Christian Essentials-101 History


Summary of Milestones in Christian History

First 150 years from 33 The Birth of the Church on the Day of Pentecost begins a process of growth with the Gospel. Centered on Jerusalem it begins to be preached further afield in different parts of the Greek and Roman world by the Apostle Paul and his companions. By the early part of the 2nd Century we have the recognizable shape and feel of growing Christianity that we find in the New Testament.

150-800. With the conversion of the Empire to Christianity under the Emperor Constantine in 312 Christianity gradually evolves from a disparate number of independent church communities, each with their own history connecting them to one of the original Apostles, into becoming an official religion of the Roman Empire. Now theology and politics flow in the same channel and the political needs of the Emperor begin to impact the Church.  This is a period of consolidation and considerable conflict as four emergent centers of Christianity known as patriarchates: Rome-Western Europe, Constantinople-Asia Minor, Antioch-Syria and the Middle East, and Alexandria-Egypt and North Africa, struggle for power and political influence as theological differences take-on political ramifications. In the interests of stability, successive Emperors summon the bishops to sit in Ecumenical Council.  There were seven Ecumenical Councils, each addressing the long-running disputes. The main areas of controversy concerned: the nature of God – three persons in one God i.e. the Trinity, the relationship between the human and divine natures in Jesus, and the development of the Canon of Scripture which required decisions as to which books were to be included and which to excluded. To us the passion behind these disputes seems odd, but we need to remember that theology can no longer be separated from political struggles.

1053 This is the year of the Great Schism, which separated the Greek-speaking Eastern regions of Christianity from the Latin-speaking Western region. This cultural division reflected the growing dissonance between the Roman Empire’s Western and Eastern administrative and linguistics sections. From this point-on, Christianity is no longer a unified, if fractious whole, but two mutually antagonistic branches. We see a growing ‘catholic’ identity centered on the Pope, the Patriarch of Rome in the Latin speaking West, alongside several Greek speaking ‘orthodox’ identities divided between the patriarchates of Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria.

Anglicanism traces and confines its core beliefs to the period leading up to, and ending with the Great Schism (division of the Church between Catholic West and Orthodox East).           

The Reformation Upheavals

1517 Martin Luther in challenging the sale of indulgences sparks the first phase of the Reformation. The Reformation is a theological reform movement, but its roots lie in the growth of an urban, economically powerful, and increasingly educated, middle class in Northern Europe, which bitterly resented the financial burden of the Church taxes levied by Rome.

1522 First Bible German Bible (Gutenberg Bible) and in 1526 the first Bible in English (Tyndale Bible). 

1533  Henry VIII divorces Catherine, his first wife thus triggering the start of the English Reformation. Unlike the Continental Reformation of Luther, Calvin, and others, Henry’s Reformation is primarily political, not theological. Already Defender of the Faith, Henry declares himself Supreme Head of the Church in place of the Pope. The Church in England now becomes the Church of England, maintaining its essential catholic theology and structure. Henry abolishes the Monasteries in England from 1536 onwards. This is a move motivated by a desire to get his hands on their wealth, rather than Church reform. 1549 the First Book of Common Prayer published by archbishop Thomas Cranmer is the first evidence of more serious theological and liturgical reform.

1547-1558  is a period of instability with more Protestant reforms under Edward VI, followed by a return to Roman Catholicism under Mary I. The protestant direction of the Church becomes settled with the accession of Elizabeth I.

1558- 1601 is the period of the Elizabethan Settlement establishing the Church of England as we know it and the emergence of Anglican identity. Anglican identity rests on being the middle way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Anglican tradition is both catholic in structure and reformed in theological emphasis. This is a crucial period in our history. You may have wondered why the Episcopal Church emphasises its identity as a community of worship, tolerant of differences in theological emphasis and outlook? It stems from the historical accident of this period when everyone regardless of theology or politics had to belong to the same church. The experience of people who agreed about little, sitting alongside one another in the same pews, meant that identity had to rest on relationships structured around common worship, rather than shared belief. Over time the magic of the Book of Common Prayer molded a community of common worship, which is the unique foundation of Anglican identity.

1611 sees the publication of the King James Bible, named after James I. James continues the Elizabethan Settlement. The KJ Bible becomes the most formative religious text for the English-speaking world.

1611-1642 is a period of religious flowering under the inspiration and scholarship of a group of bishops known as the Caroline (Carolus the Latin for Charles) Divines. They represent the classical period of Anglican spirituality. This flowering takes place against the growing political crisis between Charles I and his many Parliaments.

1642–1660 marks the English Civil War and the establishment of the Commonwealth under Cromwell following the execution of Charles I. During the Commonwealth the Church of England was abolished and Anglican identity suppressed.

