Mission Amid (6th Century) Global Crises: Reflections on Gregory the Great and the Mission to England
An eighth-century biography of Bishop Gregory I of Rome (540-604) attests that one day, before he was bishop, Gregory saw boys “with fair complexions, handsome faces, and lovely hair” being sold in the slave market in Rome.Inquiring about their identity, he was told that they were angli (Anglo or English).Responding with a play on words, he declared, “they have the face of angels [angeli] and such men should be fellow-heirs with the angels in heaven.”Though scholars regard this story as a legend, around 596, several years after becoming bishop of Rome, Gregory sent Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604) and a group of about forty monks on a mission to evangelize the English—the first cross-cultural mission ever initiated by a Roman bishop.
In this paper, my aim is to first present Gregory the Great as a mission-minded bishop and sender of missionaries. Next, I will describe the mission to England—the hardships, outcomes, and approaches to mission. Finally, as we consider mission amid global crises in the 21st century, what do we learn from Gregory’s monastic theology of mission, his commitment to the mission, and his care for the missionaries?
This story is also recounted by Bede in Ecclesiastical History 2.1.
Bede in Ecclesiastical History 2.1; cf. Mayr-Harting, Coming of Christianity, 57-58.