24 April 2019

Holy Wednesday – Archbishop Mellitus of Canterbury

Holy Hierarch Mellitus of Canterbury

On this Holy Wednesday in the Orthodox Church, we celebrate Holy Hierarch Mellitus, who was part of the Augustinian mission to the people of England. The Latin name Mellitus is very similar to the name Melétios which has been borne by a number of Greek and Arabic saints and clergy. As can be seen in this Orthodox icon written for Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, the two names are often interchanged. Etymologically, however, they are not cognates. Mellitus is derived from the Indo-European root word *mélit for ‘honey’ (L. mel, Gk. μέλι), and has the meaning of ‘sweet’. Melétios, on the other hand, is derived from the name of the Elder Muse Melétē and ultimately comes from the Greek word for ‘meditation’ (Gk. μελετᾶν).

The origins and birthplace of Saint Mellitus are nebulous; scholars guess that (like the other clergymen sent on the Gregorian mission to England) he was Italian, but he is listed in the primary source documents as a monk in Francia. He first appears in the History of Saint Bede as a monastic cleric in the employ of the blessed Pope Gregory the Dialogist, who was sent to aid Saint Augustine in his conversion of the English nation to Christianity alongside Saint Justus and Saint Paulinus and another cleric named Rufinianus. Mellitus was clearly a well-beloved disciple of Pope Gregory to be entrusted with this mission. Pope Gregory himself took great pains to ensure that his faring to the island of the English was without incident – taking up correspondence with the hierarchs in Toulon, Marseilles, Arles, Lyons, Vienne, Metz, Paris and Rouen as well as with the sæcular Frankish authorities along his route to secure him safe passage, food, lodgings and provisions for his journey.

Mellitus, Justus, Paulinus and Rufinianus arrived safely on English shores, bearing with them ‘everything necessary for the worship and service of the Church, including sacred vessels, altar coverings, church ornaments, vestments for priests and ministers, relics of the holy Apostles and martyrs, and many books.’ They also brought with them a letter to Saint Augustine from Pope Gregory assuring him of an omophor and giving him directions for the appointment of bishops in Britain.

Saint Mellitus was later sent a letter from the Pope, which signalled a profound shift in missionary tactics and approach. Pope Saint Gregory intimated to Saint Mellitus that although heathen idols were to be destroyed, the places of heathen worship themselves were not to be destroyed or defiled in any way, but instead cleansed with holy water and made to house holy relics. ‘For if these temples are well-built,’ says Pope Gregory in his letter, ‘they are to be purified from devil-worship, and dedicated to the service of the true God.’ In addition, Pope Gregory alluded that rather than denounce the festivities and sacrifices of the heathen English, instead the Church should redirect their religious energies into Christian festivals falling around the same time.

As a brief aside: that, by the way, is why our upcoming festival of Pascha is still called Easter in the English language. Not because it originally signified a devotion to the heathen goddess Éastre or, as the ridiculous and historically-illiterate Facebook memes would have it, Inanna-Ishtar, but because the Pope of Rome decided in 601 AD to adopt a missionary tactic of blessing rather than condemning local festivals and consecrating them to the concurrent Christian festivals. Note that Saint Innocent later used a very similar tactic for the Buryats and the dvoevertsy in Irkutsk, and Saint Herman would do the same in Alaska. It is indeed most unfortunate that the Western churches in schism decided to abandon the saintly Pope Gregory’s reasonable and humane œconomia entirely, and pursue instead a brutal and ham-fisted proselytisation effort in the New World.

One of the first things Mellitus did in England was to have Sæberht, the nephew and vassal of Æþelberht King of Kent who ruled over the East Saxons, baptised and confirmed in the Faith. Thereafter, Sæberht permitted a bishopric to be established in London and Æþelberht King chartered a church there, to both of which honours Saint Augustine duly appointed Mellitus. As Bishop of London, it was Mellitus who was sent back to Rome in 605 after the blessed repose of Saint Augustine, on behalf of his fellow-churchmen Archbishop Laurence, Justus and Paulinus to report on their progress.

Things did not go well for the Gregorian mission after 616, when Æþelberht and Sæberht had both died. Three riotous heathen lordlings, the sons of Sæberht, demanded of Mellitus that he give them the bread of the Eucharist to eat as he had given it to their father. Mellitus was all too glad to do so – provided they were baptised first; but he refused them when they refused baptism. The angry athelings beat Mellitus and had him driven out of the East Saxon realm and back into Kent. Mellitus, in despair, met with Justus and Laurence. The mission, as Mellitus saw it, had failed – and they should return to the continent to ‘serve God in freedom’ rather than remain among these stubborn heathen. Mellitus and Justus thereupon took ships to Gaul, leaving England behind. The meaning of the flight of Mellitus and Justus from England should not be lost on those of us celebrating Holy Week: And they all forsook Him, and fled. Only Laurence, then Archbishop of Canterbury after Augustine, stayed – and at that, only because he was visited in a vision by one of the same Apostles who had fled and denied Christ, Saint Peter, who beat and rebuked him for his attempt to abandon the mission that had been entrusted to him. Éadbald, seeing the stripes upon Laurence’s body from the thrashing Saint Peter gave him, at once converted and allowed Mellitus and Justus to return.

Upon Saint Laurence’s repose in 619, Mellitus was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Despite his having faltered prior to Éadbald’s conversion, once in office he proved an energetic, kindly and responsible keeper of Christ’s flock. He was stricken with arthritic pains in his hands and his feet, but he bore his infirmity with grace and equanimity. At one time, a fire broke out in the city of Canterbury which water could not extinguish. The conflagration swept through the city, destroying a large part of it and advancing on the densely-populated neighbourhoods where the churches were. Archbishop Mellitus, when he heard of this, went out with help into the path of the oncoming flames. By his prayers to Christ, Mellitus reversed the direction of the wind from southerly to northerly, causing the flames to turn back on themselves; then the wind dropped altogether and the flames died. The fire which water and human strength could not extinguish had been put out by the faith of one elderly arthritic bishop; in so doing he saved the churches and the lives of the townsfolk.

Saint Mellitus departed this life in blessedness not long after, on the twenty-fourth of April 624; he was succeeded in his office by the aforementioned Saint Justus, who had been Bishop of Rochester. Holy Hierarch Mellitus, intercede with Christ our God to save our souls!
When the glorious disciples were enlightened
At the washing of their feet before the supper,
Then the impious Judas was darkened, ailing with avarice
And to the lawless judges he betrays You, the righteous Judge.
Behold, O lover of money, this man who because of money hanged himself.
Flee from the greedy soul which dared such things against the Master.
O Lord, who is good towards all men, glory to You!

Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet

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