1660 sees the restoration of the Monarchy and the Church with the return of Charles II accompanied by many bishops and priests who had fled to France in 1642.

1662 a new Book of Common Prayer is published for the purpose of reestablishing a strong Anglican identity. In the Church of England 1662 is still the authorised Book of Common Prayer.

1600-1776  covers the period of initial settlement of the 13 American Colonies. While many Puritan and other religious dissidents fled England to settle in the New England colonies, the Church of England became firmly Church in the Mid-Atlantic and Southern colonies. This period ends with the War of Independence.

1784 Following the Revolution, Samuel Seabury becomes the first bishop consecrated for the newly formed American Episcopal Church. He was consecrated in Aberdeen by the bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Seabury was consecrated in Scotland by the Scottish Episcopal bishops, who had already separated from the Church of England, because he was unable to take the Oath of Allegiance to the King demanded by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1789 the first American Book of Common Prayer is publishedThe New American Book of Common Prayer takes follows more closely the Scottish prayer book as a result. The first decades of the Episcopal Church saw growing tension between the episcopally minded Anglicans and the Methodist societies. The Methodist societies had been part of the Church of England in the Colonies and represented a revivalist low church tradition among the rural population, esp. in the South. Seabury’s refusal to ordain Methodist lay preachers without a university education, resulted in the Methodist societies leaving the Episcopal Church to form their own church. A great swathe of the rural population thus left the Episcopal Church, leaving it concentrated in the urban centers of the East Coast.

Joke: The Baptists evangelized the West by walking, the Methodists rode horses, the Episcopalians had to wait for the invention of the Pullman Car. 

 The Three Legged Stool 

This is the name given to a distinctive characteristic of Anglican Tradition. The three legs are Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. Anglicanism maintains these in a mutual tension with no one aspect being more important than the other two. In Protestantism, Scripture is the most important aspect, in fact the sole defining aspect – sola scriptura –only scripture. In Roman Catholicism Tradition is the dominant aspect.

Scripture is the Bible. Tradition is how the Church interpret the Bible and theology, i.e. the teaching of the Church,  Reason relates to a sense that there are ways of perceiving God and affirming the existence of God that are independent of scriptural revelation. In viewing the goodness of creation and the natural world, human beings become aware of a higher set of values such as love, beauty, honesty and human integrity-nobility – a kind of natural law.

In Anglicanism, Scripture is held in check by being subjected to the understanding of the community of faith i.e. Tradition. This means that the community of the faith – the Tradition of the Church, decides what importance to give to various parts of Scripture and is able to declare parts of Scripture no longer binding, e.g. the N.T. texts supporting slavery. But Tradition is subject to the independent challenge of Scripture, particularly the Gospel. Custom and practice of belief has to sit under the critical evaluation of the Gospel. Both are subjected to the assessment of Reason. Reason challenges the interpretation of Scripture and Tradition when either fly in the face of the higher values of the natural law.

Scripture, Tradition, Reason and the pendulum swing of history 

A simple way to view the major shifts in Anglican Church history is to see them as a playing-out of the tensions between the three legs of the stool. Inevitably one leg either grows too long or begins to shrink, either way causing the stool to lose its stability. This results in a correction that returns, for a time at least, some stability to the stool.

The English Reformation period from 1533-1660 represents a period in which Scripture and Tradition are in serious tension. The movement begins with an elevation of the importance of Scripture as a challenge to Tradition. Remember Tradition is not everything the church does, but represents the major emphases that shape understanding and practice. The dominance of Tradition, always more important in Roman Catholicism, makes sense when most people can’t read and have no direct access to the Bible. In this context, Tradition as represented by the clergy dictates the content of faith. Once people start to read the Bible, esp. in their own language, it then becomes possible to challenge Tradition, to challenge the stranglehold of clerical power. This is the underlying dynamic of the Reformation, which elevates Scripture’s position as a counter to Tradition. During this period the balance of power shifts back and forth. Tradition is challenged by people’s direct access to Scripture. This results in a reform of Tradition and an example of this is the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. The BCP has three major revisions (1552, 1559, 1662) during this period in response to the tensions between Scripture and Tradition. During this period the extreme scriptural party, known as the Puritans, are in continual struggle with the more centrist Anglican and Calvinist theologies represented in the mainstream church. An important development of this struggle led to the Puritan emigrations to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in search of a place to practice their form of extreme Biblical Protestantism, and in turn to persecute others who disagreed with them. Political (King verses Pope, King verses Parliament) and economic (rise of educated wealthy merchant class) drivers of social change are all mixed up with theological reform (Protestant direction) and counter reform (Catholic direction) in this period.

