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The Development of Christian Society
in Early England


Part 2

Bishops came to exert great power by the end of the fourth century, revealing the alterations that had occurred in Church-state relations throughout the empire. Ambrose of Milan went so far as to refuse communion to Emperor Theodosius on two occasions, setting an important precedent with major implications for the future: the Church was now able to exercise authority over the state in matters of faith and morality. Some time in the third century (a precise date is unknown), Apostolic Succession was employed for determining the legitimacy of bishops. A bishop's rank was dependent on whether or not he had received consecration through a succession of bishops traceable back to an Apostle. Such high ranking bishops were believed to have inherited their power in a direct line from an Apostle, and the successive passing of office in this manner led to the establishment of sees (from the Latin sedes , seat; a see was the territory of higher order bishops).

The clustering of bishoprics together along imperial provincial lines, with archbishops at the head of each province, imitated Diocletian's political reforms. The patriarchs (bishops of the widest influence) were the highest level, representing the greatest cities in Christendom - one each in Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. The founding of Constantinople as the seat of the Eastern Empire, however, required the creation of a fourth patriarch, and with the official addition of Jerusalem as a holy see (seat of Christian administration) in 451, the number of patriarchs grew to five. Patriarchal rivalry would come to cause great consternation within Christendom.

Christianity spread to the furthest reaches of the empire in the fourth century, but controversy surfaced during the expansion. Varying interpretations of scripture and differences in doctrine created conflicting pockets of Christianity. Donatus, a priest in north Africa, challenged the validity of sacraments (the earthly manifestation of receiving God's grace) offered by immoral priests, or priests who denied the faith under persecution. Arius, a priest from the Egyptian city of Alexandria, challenged the divine nature of Jesus Christ. His followers, called Arians, maintained that Jesus Christ must have been created by God, and was thus inferior to God. Arianism was directly refuted by Athanasius' argument that Jesus was both human and divine. Christ's human/divine nature proved immensely important to early Christians, and was Constantine's impetus for convening the Council of Nicea in 325. The council condemned Arianism, agreeing with Athanasius' assertion that Christ was "of the same substance" as God. Donatism was similarly dispatched by the church in 411, when it was decreed that the moral condition of a priest had no bearing on the validity of the sacraments, as long as the priest had been properly ordained. These and other heresies served to consolidate Christian doctrine.

Several other important developments of enduring influence on Christendom occurred in this period. Rivalries between patriarchs, especially those of Rome and Constantinople, erupted as clergy exerted more control over temporal affairs. Through the machinations of several Roman bishops, the Roman patriarch rose to the prominent position of Pope (taken from the Latin papa, or father). The argument for papal supremacy centered on Peter being the chief Apostle (a questionable interpretation of a passage in the Gospel of Matthew), and his position as first bishop of Rome: all subsequent Roman bishops were deemed Peter's successors. By no means was this universally accepted. Since the Church, however, was organized on an imperial pattern with Rome as a familiar administrative center, it was simple to transfer secular power to its spiritual leadership.

Many early Christians (particularly in the west) sought knowledge from the Bible alone, casting off the classical heritage of traditional Greco-Roman thought and philosophy. Equating classical thought with the pagan practices of the dying empire, they strove to avoid contact with such humanism. With the spread of Christianity into the eastern regions of the empire in the third and fourth centuries, eastern converts tried to reconcile Christianity and classical education in order to clarify doctrinal issues. Greek became the language of eastern Christians, the New Testament was written in Greek - and Christians turned to Greek thought to express the complications of Christian theology.

The union of classical thought, classical education, and Christian theology found its most profound expression in Augustine, bishop of Hippo (354-430). He produced volumes dedicated to every aspect of Christian life; most influential were the Confessions , an account of his worldliness before being converted, and City of God , an expression of Christian principles as applied to government. Augustine agreed that philosophy could reveal some truth, but divine revelation was necessary for an understanding of complete truth. The slavic Jerome (345-420) was the greatest scholar of the early Church fathers: his extensive knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, allowed him to translate both the Old and New Testaments into Latin, creating the Latin Vulgate , the standard biblical text of the medieval Catholic church. Augustine and Jerome utilized classical tradition and pagan culture to further Christian theology, leaving their imprint on Christianity for the next millennium.

One final development, which was to have major influence on the development of British Christianity, was the institution of monasticism. Monasticism, from the Greek monachos (alone), surfaced as ecclesiastics sought refuge from mass conversions of the third century- many of which occurred as means to avoid the persecution of pagans or to gain the practical economic and cultural advantages of Christianity in the later Empire, and the increasing corruption of the now wealthy clergy. Monks abandoned society and devoted themselves entirely to their own salvation through fasting, frequent prayer, and isolation in the wilderness. These monks believed self-denial was the true expression of piety and the path that led to God. Such asceticism went to extremes in the east, as monks' increasingly erratic behavior brought about the opposite of their original intention - they actually drew crowds. As monasticism filtered westward, it was refined: Western monks were more concerned with living lives free from earthly corruption, but refrained from the outrageous actions of their eastern brothers. By the early fifth century, many monasteries (communities of monks) had been established.

