Chapter 5: Many Mansions
For a time we lived as a family in the Old Deanery at Wells in Somerset. This is a historic house, dating back before the time of the Tudors. King Henry VII slept there in the early years of the sixteenth century and Sir Walter Raleigh’s nephew, who was Dean of Wells at the start of the Civil War, may have been murdered in the house.
It was fascinating to try to trace how the building had been altered and adapted over the centuries by every generation. The same is true of the church. It is like a body. It is a continuously developing organism, so the history of the church -- indeed of any religion -- is a story of continuity and change and the church today has been shaped by the past. But Christianity is not one ‘house’. There are many different churches and denominations and ‘houses’ in almost all the countries of the world. In a few pages, it is only possible to pick out the highlights.
In looking at the central beliefs of Christians we have already seen wide differences. In part, these are reflected in denominational divisions, but many of the differences are cultural or to do with church order or caused by political influence, or they reflect different temperaments and patterns of worship. Yet in the bewildering variety, there is continuity. Although, for example, Christians may come to scripture with very different presuppositions, it is the same scripture that they approach. Again, one may attend the Eucharist in another country without any knowledge of the language or local ceremonies, and yet recognize the Eucharistic action of blessing and breaking bread and blessing the cup.
There was a time when it was presumed that there was a single truth of a religion that could be identified and that those who had different beliefs were wrong and perhaps heretics who should be shunned. Some people still have this approach. A growing number of people recognize that ‘truth’ is related to the person who thinks and speaks. Thus today people acknowledge a variety of theologies -- such as Liberation theology, Black theology, Feminist theology. I recall that when I was a student a number of books were being written on New Testament theology which made the attempt to argue that there was one consistent theology in the New Testament. Now it is recognized that Peter and Paul and James and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews had very different ways of expressing their belief. Christian faith, as we have suggested, is not, in the first instance, acceptance of certain intellectual dogmas, but trust in the Living God. Theological reflection may be compared to several critics viewing a statue from different positions. The standpoint of the beholder colors what is seen.
With such an approach it is possible to rejoice in the enormous variety of Christian churches. Visitors from the West to Jerusalem are sometimes bewildered by the many different denominations represented there -- such as Ethiopian or Abyssinian or Coptic, as well as Catholic and Orthodox and Lutheran and Anglican. They may also be surprised to meet Christian pilgrims from Korea and the Philippines, as well as from Cyprus, Italy and Texas. Yet the visitor might also marvel that the Christian faith has taken root in an amazing variety of cultures, although it has to be said that such an ecumenical spirit has seldom been characteristic of the churches. Christian history has been marked by fierce argument, persecution of opponents, division and even religious wars.
The Early Church
Jews and Gentiles
There seem to have been some heated disagreements in the early church, although they have been glossed over in New Testament writings. The main one, about the attitude of Jews, Jewish believers and gentile believers to each other, has had a lasting effect on Jewish- Christian relationships. The main question, discussed in the Acts of the Apostles and in Paul’s letters, was whether gentiles could become members of the church and on what terms. The so-called ‘Judaisers’ insisted that any gentile believer in Jesus had to be circumcised and become a Jew. Paul strenuously resisted this position (Gal. 2:14-16). His attacks on the Jewish Law in his epistles do not seem to have been on the Torah as such, although this is how they have often been understood, but upon those who insisted that gentile believers were required to observe all the commandments of the Law. According to Acts 15, Paul, at the Council of Jerusalem, won the support of Peter and James and the other members of the Jerusalem church for his position that gentile believers did not need to be circumcised. It was agreed, however, that they should ‘abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality’ (Acts 15:29).
The Jerusalem church, which was headed by James the brother of Jesus, remained within the Jewish fold, although James is said to have been killed by the Jews in 62 CE. The leadership of the Jerusalem church passed to another blood-relation of Jesus. When, in the late sixties, the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, the Christians fled to Pella, a gentile town east of the river Jordan, where they survived for a time.
Early Christian writers speak of two groups of Jewish Christians, the Nazarenes and the Ebionites. The Nazarenes held that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and that his teachings were superior to those of Moses and the prophets. They held that Christians of Jewish descent should observe the Jewish Law. The Ebionites, however, held that Jesus was only a prophet. Some of the Ebionites accepted the virgin birth, but others held that Jesus was the son of Joseph and that the Christ descended upon him at his baptism. The Ebionites repudiated Paul because they held that he had rejected the Law. It seems, in fact, that Paul did not argue against Jewish believers in Jesus continuing to keep the Law, but he rejected any attempt to impose the Law on gentile believers.
Increasingly the church did try to stop Jewish believers in Jesus from keeping the Jewish Law. In the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr said that he would accept those who continued to observe the Torah into Christian fellowship, provided they did not seek to persuade gentile Christians that they too had to follow the Mosaic Law. Justin admitted that other gentile Christians did not show the same leniency.1 By the fourth century, the church had ruled that it was heretical even for believers of Jewish birth to observe the Law. Augustine wrote that ‘the ceremonies of the Jews are both baneful and deadly to Christians and whoever keeps them whether Jew or gentile, is doomed to the abyss of the devil’.2 In recent years, to the anger of many in the Jewish community, some Christians of Jewish descent, such as the Messianic Jews, have tried to observe much of the Torah while affirming that Jesus is the Messiah. More widely the church has attempted to recover its Jewish roots, recognizing that the developments of the early centuries impoverished the church and were a cause of lasting bitterness between members of the two religions.
