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Why is Headquarters for the Church of England in Canterbury?

One of the largest Christian groups is known as Anglican Communion. In the USA it goes by another name: The Episcopal Church. The Anglican Communion numbers around 80 million members and has churches in 160 countries. Originally, and in some places, the Anglican/Episcopal family of churches goes by still another name, the Church of England.

Now that you know that, a question. This Anglican Communion/Episcopal Church/Church of England has many members and many churches in many countries and the head of this body is known as the Archbishop of blank: name the city. If you said London you would not be right, although it would be a good guess. The head of this Communion/Church is known as the Archbishop of Canterbury. But why not London, since that is the capital of England? The answer to that has a 1400-year history.

The Roman influence of England began with Julius Caesar in 55 BC. By the AD 400s, the Romans had left England. Fast forward to the late 500s and some English (Angeles) slaves were in Rome. A Christian leader named Gregory saw them in the market place. The story picks up as told in the Life of Gregory written in the early 700s in England: “There came to Rome some of our nation who were fair of form having blond curls. Those with him [Gregory] heard that they had come, [and] saw how he delighted in seeing them . . . He questioned them as to whose people they were . . . When they replied: ‘We are those who are spoken of as Angeles,’ he said, ‘You are angels of God.’ Then he said: What is the name of the king of those people.’ And they said, ‘Aelle,’ [for that was the king’s name], and he said ‘Alleluia, for God ought now to be praised.’”

According to some sources, Gregory himself wanted to go to England but was prevented from doing so. After becoming Pope, Gregory I sent the Gregorian Mission in 596: Augustine, who was second-in-charge [under the abbot and called a prior] of a monastery in Rome, and forty others. The men traveled to England and went to the kingdom of Kent. England at that time consisted of several kingdoms, and the reason for going to Kent are uncertain.

Once Augustine and the other missionaries landed in Kent in 597 they went to the capital city and preached to King Aethelberht. Their task was made somewhat easier in that the king had married a Christian princess, named Bertha, who was the daughter of the king of Paris. The king converted to Christianity and the missionaries were able to preach throughout the kingdom. Large numbers of people became Christian. Yet the center of this activity was the capital city of King Aetherberht. And the capital city was Canterbury.

Augustine and Gregory did communicate, and in one correspondence Gregory instructed Augustine to establish centers of Christianity in other parts of present-day England, including one in London. One source stated that Gregory wanted the center of Christianity moved to London, but this did not happen. One reason is that London was located in another kingdom, that of Essex. And so Canterbury remained the center of Christianity, known as the archiepiscopal see.

Eventually London would eclipse Canterbury and all other cities in England as the main city and become the capital. Today the Archbishop of Canterbury has several residences, and the main one is at Lambeth Palace in London. Yet, as part of his role as Archbishop, he is bishop over the Diocese of Canterbury. And so the first site where Gregory I sent Augustine in 596 became indelibly identified with the head of the Church of England.

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