Saturday, 16 October 2010

St. Martin, Canterbury

     "There was on the east side of the city a church dedicated to St. Martin which had been used by the Roman Christians in Britain.  To this church the Queen, accompanied by Bishop Luidhard, came to worship."  So wrote the Venerable Bede in "The Ecclesiastical History of the British People" in the year AD731.  The queen in question was Bertha, the Christian consort of the pagan king, Ethelbert.  She was worshipping here in the year AD562, some thirty years before Augustine and his followers were to arrive in Kent on their great mission, to re-introduce the Christian message to these pagan shores.  The Queen and her ladies would come out each day, passing through the Quenin Gate in the city wall, past the heathen shrine that is now St. Pancras Church to her little chapel on the hill.  Here, in the midst of a heathen city, she would pray for the conversion of England and her people in a land dotted with the ruins of ancient Christian temples deserted since Roman times.  As we now know here prayers were to be answered, for it was to Canterbury that Augustine came and, for a brief space of time, St. Martin's became the centre of his mission in this country and where his followers first worshipped.  Ethelbert granted Augustine freedom to undertake his task "provided (he) used no compulsion or force in making converts."

South side of nave-chancel

     One approaches the church - the oldest parish church still in use - towards the Perpendicular tower which, amazingly, is a thousand years younger than the rest of the building.  It is only when viewed from the south side that one fully appreciates its antiquity.  Here, the walls are a mixture of flint, ragstone and brick-red Roman tiles in regular courses, and I find it astonishing to consider that these tiles have seen the light of day for close on two-thousand years!  Inside the narrow nave and chancel, one can see a blocked Roman doorway with flat stone lintel, a blocked Saxon doorway - said to be the one Bertha used - edged with Roman tiles, and a blocked Norman doorway with a semicircular arch.  The beautiful Saxon font is traditionally associated with the eventual conversion of Ethelbert.  Although it is not known for certain where this took place, Bede describes Augustine using St. Martin's for baptism and, almost in the same sentence, the baptism of the King.  This has led to the supposition that this unique stone font is the one in which he was baptised.

Whatever the truth, standing here in this holy place, the most ancient in all of the realm, I was hugely affected as I contemplated the walls that are closer in origin to the lifetime of Christ than they are to us, and pondered on the immense significance of what took place here so long ago.  It occurred to me that it was on this spot that one can say, absolutely and irrefutably, this is where it all began.

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