The Spread of the Faith
By the end of the first century, the membership of the church was predominantly gentile. Indeed, by the time that Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, only a generation after the resurrection of Jesus, the church in Rome was already mostly gentile. The Acts of the Apostles tells of Paul’s missionary journeys. There are also stories about the missionary travels of other apostles. There is a tradition that Thomas went to southern India and that Bartholomew was martyred in Armenia.
The first churches were mostly in urban areas, founded by Christians who followed the trade routes from city to city. By the middle of the second century, in parts of Asia Minor, Christianity had spread widely to the smaller towns and even into the countryside. We know little about the expansion of Christianity in the second century, but by the end of that century Christians were to be found in every province of the Empire, as well as in Mesopotamia. Even in Britain there were Christians in areas not under Roman control, according to Tertullian, who wrote in about 208. St. Alban, the first English martyr, may have died under Emperor Septimius Severus (c.209), although some scholars date his death to the persecutions under the Emperor Diocletian (c305).
The growth of the church was even more marked in the third century, especially in the eastern part of the Empire. We know a little about how this happened from the writings of Gregory, later known as Thaumaturgos or ‘Worker of Wonders’ (c.213-c.270), who was one of the leading third-century Christians in Asia Minor. He was a native of Pontus and reared as a pagan. He was from a wealthy family and for part of his education he traveled to Palestine, where he came under the influence of Origen. Gregory became a Christian and on his return to Pontus, he was persuaded to become bishop. He set about trying to convert the rest of the people in the diocese. He was so successful that it was said that when he became bishop he found only seventeen other Christians there and that when he died, about thirty years later, there were only seventeen pagans. He made conversion easier by substituting festivals in honor of Christian martyrs in place of the old pagan festivals.
Another area where the church grew steadily was north Africa, at the time the granary of the Roman Empire. There the church was Latin-speaking and produced great writers and leaders such as Tertullian (c.160-c.225), who was brought up in Carthage, and Cyprian (d.258), who was a pagan orator who was converted to Christianity in about 246 and who, two years later, was elected Bishop of Carthage.
Until the fourth century Christians were at constant risk of persecution from the Roman authorities. Ten major persecutions are enumerated, beginning with Nero in the first century and ending with one launched by Diocletian early in the fourth century. The account of Nero’s persecution comes from the Roman historian Tacitus (c. 56-c.l20), writing about fifty years after the event. He says that Nero, to escape the ugly rumor that he had given orders to start the great fire of Rome, tried to pin the blame on the Christians. They were accused of hatred of the human race. They were wrapped in the hides of wild beasts and then torn in pieces by dogs. Others were fastened to crosses which were set on fire to illuminate a circus that Nero was staging in his gardens. According to tradition, both Peter and Paul died in these persecutions.
An interesting correspondence on the punishment of Christians survives between Pliny the Elder (c.61-l 13), who had been sent to reorganize the province of Bithynia, and the Emperor Trajan (c.53-117; ruled 98-117). Pliny said that he had not previously had to deal with Christians. He did not know whether any allowance was made for the age of the accused nor ‘whether pardon is given to those who repent’ nor ‘whether punishment attaches to the mere name apart from secret crimes, or to the secret crimes connected with the name’.3 In reply, Trajan wrote that Christians ‘are not to be sought out, but if they are accused and convicted, they must be punished -- yet on this condition, that whoso denies himself to be a Christian, and makes the fact plain by his action, that is by worshipping our gods, shall obtain pardon on his repentance, however suspicious his past conduct may be’.4 The Emperor Hadrian (76-138; ruled 117-138) made clear that slanderous accusations against Christians were unacceptable and that it had to be proved that they had acted contrary to the laws.
Jews were exempt from emperor-worship, but that exemption did not extend to Christians. Refusing to join in the worship of the emperor may have been an offence. Certainly Christians avoided pagan festivals. Vicious rumors circulated about their immorality and that they ate human flesh and drank human blood. At a more intellectual level, Porphyry (c.232-c.303), an early leader of the Neoplatonists, pointed to some of the discrepancies in the Christian scriptures.
The most severe general persecution took place in the middle of the third century under Emperor Decius (249-251). We do not know his motives, but he seems to have wanted to reinstate the old gods of Rome. In 251 Decius was killed in battle and for the time being Christians were spared, but under Valerian (253-260) persecution was redoubled. The last great persecution was under Diocletian (304-11). One result of this was the Donatist schism in North Africa, where some Christians refused to accept the consecration of Caecilian as Bishop of Carthage in 311, because he had been a traditor, that is to say, he handed over copies of the Bible to avoid persecution. The rigorism of the Donatists, named after their second bishop, was not accepted by the majority, but the Donatist church survived into the eighth century, by which time North Africa had come under Muslim rule.
Mention of the Donatists is a reminder of the agonizing choices that those who have faced persecution have had to make, as much in the twentieth century under Fascist and Communist regimes, as in the early centuries of the church. The persecutions caused severe suffering and many believers faced martyrdom with great courage. When the aged Polycarp (c.69-c.155), Bishop of Smyrna, was led into the arena, the proconsul urged him to ‘Curse Christ’ and then he would release him. ‘Eighty-six years have I served him’, Polycarp answered, ‘and he has done me no wrong: how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’5
The Conversion of Constantine
The conversion of the Emperor Constantine (306-337) to Christianity was a dramatic change which had far-reaching consequences. Constantine’s father, Constantius Chlorus, was governor of Britain, Gaul and Spain at the time of the Diocletian persecutions. He seems never to have had much stomach for the persecutions, which were half-heartedly enforced in his territories. When Diocletian and Maximinian abdicated, he became one of their successors. On his death in 306, his son Constantine was proclaimed emperor by his troops in York. Constantine then had a long struggle to become sole emperor, which he only achieved in 323 with the defeat of Licinius.
