Christian Essentials 4: a whirlwind overview of Church 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. In the year 312, the young Emperor Constantine, stationed on Hadrian’s Wall separating Roman Britain from the Pictish Celtic tribes of modern day Scotland, had a dream in which he saw the banner of Christ in the form of the Greek letters Chi Rho – an abbreviation for the name Christ leading him into battle.

With the conversion of the Empire to Christianity the period we know as Christendom begins. Christendom describes  the evolution 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 State.

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.

The Conciliar Period

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.

1054 This is the year of the Great Schism, which separated the Greek-speaking Eastern regions of Christianity from the Latin-speaking Western region – a slit that neatly represented the existing cultural and political division of the Roman Empire between the two competing administrative centers at Rome and Constantinople.

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.

As Anglican Christians we uphold the teaching of the universal Church – that which was universally believed in both Western and Eastern Churches.  Our doctrine is confined to the existing doctrinal developments up to this point. Anglicanism rejects Roman Catholic doctrinal development after the Great Schism e.g. the Assumption of Mary, the perpetual virginity of Mary, the Immaculate Conception which refers to the birth of Hannah, the mother of Mary, Papal infallibility, Purgatory, and a host of juridical classifications of human behavior into mortal and venial sins.

The Development of Anglican Identity

Anglicanism is the Christian tradition of the English people – evolved of a 1000-year period. The term Anglican does not emerge until the 16th C. But the seeds of what comes to be known from the 16th C onwards as Anglicanism are laid down from the earliest times of Christianity in Britain.

The Rule of St Benedict and the influence of the development of the Benedictine tradition is the single major shaper of Anglicanism distinctiveness. It could be said that we are Benedictine Christians. The two Benedictine characteristics we inherit are: a privileging of the local, and an emphasis on finding holiness in the ordinary events of everyday life.

An illustration of privileging the local: Both the Catholic and Episcopal Cathedrals in San Francisco have murals around the walls that represent phases and events in Christian history. In the Catholic Cathedral murals commemorate the conversion of the West to Christianity from Constantine through to the evangelization of the Americas. In the Episcopal Cathedral the murals commemorate key events in English Anglican history and the evangelization of California.

An illustration on holiness in everyday life: holiness is found in the experience of daily life. It’s practical and experiential in a world infused with the goodness of God. Anglicanism is Incarnationally rooted, God made the creation to be good into which he sent his son to proclaim the goodness of love found in ordinary human and worldly events. This is contrasted with more cross centered and redemptive theologies that see the world and an evil place rescued by Jesus, and human beings as sinful in need of complete redemption. It also contrasts with Roman Catholicism’s emphasis on juridical distinctions between sacred and profane, and declarations of being in or not being in a state of grace, which is the necessary state required to receive the sacraments of the Church. Being in a state of grace is not a description of personal holiness but a legal classification that follows having been to confession.

Anglicanism emerges through the events of the English Reformation, and the struggles with extreme Protestant reactions – we identify with the Puritans. The English Reformation led to an affirmation of a synthesis of the Apostolic and Catholic identity of the Church, the three-fold order of ministry – bishop, priest, and deacon, and the sacraments with the Reformation theology of both Luther and Calvin.

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 synthesis of catholic structure with protestant theological emphasis becomes settled with the accession of Elizabeth I and is known as the Elizabethan Settlement.

1558- 1601 is the period of the Elizabethan Settlement establishing the Church of England as we know it and the emergence of Anglican identityAnglican identity rests on being the middle way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Anglican tradition is both catholic in structure and reformed in theological emphasis.

1611 sees the publication of the King James or Revised Standard 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 during the reigns of the Stuart kings, James I, Charles I and Charles II. They represent the classical period of Anglican spirituality and traverses the interruption of the English Civil War.

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. While this conflict has a religious flavor its roots are in the political conflict between autocratic monarchy and early parliamentary democracy.

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, the BCP of 1662 is still the authorized 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.

The Episcopal Church Emerges

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.

A curious aside: The Scottish and American Episcopal Churches were the first Churches of Anglican Tradition independent of the Church of England. This move laid the groundwork for the development of the Anglican Communion – the world-wide body of autonomous Anglican Provinces, in the 19th C. After the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion is the second largest single tradition of Christians.

In 1789 the first American Book of Common Prayer is published as a political adaptation of the 1662 BCP. One condition of the Scottish bishops in ordaining Seabury was that the American Church would take the Anglican Church in Scotland name of Episcopal Church, and that it would incorporate the more catholic theology of the Scottish book’s prayer of consecration in the Eucharist.

The first decades of the Episcopal Church saw growing tension between the episcopal minded Anglicans and the burgeoning 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.

Two Key Anglican Concepts

The Centrality of Worship 

This is a crucial period in our history. You may have wondered why the Episcopal Church emphasizes 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.

Today Anglican define their identity as those who agree to worship together using the BCP. Worship defines us not common or shared doctrinal statements or beliefs

 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 or looking at history through another lens. 

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.

Key Swings of the Pendulum

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 bishops and clergy dictating 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 had 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 Evangelical Christians, 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 movement for the abolition of slavery, 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. The British social democracy tradition of the Labour Party is not the legacy of Marxism – as many American believe,  but Christian Socialism – of Evangelical and Quaker application of the Bible in the service of social reform.

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.

The Relationship of Revelation and Experience

Revelation and experience are integral to each leg of the stool, yet, each leg represents a position on the continuum between revelation and experience. Scripture is the revelation end of the continuum. Scripture is the primary source for revelation. Yet, Scripture is dead if that revelation does not evoke experience of God in the personal and communal spaces of the here and now. Tradition lies at the experience end of the continuum. For Tradition is the revelation of Scripture embodied in the lived experience of the community. Lived experience of the community is a good tag for Tradition. Through being faithful to our participation in the lived experience of the community we remain open to being touched in new ways by revelation. Reason, is the farthest from Scripture on the continuum. Reason contains its own sources for revelation independent of Scripture. This is revelation that comes to us through our natural senses of the world around us, and our ability to consciously reflect on our experience. So reason is revelation at its most experiential. 

The three-legged stool as metaphor is limited by the mental picture of the stool. The image of the stool is about the need to communicate the importance of stability that comes only when no one leg is more important than another. Yet, another image is of the three-stranded cord, and maybe this offers a more dynamic flexible image. Yet, the relationships between Scripture, Tradition, and Reason are always dynamic as history shows the ebb and flow between them. Also within each there is a dynamic flux between revelation as that which is given to us, and experience, which is how we make this, our own.

Reflection Questions

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

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