Monasticism became the bastion of classical learning and culture throughout Europe. Candidates studied hard to be ordained, and many monks poured over Latin and Greek manuscripts in their studies and work. The chief monk was the abbot, who had full authority over the activities and members of the monastery. For the first time on an official scale, women were included: nuns and monks lived and worked under the guidance of a common rule and a common leader in the so-called double monastery. In many double monasteries, men were subordinated to a female leader (an abbess) and used to lead worship (under Catholic doctrine only males could be priests) and as a labor force. Many abbesses, especially those in Anglo-Saxon England, were from royal houses and controlled vast territories and thousands of people. Abbots and abbesses ruled the community, and became instrumental in the development of towns in the Middle Ages. Structurally, politically, spiritually, and historically, monasticism served as a link between Greco-Roman civilization and the Renaissance.

In the late fourth and early fifth centuries, Roman legions were evacuated from Britain to the continent to resist increasing barbarian invasion. Up to that point, Britain was still a province of Rome, with Christianity the official religion of Roman citizens. Although still a minority in the whole of the island, Christianity had made an impact in the southern, more romanized regions of Britain. In fact, early British Christians also endured some degree of persecution. Albanus of Verulamium was killed in a campaign that resulted in the destruction of many churches, and later canonized as a martyr by English Catholics. The accepted, but disputed, date for Albanus' martyrdom is 209 AD. Aaron and Julius of Caerlon were likewise murdered in Christian persecutions. The British Church was sufficiently organized by 314 to warrant representation at the Council of Arles, although there is no indication that British Christianity had any official capacity within Roman Christendom. No British representatives attended the Council of Nicea in 325 or the Council of Sardica in 343, but the British Church accepted and enforced the resulting condemnation of Arianism. At least three British bishops attended the Council of Ariminum in 360, but were too poor to pay their own expenses. These disconnected pieces of evidence imply, but do not prove, a strong Christian presence in Britain before the province was released from imperial attachments in the fifth century.

The first indication of the independent nature of British Christianity occurred in the first years of the fifth century. Pelagius, a British priest residing in Italy, expressed the belief that man was responsible directly to God for his actions, grace was attained through the effort to abide by the law of God, without direct intervention by governmental or ecclesiastic authority. This was contrary to the views of Augustine in the City of God , where a Christian government directed the activities if its citizens. The debate raged long after the death of both men, and had serious implications in the Christianizing of the British Isles. The Venerable Bede, an eighth century British monk and scholar, revealed that Irish monks still clung to Pelagian theory well into the seventh century. (Bede's Ecclesiastic History of the English People remains the primary source of both the spiritual and cultural history of the Anglo-Saxon era).

In Roman Britain, Christianity took root in the poorer ranks of society living outside the highly Romanized towns. Such areas in the south were still within the sphere of Roman influence, but in spite of three centuries of Imperial rule, the majority of Christians in Britain were of Celtic background. When Rome abandoned Britain, both spiritually and politically, the majority of British Christians fled to the west amid the onslaught of Angle, Saxon, and Jute invasions. Isolated from Roman Christianity until St. Augustine's mission in 597 AD, the period was a turning point in the further development of Christianity in England.

Fifth century monasticism proved to be the leading factor in the Christianization of the British Isles. Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from pagan northern Germany invaded and easily conquered the central and southern regions of England after Roman troops withdrew. Roman Christians fled to Wales, incorporating native pagan rituals and holidays into their faith to synthesize a unique brand of Welsh Christianity. Welsh Christians, in turn, felt little desire to attempt the conversion of the Germanic tribes. After driving the Britons into Wales, the invading barbarians turned their attention to the Scots and Picts, driving them into the Scottish highlands. Native culture, whether Celtic or Roman, was virtually abandoned in the English territory. At the same time, the monastic movement of Roman Christianity became increasingly evangelistic, sending missionaries into remote locations untouched by the empire. In this period, monasteries and convents became involved in local affairs, converting native peoples while establishing a link to classical culture and education. With Roman culture all but vanished and the Picts and Scots exiled to the northernmost regions, Christian monasticism arrived in Ireland in the form of Saint Patrick.

Patrick (c.390-461) was born of Christian Briton parents, but was kidnapped at age sixteen as a laborer by Irish slave traders. He endured six years of isolation as a shepherd, spending the time in prayer and reaching out to the Holy Spirit. Prompted by a vision, he escaped to the continent on an Irish ship, but finally made his way home to Britain. His parents welcomed him, but another vision compelled him to travel to Gaul and enroll in a monastery (probably the monastery in Lerins) in preparation for missionary work in Ireland. After successful completion of his studies, he was ordained as a priest and bishop. Patrick's experiences as a carefree Romano-British teenager, an isolated slave and holy man in Ireland and classically trained monk set the stage for a unique twist in Christianity, especially within the British Isles.

Upon his return from the continent in 432, Patrick proceeded at once to Ireland. He accepted the Irish people just as they were, both men and women, and genuinely loved his adopted people. Patrick established many monasteries and bishoprics throughout all but southern Ireland. He succeeded in his mission to Ireland on many different levels: he converted thousands of individuals, established church structure, and persuaded the Irish people - especially Irish kings - that faithfulness, courage, and generosity could replace the sword as the primary instrument of organizing a society. Patrick spoke of the evils of slavery, which was abolished in Ireland shortly after his death. He had considerably less success with his British brothers. Petty Anglo-Saxon warlords established kingdoms throughout Britain upon the evacuation of the remaining Roman legion. Coroticus, a west coast king, invaded the coast of northern Ireland and destroyed entire communities, carting away Patrick's converts by the thousands. The Roman Christians in Wales were no help to Patrick as they viewed the emerging Celtic Christianity with contempt and were snobbish to the Irish monk. Irish monasticism continued to thrive despite these early setbacks.

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