It was in 312, as he marched toward Rome to face a formidable opponent called Maxentius, that Constantine took a first decisive step toward Christianity. It seems he had heard that Maxentius was relying on pagan magic. Years later, Constantine told his friend Bishop Eusebius (c.260-340), the most eminent of early church historians, that in the early afternoon, as he was praying, he had a vision of a cross of light in the heavens bearing the inscription ‘Conquer by this’. Later, in a dream, he saw the same sign and ordered his soldiers to mark this sign on their shields. In the battle at the Milvian Bridge, near Rome, Constantine was successful and captured Rome. The next year at Milan, he met with Licinius, with whom he temporarily divided the empire. They issued an edict tolerating Christianity. The details are obscure. It seems that Constantine already tolerated Christianity in the provinces under his control, so the Edict of Milan may have extended this toleration to the Eastern Empire.
Constantine’s policy was one of toleration. He did not make Christianity the official religion of the Empire. To his death, he kept the old pagan title pontifex maximus and was only baptized on his deathbed. Even so, he increasingly came to favor Christianity. He built and enlarged many churches. He exempted clergy from taxation, until the sudden influx of recruits for the priesthood meant that he had to limit this concession! He prohibited the repair of ruined temples. His mother Helena (c.255 – c.330) visited the Holy Land in 326 and identified several of the holy places, including the birthplace of Jesus at Bethlehem, where she built the Church of the Nativity, which is one of the most ancient churches that pilgrims continue to visit to this day. Constantine’s sons were more affirmative of the Christian faith and quite soon, despite a set-back under Julian the Apostate (361-63), Christianity became the official religion of the Empire.
There continues to be debate about Constantine’s motivation and indeed whether official recognition was a curse or a blessing. Was his action indeed inspired by a vision or based on shrewd political calculation? Constantine could see the strength of Christianity and hoped it could be a unifying force in the Empire. That is why he summoned the Council of Nicaea in 325 in the hope of uniting the church against Arianism. The emperors, however, found there were frequent disputes in the churches and their efforts to enforce uniformity soon led to the persecution of so-called ‘heretics’, some of whom fomented discontent in the Empire or from beyond its boundaries.
In 324, Constantine defeated Licinius at Chrysopolis and became sole emperor. Almost immediately he chose as the site of his new capital Byzantium, a Greek city that had had a Christian community from at least the second century. When he inaugurated the city in 330, he named it Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The centre of imperial power had moved to the eastern Mediterranean. At its height, under Emperor Justinian I (527-65), Constantinople had a population of about half a million. In 381, the bishop of the city was given honorary pre-eminence after the Bishop of Rome. Despite a challenge from Alexandria, the Patriarch of Constantinople was by the sixth century, recognized as the Ecumenical Patriarch in the East. There was, however, gradual estrangement from Rome and the final breach is usually dated to 1054. Although in 1483 the city fell to the Muslim Turks, it remains the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople who has a primacy of honor within the Orthodox churches.
Hardly anything survives from Constantine’s city, but the great church of Hagia Sophia, ‘Divine Wisdom’, now a mosque, which was rebuilt on more than one occasion, is on the site of the church built by Constantine, which was itself built on the foundations of a pagan temple. The building is considered one of the world’s most beautiful edifices.
Challenges and Conversions in the West
Whilst the Roman or Byzantine Empire in the East was at its height, the Empire in the West had begun to crumble under the onslaught of barbarians from the north. Their conquest is sometimes said to have begun in 378 when the Goths defeated and killed the Emperor Valens at the battle of Adrianople. The capture and sack of Rome by Alaric in 410 was an even more spectacular disaster, which prompted Augustine to write the City of God although Rome recovered quite quickly.
Yet whilst the imperial power of Rome in the West was crumbling, Christianity was conquering the new rulers and the see of Rome was becoming the moral leader of the West. In 496, Clovis, King of the Franks, was baptized. This was a landmark in the conversion of the Germanic invaders and other rulers followed Clovis’ example.
The Mission to England
The story of the mission to England, of which we have some detail, may serve as an illustration of the wider process. The mission to England, according to tradition, was inaugurated directly by Gregory, who was to become Pope Gregory the Great. In about 586, Gregory was in the slave market in Rome and noticed some slave boys with fair bodies and light hair. On inquiring about them, he was told they came from Britain, where the people were pagan, and that they were Angles. ‘Right,’ he said, ‘for they have an angelic face and it becomes such to be co-heirs with the angels in heaven.’ When he was told that they were from the province of Deiri, he exclaimed, ‘Truly they are de ira, withdrawn from wrath and called to the mercy of Christ.’6 Gregory offered himself to the Pope to go and convert them, but this was refused. When Gregory himself became Pope, he persuaded Augustine to lead a mission to Britain, which set out from Rome in 596, a century after the baptism of Clovis and thirty-nine years before A-lo-pen brought the faith to China.
