Today here in Canterbury we are remembering the first Anglo Saxon king to become Christian. His name is St Ethelbert. Before he became king is married a Christian Frankish princess named Bertha. One of the conditions of the marriage was that she be free to practise her own faith.
When St Augustine arrived the king was cautious. He met Augustine outside as he was afraid that Augustine would put a magic spell on him. Initially king did not feel he could accept this Christian teaching although he felt their words were fair indeed. He said he did not want to “abandon the age-old beliefs that I have held together with the whole English nation”. Ethelbert gave them a home in Canterbury and allowed them to preach and make converts. He also gave them land outside the city walls to build St Peter and St Paul’s, which was renamed St Augustines. We think that he was eventually baptised in 601.
It is said that Ethelbert would not allow any sort of compulsion to be brought to bear on his subjects, saying that Christ must be accepted freely. Pope Gregory who wrote to him after his baptism doesn’t seem to see things that way. He urged Ethelbert to “Press on with the work extending the Christian faith among the people committed to your charge. Make their conversion your first concern; suppress the worship of idols, and destroy their shrines…”
This contrasting approaches reminds me of what Pope Francis said to a group of Jesuits. “…evangelisation is free! Proselytism, on the other hand, makes you lose your freedom. Proselytism is incapable of creating a religious path in freedom. It always sees people being subjugated in one way or another. In evangelisation the protagonist is God, in proselytism it is the I.
St. Francis of Assisi told his friars: “Go out to the world, evangelise. And, if necessary, use words, too.” Evangelisation is essentially witness. Proselytising is convincing, but it is all about membership and takes your freedom away. I believe that this distinction can be of great help. Benedict XVI in Aparecida said something wonderful, that the Church does not grow by proselytism, it grows by attraction, the attraction of witness”.
Lord, fill me with your Spirit that I may be a living and affective witness of your Gospel through my life . May I be a light that attracts others to your Son, Jesus.