After 1660 and throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries there is a tension between the growing influence of Reason spurred-on by the beginnings of the scientific revolution. Remember that Newton and Bacon and all the great scientific figures of this time are all Anglican priests because until the early 19th Century to teach in the Universities required ordination. Throughout this period the importance of Scripture wanes dramatically and Tradition and Reason are in principle contention. Tradition fights a series of losing battles and Reason triumphs with the forces of the Enlightenment. By the latter part of the 18th Century, Reason is supreme and this is represented by a movement known as Deism. Deism replaces the Christian revelation of God with God as the supreme architect of the Universe. Creation comes to be seen as a clockwork mechanism over which God reigns from a distance leaving human agency, guided by reason to keep things in good running order. Church architecture follows a return to Classical Greek and Roman styles. American civic architecture, established in this period, displays the strong influences of the Roman Imperial style of domes, columns, and heroic friezes.  The Founding Fathers were not as often contended today, good Evangelicals, but Deists. The God of Jefferson and Washington was the God of rationalism, the natural laws of self and social improvement, and political and scientific enlightenment.

1790’s to 1850 are dates marking a broad period when Scripture begins to challenge the triumph of Reason. John and Charles Wesley represent a growing desire to return to Scripture and the centrality of a heart-felt relationship with Christ that is capable of changing lives. This is the period of the rise of Methodism and the Evangelical Revival. This very necessary swing back toward the importance of Scripture and personal piety lays the foundations for great social reforms, the greatest of which are: the abolition of slavery movement, Quaker led reform of the prisons, and the abolition of child labor. The evangelical God is a God who is no longer dispassionate, overseeing from a distance, but a God who cares about and is involved in the plight of individuals.

1840’s to Mid 20th Century. Nothing is more certain that after a period of steady rise in the assertion of Scripture over Reason a swing in the direction of Tradition was inevitable. The Oxford Movement was a reassertion of Tradition, which led to a revaluing of Anglicanism’s catholic heritage. The emphasis of this movement marks a return to the centrality of liturgical worship as prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer. This essentially conservative Tradition-focused swing expressed itself in a revival of the medieval Gothic style of architecture, and a return to ‘catholic’ ceremonial. Throughout the period of Reason, the main Sunday service would have been Morning Prayer with a very long sermon. The Evangelicals didn’t favor liturgical worship much at all, preferring revivalist styles of gathering with fervent hymn singing. The Oxford Movement, reestablishes the Eucharist as the first service on a Sunday with Sung Matins remaining the main service, now much embellished by the addition of ceremonial and music etc. Eventually, in many Anglo-catholic Churches Matins was replaced by a return of the High Mass – a very elaborate celebration of the Eucharist. Parishes described as ‘Broad Church’, which had stood out against the Anglo-catholic movement became influenced by the Parish Communion Movement following the First World War. By the middle of the 20th Century Eucharistic Anglican liturgy, as we now know it, had fully returned to most parts of the Church. This ‘liturgical’ development was finally completed in the Episcopal Church with the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer instituting changes to the structure of the Eucharist as the fruit of the liturgical reform movement of the Second Vatican Council.

The Mid 20th – 21st Century is a period of balanced equilibrium between the three legs of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. Scripture was strengthened by contributions from the new academic disciplines of history, archeology, and textual analysis. It became possible to understand the complex textual and historical developments that produced the books of the Bible in a new and deeper way. We will look at this in greater detail when we come to study the Bible. Tradition now played a central role, not only in stressing the importance of Eucharistic-centered liturgical worship, but Tradition as the expression of the mind of the community of faith built-on developments in understanding and interpreting Scripture. For instance, Anglican Churches came to understand the changing relationship between men and women as a shift in Scriptural emphasis. More recently, the emancipation of LGBT people follows a similar pattern. Tradition also encouraged a return to spirituality and the importance of a devotional life. Reason brought new ways of making sense of the Christian Faith in the light of scientific progress. This has allowed Anglicans to accept that the value of science lies in its observational and explanatory approach to the material world. The value of religion lies not in a competing explanatory power but as the rich source for truth as history and truth as metaphor.

Spiritual Practice

Over the coming week try, to spend some time each day reflecting on the following questions. The way to do this is to find somewhere to sit quietly at home or elsewhere and bring your attention to the rising and falling of your breath. Imagine the breath as deep within your belly rather than in your chest and simply observe yourself breathing. Through observing our breath we come easily into the presence of God who is the breath that brings life. We also become aware of something we do all the yet, usually are not ware of doing it. Breathing offers an image of the presence of God, here all the time usually not noticed by us. 

After a few minutes of settling begin to contemplate the questions. You don’t have to do all of them at one time. Let the question percolate in your thoughts and notice images or connections that seem to arise naturally for you. At the end of your time, end with an expression of gratitude for your life, your loves, and for your desire to come to know God more deeply. 

  1. How does the balance between the importance of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason play out I your temperament?
  2. Do you need to pay more attention to your development in one of these areas?



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