On arriving in England, Augustine approached the King of Kent, who had a Christian wife, and who allowed Augustine to establish his mission at his capital city of Canterbury. Before long, the king was baptized and many of his subjects followed his example. Pope Gregory kept in touch with the mission by letter and authorized Augustine to appoint twelve diocesan bishops and to place a bishop at York, who was to become an archbishop when the number of Christians increased. To this day, Canterbury and York are the English archiepiscopal sees and it was at York in 627 that St. Paulinus baptized Edwin, King of Northumbria. living close to the abbey at Dorchester-on-Thames, I am regularly reminded of the legacy of that early mission, because there in 634 one of the next generation of Christian missionaries, St Birinus, converted Cynegils, King of Wessex.
St Augustine, of course, was not the first to introduce Christianity to Britain. At Glastonbury in Somerset, there is a legend that Joseph of Arimathea came there. There is no solid evidence for this, although there were trading links between Syria and Britain, and another legend, referred to in William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, claims that Joseph of Arimathea had brought Jesus as a child to the west of England. Certainly, Celtic Christianity had been flourishing for some centuries before Augustine arrived and he caused some resentment by his lack of tact. An attempt to reconcile the two traditions was made at the Synod of Whitby in 664, but it was Theodore of Tarsus, who came to England as Archbishop in 668, who united the Christians in England and who was the first bishop whom all English Christians were willing to obey.
Further west, Irish missionaries were winning people to Christ. The apostle of the Irish was St Patrick (c.390-c.460), who was born in Britain of a Romanized family and brought up as a Christian. When he was sixteen, he was captured by Irish pirates and spent six bleak years as a herdsman in County Mayo, during which he turned with fervor to Christ. Eventually he escaped back to Britain and was reunited with his family. But, in a dream, as we know from his Confessio, which he wrote in his old age, one Victoricus handed Patrick a letter headed ‘The Voice of the Irish’. As he read it he seemed to hear a group of Irish people pleading with him to walk once more among them. ‘Deeply moved’, he said, ‘I could read no more.’ He trained to be a priest, probably in Gaul, and after a time he was sent to be ‘bishop in Ireland’ and seems to have established his see at Armagh.
Two hundred years later, missionaries from Ireland helped to spread the faith in northern Europe. The most famous Irish missionary to the Frankish kingdoms was St Columbanus (c.543-6l5), who was a contemporary of Gregory the Great. St Columba (c.521-97), who was slightly older than both Columbanus and Gregory, was another Irish missionary. In about 562, moved ‘by the love of Christ’, he left Ireland and with twelve companions established a base on the rocky island of Iona, off the Scottish coast, from where he evangelized the mainland of Scotland and Northumbria. In modern times, the Iona Community was founded in 1938 by George MacLeod (1895-1991) to express the theology of the incarnation in social terms. His plan was that members should spend three months each year in community preparing for work in industrial areas of Scotland or in the mission field. The abbey has been restored and to the many pilgrims who visit it each year, Iona is a centre of spiritual renewal.
A century after Columba, missionaries from England were going to the continent. St Willibrord (658 -- 739), from Northumbria, worked in the Netherlands whilst the greatest successes of Wynifrith (c.680- 754), who is better known as St Boniface, who came from Crediton in Devon, were in Germany. The Saxons continued to resist the gospel and their conversion in the latter part of the eighth century followed their conquest by Charlemagne. It was another 150 years before most of Scandinavia was converted.
By the year 1000, almost all of western Europe was Christian and during the previous centuries the popes in Rome had been increasing their authority and power, as well as accumulating land. In the year 800, it was the Pope who crowned Charlemagne as Roman Emperor in Rome, although Charlemagne was too forceful a character to be overshadowed by the Pope. Charlemagne’s successors were less powerful and as they became unable to hold overbearing archbishops in check, bishops appealed to the Pope for support and this increased papal authority. Some of the popes, such as Nicholas I (858-67) were very able men, although in the early tenth century there was a succession of ineffective popes, most of whom held office only for a very short time. In the period between 897 and 955, there were seventeen popes.
The Rise of Islam
Whilst in western Europe Christianity had been expanding, in the east large areas of Christendom surrendered to Islam. The power of Byzantium, as we have seen, was at its height under Emperor Justinian I (527-65). He built many churches; he issued the Justinian legal code, which profoundly influenced Western canon law and he tried to uphold orthodoxy by calling the Fifth Ecumenical Council, which condemned the Monophysites, who held that Christ had only a divine and not a human nature. The Monophysites refused to comply with Justinian’s demands and found allies amongst those in Egypt, Ethiopia, Syria and Armenia who resented control from Constantinople. Theological and regional opposition to the emperor weakened the Empire and made it less able to withstand the attacks of Muslims, especially as heretical Christians were likely to be treated more leniently by Muslim than by Byzantine rulers.
The early seventh century saw a resurgence of Persian attacks on the Empire. In 611, the Persians took Antioch and then seized control of Syria and Palestine, pillaging Jerusalem and killing hundreds of Christians. The Persians also captured Alexandria in about 618 and took control of Egypt. At the same time, the Empire was being attacked by the Avars and Slavs from the north. In the 620s the situation was reversed. Emperor Heraclius bought off the Avars and reasserted the imperial power in the eastern Mediterranean, recapturing Syria, Palestine, including Jerusalem, and Egypt. The struggle, however, had drained the Empire’s resources so that it was not able to withstand a new threat.
The Prophet Muhammad (570-632) had a deep respect for Jesus, who is mentioned several times in the Qur’an. The Qur’an, however, denied that Jesus was crucified, because God would not allow any servant of his to meet such a fate. The Qur’an, with its insistence on the Oneness of God, also denied Christian claims that Jesus was the Son of God. For some centuries, many Christians regarded Islam as a Christian heresy, but Muslims believed that Muhammad had received a fresh revelation from God and that Islam was a restatement of the eternal religion, which had also been proclaimed by Moses and Jesus, although their message had been corrupted by their followers.
