Augustine was Pope Gregory's boy: England's conversion had been Gregory's vision, and Augustine's commission was to make it happen. As long as the English were proud of their links with Rome, Gregory and Augustine stayed popular. But the 16th-century split with Rome changed things. Reformation historians sought to establish the existence of a pre-Augustinian Church in England, and thus started the first Celtic revival. The 19th century produced more champions for Augustine, and they challenged the myth of the Celtic Church with one of their own: Augustine's wading out of the sea to bring the heathen English into the way of truth. But even these champions were unable quite to disguise the presence of several Christians in the party that met Augustine at Thanet, among them Ethelbert's queen, Bertha, and a bishop called Luidhard. Not exactly heathen, then . . .

If all this suggests that Augustine was less heroic than has been claimed, it should not be allowed to obscure his achievements. He wisely adapted Gregory's unrealistic vision to the conditions he found; there is evidence that he helped tone down some of the zeal (about sexual impurity, for instance) that was disturbing the native Church; he did convert a lot of people; and he tied the newly organised Christians to the Church in Rome.

Pragmatic, moderate, hard-working, obedient: these are not perhaps the attributes of the usual patron saint. But they are of the first Anglican.

`Faith & Reason' is edited by Paul Vallely