In the years after Muhammad’s death, Islam expanded rapidly. Under the leadership of the Caliphs, Arabs captured Damascus in 636. In the following year, all Syria came under their control and in 638, after a two-year siege, Jerusalem was captured by Omar (634-44), who treated the Christians honorably. Jerusalem became the third most holy city of the Muslim world, as it was from Jerusalem that Muhammad began his night journey to heaven. The so-called ‘Mosque of Omar’, the beautiful Dome of the Rock, was not in fact built by Omar, but by Abd el Melek Ibn Merwan. An inscription says it was built in AH 72 (691 CE). Alexandria was captured in about 642, whilst by 650 Mesopotamia and much of Persia was under Muslim control, as was some of North Africa. In 697, Carthage, the centre of Byzantine power in North Africa, fell to the Arabs and then early in the eighth century the Muslims crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and took control of much of Spain until their advance was halted at the battle of Tours or Poitiers in 732.
Muslim conquests did not mean the immediate end of Christianity in those areas. Islam regarded both Jews and Christians as ‘people of the book’. They were given a second-class status as dhimmi, but allowed some freedom, although they were subject to quite heavy taxation. Many Christians, however, fled. Catholics from North Africa took refuge in Sicily and southern Italy, whilst Greeks retreated to areas under the control of Byzantium. It was virtually impossible for the church to recruit new members and some Christians converted to Islam, either from conviction or for convenience.
Several of the Monophysite churches, however, have survived under Islam. One example is the Coptic Church of Egypt. Prior to the Arab conquest, the people of Egypt identified themselves and their language in Greek as Aigyptos, which in Arabic is qibt, which is westernized as Copt. The term came to be the distinctive name of the Egyptian Christian minority. According to tradition, the church in Egypt was founded by St Mark. Alexandria was one of the chief sees of the early church, but Christians in Egypt suffered severely under the Diocletian persecutions. Then at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Dioscorus (d.454), the Patriarch of Alexandria, was condemned. The Egyptian church became formally Monophysite and increasingly isolated. The Orthodox, or so-called ‘Melchite church’, comprising those Christians who remained in communion with Constantinople, received little support from the local people.
The Coptic church has survived long centuries of Arab rule. It was to their favor that they too opposed the Byzantium rulers. Under Arab rule, they started to use Arabic versions of the Bible and to use some Arabic in the liturgy. There are some Coptic dioceses outside Egypt, for example in Jerusalem and the Sudan. The Coptic church adopted a democratic form of government in 1890. It has a number of schools. In recent years, the church has been under some pressure with the rise of fundamentalist Muslim groups in Egypt and a hostile regime in the Sudan. The Coptic church is in communion with the Ethiopian, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox churches. There is also a small Uniat Coptic church dating from 1741 when Athanasius, the Coptic Bishop of Jerusalem, joined the Roman Catholic church.
Another Monophysite church is the Syrian Orthodox church, whose members are sometimes called Jacobites, which descends from the Monophysite movement in the patriarchate of Antioch. Its numbers have declined with the difficulties of being a minority and because of severe losses during the Mughal invasions in the fourteenth century and by massacres in Turkish territory in the twentieth-century. They number about 300,000 in the Middle East and about 50,000 in North and South America. There are various Syrian churches in South India.
The fascinating stories of other Eastern churches, such as the Armenian or Nestorian churches, are too little known in the West. The Nestorians, who were keen missionaries, reached China in the Tang period (618-907).7
Amidst this numerical ebb and flow of the Church in the centuries from the conversion of Constantine to the end of the first Christian millennium, the most significant spiritual development was the growth of the monastic movement.
With official favor and even wealth, it was no longer a sacrifice to become a Christian. This led some of the more devout to escape the temptations of public life and go into the desert, either as hermits or to live in communities.
It was in Egypt in the third century that Christian monasticism first developed. Neoplatonism, which stressed the value of contemplation, was influential in the area. Egypt was also at the time a country with political and economic disorders and this may have encouraged spiritually minded people to withdraw from the world.
There is an ascetic strand in the New Testament with its emphasis on poverty and sacrifice. Renunciation might include family ties (Mark 10:29). In Matthew’s gospel there is a verse which says ‘others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven’, although an alternative reading says ‘others have made themselves eunuchs because of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 19:12). Paul was celibate, but he did not appeal to a direct command from the Lord to support his position. Peter and other apostles were married. Jesus, although it is presumed he did not marry, was spoken of as a ‘wine-bibber’ compared to his austere cousin John the Baptist.
Celibacy came quickly to be prized by the church. The second-century text The Shepherd of Hermas, whilst accepting that Christian widows and widowers might remarry, said that ‘they would gain great honor and glory of the Lord’ if they refrained from doing so. In 305, the Synod of Elvira in Spain demanded celibacy of bishops and other clergy, and this came to be the rule in the Western church. In the Eastern church, those who were married before ordination could continue to live with their wives, except for a bishop who was expected to find a nunnery where his wife could live.
At the Reformation, the Protestant churches repudiated the requirement that clergy should be celibate. The Roman Catholic church during the Catholic Reformation reaffirmed the rule, although as an ecclesiastical institution which, at least in theory, is open to the possibility of change. The Roman Catholic church continues to insist that clergy should be celibate, although a number of clergy renounce their orders as they are unable to meet this requirement. Celibacy occasions considerable debate. Some feel it reflects a negative valuation of human sexuality based on the dualism of Hellenistic thought, which saw salvation as a freeing of the soul from the body, rather than the biblical tradition which affirms the goodness of the whole creation.
The most famous of the early monks was St Antony (c.251-356). His parents died when he was about eighteen, leaving him to care for his sister. One day in church he heard a reading of Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’ (Matt. 19:21). Antony did just this, keeping only enough to provide for his sister. When he was about thirty-five, Antony retired completely to the desert. A number of other hermits gathered round him and in 305 he came out of his solitude to organize his disciples into a community of hermits living under a rule, although with much less common life than later orders. Antony foreshadowed two types of monasticism: one, the life of complete solitude and the other a way of life whereby monks continued to live in isolation, but with some opportunity for fellowship.
A third type of monasticism, known as the coenobitic (from the Greek ‘for living together’), provides for monks to live together in a community with rules and a head monk. The pioneer of this approach was St Pachomius (c.290-346), a younger contemporary of Antony and another Egyptian.
The Growth of Monasticism
In the fourth and fifth centuries monasticism spread quickly and widely. Some of the monks practiced extreme austerities, including those, like St Simeon Stylites (c390-459), who lived on the top of a pillar. The majority lived in community, and the rule worked out in 358 by St Basil the Great (c.330-79), the brother of St Gregory of Nyssa and one of the Cappadocian fathers, was widely influential. It remains the basis of the way of life still followed by monks in the Eastern Church.
The patriarch of Western monasticism was St Benedict of Nursia (c.480-c.550), who in c.500, because of the licentiousness of Roman society, withdrew to a cave at Subiaco, forty miles to the east of Rome. Twenty-five years later, he moved to Monte Cassino, which became the chief monastery of the Benedictine Order. The buildings were destroyed in 1944 but have been rebuilt. At Monte Cassino, Benedict planned the reform of monasticism and drew up his rule, which became the basis of the way of life followed by many Western monastic orders, such as the Carthusians and Cistercians. The rule consists of seventy-three terse chapters, which deal with spiritual matters and questions of organization, liturgy and discipline. Stability and obedience are paramount. ‘Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not just to the abbot, but to one another, since we know that it is by the way of obedience that we go to God.’ The main work is the divine office (opus dei), the regular worship of God, together with private prayer, reading and work. It was a simple, regulated life. The monasteries were places of stability in a disorderly world and became important centers of scholarship and Christian mission.
A New Millennium
Although the start of the second millennium is a convenient date to mark the new vigor of the Christian world, the renewal probably began some fifty years earlier. The next centuries were to see the spread of Christianity into north-western and central Europe, the recapture of the Iberian peninsula and the attempt, through the Crusades, to regain the Holy Land. The period was also marked by new vigor in the Byzantine Empire.
In 962, Otto I, who had been king of the Germans since 936, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor and brought stability to much of western Europe. Just over one hundred years later, William the Conqueror created the foundation of a strong state in England. The period saw the emergence of Christian monarchies in Spain and in Scandinavia. It was a period also of economic expansion, although China of the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) was far richer, more populous and more sophisticated. India, too, although politically divided, was probably richer and more advanced in civilization.
Denmark, Sweden and Norway all became Christian in the latter half of the tenth century. Harald Bluetooth (c.910 – c.985), King of Denmark, was baptized just before 950 and his son claimed that he had made the Danes Christian. There was, however, a reaction and it was under Canute (1016-35). King of Denmark and England, that the faith became firmly established. Canute, a devout Christian, made a pilgrimage to Rome and ordered his subjects to learn the Lord’s Prayer and to go to Communion at least three times a year. In Norway, Haakon the Good (r. c946-c961), who had been reared at the English court, tried to win his people to Christianity, but was thwarted by the landowners. It was left to St Olave (Olaf) (995-1030) to spread the faith. The conversion of Sweden was rather later, but in 1164 it was given its own archiepiscopal see at Uppsala.
Vikings and Norsemen also took news of the gospel to Iceland, Greenland and North America. At the same time, Christianity was spreading eastwards to Russia, along both a northern and a southern route. It was under St Vladimir I (c.956 -1015) that the mass conversion of the people of Kiev began. By the end of his reign in 1015, there were three bishoprics. It is said that Vladimir was visited by representatives of Islam, Judaism, Latin Christianity and Greek Christianity and that it was the Greek delegation which made the greatest impression. The church adopted the Byzantine rite in the old Slavonic language. Despite his choice, Vladimir was determined to assert his political independence of Constantinople. In the fourteenth century the leadership of the church moved from Kiev to Moscow and independence from Greek Orthodoxy was established.
The early years of the second millennium saw Christianity established in Poland and Hungary and other parts of Eastern Europe and by 1350, except for Lithuania, where mass baptisms were ordered in 1386, and Finland, most of Europe was Christian, at least in name, although pagan practices survived in secret in some areas.
Gradually Spain was won back from Muslim rule. For a time there was a flowering of Spanish culture, for example at Toledo, to which Muslim, Jewish and Christian influences contributed, but this Golden Age was not to last. Increasingly, Christian kingdoms, despite their rivalries, asserted control. In 1034, the Caliphate of Cordoba came to an end and the only Muslim foothold was the small state of Granada, which was eventually captured by King Ferdinand of Aragon (r.1474- 1516) and Queen Isabella of Castille (r.1474-1504), in 1492, the same year in which Columbus set out for the Americas and in which the Jews were expelled from Spain.
The use of force against those who did not share the Christian faith, be they pagan, Muslim or Jewish, was taken for granted by almost all Christians at the time. Religion was also closely related to political power and it was used by rulers to bind their stakes together. Christians today deplore the persecution of Jews and the attacks on Muslims, both of which have left a painful legacy that only now members of the three faiths are starting to address.
Although the Crusades were in the name of Christianity, their causes were to a considerable extent economic and political. The Byzantine Empire was threatened by Muslim power. The Pope, whilst wanting to give assistance to Christians in the East, also hoped to restore unity between the two branches of the Church and to strengthen his authority. Religious motivation was also significant. Many Christians traveled to Jerusalem on pilgrimage and at the time difficulties were being put in their way. Clearly, when in November 1095 Pope Urban II (1088-99), in a stirring sermon at a Synod in Clermont in France, appealed for a crusade to free the holy places, he caught the popular mood. The congregation shouted out ‘Deus vult’, ‘God wills it’. The Pope promised a ‘plenary indulgence’ -- a pardon for all sins -- to those who enlisted for the crusade. Popular preachers, such as Peter the Hermit, whipped up support of the people, often by maligning Jews and Muslims.
The First Crusade captured Antioch in 1098, with great slaughter, and in the following year took Jerusalem, killing many of its inhabitants. For a time Christian rule was established in the Holy Land, but after a crushing victory at Hattin in 1187, Muslims recaptured Jerusalem and most of the Crusaders’ centres. A Third Crusade was launched in 1189, in which King Richard of England (r. 1157- 99), the so-called ‘Lionhearted’, took part. In 1202, when papal power was at its height, Pope Innocent III launched the Fourth Crusade, which was diverted into storming and plundering Constantinople in 1204. A Latin Patriarch was established and for a time the church was united under the Pope. The Byzantine Empire, however, survived with its headquarters at Nicaea and in 1261 won back Constantinople, putting an end to Latin rule there. Neither Christian control of the Holy Land nor a united church could be achieved by force. Constantinople was fatally weakened by the Latin attack and eventually, in 1453, it fell to the Muslim Ottoman Turks.
The external expansion of Christianity in the period from the middle of the tenth century to the middle of the thirteenth century was matched by a period of vigorous growth in church life, followed by a period of stagnation or decline.
Monks and Friars
There was a renewal of monastic life, led by the monastery of Cluny, north of Lyons in France, and its abbots, of whom its founder Berno and his successor Odo (abbot 926-42) and the fifth abbot, Odilo (abbot 994-1084), were especially influential. In the twelfth century the leadership in creative monastic life passed to the Cistercians, of whom perhaps the best-known was St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). A vigorous and influential personality, he had a deep mystical devotion to Jesus, as is shown in the hymn ascribed to him, Jesu, dulcis memoria of which the best-known English translation begins ‘Jesus, the very thought of thee with sweetness fills the breast’
A new development in the thirteenth century was the coming of the Friars or mendicant orders, namely, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Carmelites and the Augustinians.
St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) is one of the most attractive figures in Christian history. He was born in Assisi in Italy. His father was a prosperous cloth merchant and as a youth Francis was a lively member of the young aristocracy. In late adolescence he began to take his religion more seriously, partly because of illness. He gave time to helping the poor and, despite his loathing for the disease, to the care of those with leprosy. His father was increasingly annoyed and eventually took him to the bishop, saying that he wished to disinherit Francis, who stripped off the clothes his father had provided and standing naked before the bishop declared that henceforth he would only serve ‘our Father who art in heaven’. He started to restore some ruined chapels, but in 1209 he heard the call to become an itinerant preacher, proclaiming the kingdom of God and calling on people to repent. He lived in complete poverty, surviving on whatever food he was given. He radiated the love of Christ.
Soon others joined him and Francis sought the permission of Pope Innocent III for their preaching mission. The friars also conveyed their message by song, and Francis’ Canticle of the Sun is still sung. Francis had a love of nature and of all living things. His disciples told of a sermon that he preached to the birds, urging them to praise their Creator. On another occasion when he was preaching, the swallows made so much noise that he asked them to be quiet until he had finished, which they did. In 1212 an order for women, the Poor Clares, was established and in 1221 a tertiary order, for those living in the world who aspired to the Franciscan ideals.
Francis wished to present the gospel to the Muslims and in 1219 met with the Sultan. By the time Francis approached the end of his life, his order had outgrown him and soon needed clear organization, but there were divisions in the movement.
The Dominicans, founded by St Dominic (1170-1221) in 1215, like the Franciscans, date from the early thirteenth century. From the start they were dedicated to teaching and scholarship. Many outstanding scholars were Dominicans, including the greatest Catholic theologian, St Thomas Aquinas.
The vitality of the Christian faith was evident also in various lay movements, such as confraternities and singing guilds and the Flagellants, who in penance for their sins scourged themselves and ran in the streets half-naked. Other groups were to be regarded as heretical, such as the Waldenses, who stressed poverty and simplicity, and the Cathari or Albigensians, whose asceticism derived from a dualism which despised the body.
This period also saw the papacy, after reforms early in the eleventh century, reach the height of its power. St Gregory VII (c.1021-85), or Hildebrand to give him his original name, had already exercised great influence under Leo IX. As pope, Gregory issued decrees against simony and enforced the celibacy of the clergy. He had an exalted view of the papacy, whether or not the Dictatus Papae are by him. He held that the Roman church was founded by God and that the Roman Pontiff alone deserved the title ‘universal’, and that he could depose or reinstate bishops. He even humbled the Emperor Henry IV, forcing him to submit at Canossa, in north Italy in 1077, and to do penance. The Emperor is said to have stood for three days in the snow outside the Pope’s lodgings before being granted absolution from his excommunication. This, however, was only the start of the struggle. In 1084, Henry captured Rome. Gregory was rescued by Norman soldiers, but their behavior provoked great antagonism against Gregory, who fled to Monte Cassino and thence to Salerno, where he died. His last words were, ‘I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile.’8 Historians who are critical of the centralization of papal power would, however, question Gregory’s verdict.
There were other strong popes. It was Innocent III, who reigned from 1198 to 1216, who brought the papacy to the apex of its power. His ideas were not new, but he expressed them with clarity. He wrote that Christ ‘left to Peter the governance not of the church only but of the whole world’ and he had no hesitation in interfering in the affairs of the various European kingdoms. He insisted on high moral behavior by the clergy and dominated the Fourth Lateran Council, which was held in 1215. He also laid down that all Christians were to make their confession to a priest at least once a year.
After Innocent III, the papacy began to decline, although there were some capable popes in the thirteenth century. The popes were caught up in political struggles of the age and internal divisions. From 1309 to 1377, the popes resided in Avignon, which although not actually in France, was overshadowed by that nation. Several of the popes lived in great luxury, but their influence was declining.
The vigor of European life was slackening. The feudal system was declining and it was a time of much fighting in western Europe. The major disaster, which slowed down economic life, was the devastation caused by the Black Death (1347-51). This was a series of bubonic plagues that reduced the population of Europe by a third and that of England by about a half. The religious orders felt the full effect of the plague and were unable to recruit enough new members to fill the gaps.
Even so this was a period which produced some fine mystical writing such as the fourteenth-century Theologia Germanica, which profoundly influenced Martin Luther, and the works of the English mystics. This period also saw some of the most splendid examples of Gothic architecture, such as King’s College chapel at Cambridge.
The Cloud of Unknowing, whose author remains anonymous, was written in the fourteenth century. It teaches that God cannot be known by human reason. In contemplation, the soul is aware of a cloud of unknowing between itself and God, which can only be penetrated by ‘a sharp dart of love’. The author encouraged people to repeat a short phrase or single word to foster loving attention on God.
Walter Hilton (d. 1396) in his Ladder of Perfection traces the soul’s ascent to God. He insisted that a bodily turning to God ‘without the heart following’ is of no value. Both the author of The Cloud of Unknowing and Walter Hilton appear critical of Richard Rolle’s (c.1300-49) emphasis on affective mystical experiences of ‘heat’, ‘sweetness’ and ‘song’.
Perhaps the most popular of the English mystics today is Julian of Norwich (c.1342- c.1413), partly because there are a number of contemplative prayer groups called Julian groups. She probably lived as an anchoress close to St. Julian’s church in Norwich. In May 1373, Julian, while suffering from a severe heart attack, had a series of visions relating to the Passion of Christ, which she recorded in the shorter text of her Showings. Some fifteen years later she had a further revelation, after which she recorded a longer version of her writings. She stressed that ‘Love is our Lord’s meaning’9 and her words of confidence, ‘Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’ 10 are often quoted. Like an earlier woman mystic, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179),Julian stressed the motherly character of God’s love and said that God is really a Mother as well as a Father.
Churches in the East
In the east, the Byzantine Empire was under increasing pressure from the Ottoman Turks, who, as we have seen, in 1453 captured Constantinople, where the great cathedral of Saint Sophia (Holy Wisdom) was converted into a mosque. In central Asia, the Mongols had become Muslims and Timur (Tamerlane) (1336-1405), from his capital at Samarkand conquered large areas of central Asia, making life very difficult for the small, mainly Nestorian, Christian minorities. In China the Mongol Dynasty, which had been welcoming to foreigners, was replaced by the Ming Dynasty, which was xenophobic and expelled small foreign communities, including presumably the Christians.
Yet amidst the decline, new life was growing, for example in the economic activity of Genoa and Venice and the desire to increase trade with Asia. The invention of printing by movable type in the mid-fourteenth century was preparing the way for the spread of knowledge. The Renaissance renewed interest in the intellectual heritage of antiquity, whilst the new learning encouraged fresh study in their original languages of the scriptures, which as the source of faith were to be the inspiration of the Reformers.
For this chapter and the next, Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (Eyre and Spottiswoode), the six-volume Pelican History of the Church, and John R. H. Moorman, A History of the Church in England (A. & C. Black, 1953), are useful.
Hans Lietzmann, A History of the Early Church (1951, James Clarke, 1993), covers the first four hundred years in some detail.
M. D. Knowles, Christian Monasticism (1969), and E. A. Bowman, Western Mysticism: A Guide to the Basic Works (1978), are good introductions to their respective subjects.
1. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 47:1-4.
2. Augustine, Epistle 82 quoted byJobn G. Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism (Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 189.
3. Pliny, Epistles X.96, quoted in A New Eusebius, ed. J. Stevenson (SPOK, 1957), p. 13.
4. Pliny, Epistles X.97. Ibid., p. 16.
5. The Martyrdom of Polycarp. Ibid., p.21
6. See Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, bk 2, sect 1.
8. Q~soted byJ. W Bowden, The L~ and Pontficezte of Gregory VII(1840), vol. 2, bk 3, cb. 20.
9. Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (the long text), di. 86, Revelation 16.
10. Ibid., ch. 27, Revelation 13.