Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Growth of the Papacy and the Problem of the Celts

How and when did the idea of the Pope (one leader over all of Christendom) develop?

We begin by noting the historical context of the very early church.

In writing to the Gentile Philippians, Paul spoke of “bishops” and “deacons” (episkopos in Greek) while in the pastoral epistles he uses the name “presbyter” or “elder” (presbyteros in Greek). Some have argued that the latter was a term familiar to the Jews signifying their age and place in the church, while the term “bishop” signified the person’s position but that both terms evidently have reference to the same persons (see the discussion in the 1939 International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia published by Eerdmans). For an alternative view, see

Apostolic Succession (1): Presbyter = Bishop?

Apostolic Succession (2): Presbyterian Ordination?

Apostolic Succession (3): The Didache

But regardless of what these ecclesiastical titles meant in their New Testament context, it is clear that by the time of the second century the offices of bishop and presbyter were demarcated, with the bishop serving as president of the council of presbyters within a given church.

This arrangement worked fine for a while, but as the Lord began expanding His church, congregations began popping up all over the place, with the consequence that it began to be impossible for each church to be served directly by one bishop.

As a solution, the bishop in a large city would appoint presbyters to act as his delegate to churches in that area. Gradually, the office of Bishop itself began to be divided according to the importance of the area (or SEE) that he ruled over. For example, bishops who were responsible for the largest extent of territory came to be called Metropolitan bishops or archbishops and had subordinate bishops under them. 
In the course of time, five of these metropolitan bishops came to be identified as Patriarchs and were the most important leaders in the church. The patriarchal cities were Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Rome.

The Emergence of the Papacy

The first historical evidence of Roman bishops claiming jurisdictional priority over the archbishops in other patriarchal cities occurred in the late second and early third centuries. It is true that as early as AD 190 and 195, a Bishop of Rome attempted to sever other churches because of a dispute over the date of Easter; however, his actions came to no effect because none of the other bishops considered that he had authority outside his own province. Even as late as the 6th century, when Gregory the Great (pictured right) was bishop of Rome (AD 590-604), he repudiated the title “ecumenical bishop” to avoid the connotation that he was a placed above the other bishops. (Gregory the Great did not object to being called Pope, which is an affectionate term for father and is a title that all the major Patriarchates were called. Coptic Christians in Egypt call their leader “Pope” to this day.) Further, Gregory’s letters to the Patriarchs of the Eastern churches (Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem), indicate his belief that the five were on an equal footing as regional heads of the Church, with none exercising universal jurisdiction.
Nevertheless, by the early 7th century, many of the churches in the West had adopted the view that the bishop of Rome had authority over all the other Archbishops. Meanwhile, as the Western Roman Empire began crumbling under waves of Germanic invaders, the bishops of Rome stepped in to fill the power vacuum, advancing their own role as the supreme leader of Christendom. This is not as outrageous as it may sound to us, as this was a time when strong leadership was needed. In fact, it sometimes seemed like the very survival  of Christendom depended on it.

But it would not be until the 9th century, when the empire of Charlemagne was disintegrating, that the bishops of Rome began to succeed in the expanding spiritual and temporal powers they sought. While these moves were not taken seriously in the Eastern jurisdictions, most of the churches in the West gradually began to consider the Pope to be the head of all Christendom.

This process completed itself later in the first millennium when Muslim conquests in the Middle East and North Africa weakened the patriarchal posts of Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Constantinople. (They did not completely destroy them, however, because these jurisdictions exist to this day and can be visited.) This eliminated both the competition and the accountability that had previously been a restraining influences on the bishops of Rome, leaving them free to  go on to claim the types of extraordinary powers that characterized the medieval papacy and reached fruition when the doctrine of papal infallibility was formalized in the First Vatican Council of 1870. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Growing Tension Throughout the Middle Ages

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Popes grew in their quest for power at the same time as kings were answering the totalitarian urge. The relationship between the pope and kings was thus a source of continual conflict in the Western nations throughout the Middle Ages. On one side, there were many who advocated a view known as Caesaropapism or Erastianism. According to this view, the church was under the authority of the king because the king derived his authority from God Himself. On the other side of the debate was the theocratic view that the Pope, as the supreme representative of Christ on earth, had the right to wield Christ’s totalizing authority in all matters civil and ecclesiastical.

Between the two positions outlined above were numerous combinations and compromises, including the idea that church and state both had total authority but in different areas. According to this idea, while the king had authority over the civil law of a nation, the pope had authority of the churches of that nation. But even this position was not without its problems. What happened if the King found it necessary to arrest a Bishop or if the Pope found it necessary to excommunicate the king?

None of these issues were resolved during the Middle Ages, leading to continual power tussles between church and state. This is an important point, because looking back on the Middle Ages from our post-reformation perspective, we tend to think that current Roman conception of the papacy was a given throughout that period, and that it meant then what it means for pious Roman Catholics today. But this is far from being the case. (Actually, among certain groups of Roman Catholics, it is still far from being the case. Certain traditionalist denominations of Roman Catholics, I read on Wikipedia today, "practice their faith outside the official structures of the Church" and "recognise the official Church hierarchy while rejecting its decisions." Some even more conservative Roman Catholic groups known as Sedevacantists, claim that the papacy has been vacant since either the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958 or Pope John XXIII in 1963, and that the present Pope is therefore an impostor. Paradoxically, these Roman Catholics groups are SO conservative as to become (in a sense) "Protestant.")
The tensions between many European rulers and the papacy reached their peak in the early 16th century on the Eve of the Protestant Reformation. Consequently, when the Protestant Reformation finally broke out in full force in the mid 16th century, rulers in many of the central European states welcomed the opportunity to break ties with Rome.
Early Dissenters 

But let's return to the first millennium. During this time, the growing doctrine of the papacy met with more than a little turbulence from various portions of Christendom. It was one of the factors leading to the split between the Eastern branch of Christendom (which included the sees of Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem), especially after the Papacy took the liberty of changing a line in the Nicene Creed without calling an ecumenical council, thus violating stipulations laid down in the First Council of Nicaea. (This probably occurred during the reign of Benedict VIII, 1014-15.)

Even earlier than this, however, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Church of the East (the vast Nestorian Church that penetrated as far as China, establishing a large presence there for centuries) remained independent of the papacy. Initially these churches went into schism with the Roman-based church (or, depending on your perspective, the Roman-based church went into schism with them), not over the papacy, but because of Christeological disputes leading up to and following the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Nevertheless, a result of their severence was an ability to accept the authority of the pope.

Of course, in those early days, to submit to Rome did not mean what it came to mean in the High Middle Ages, just as what it meant in the High Middle ages was different to what it meant after the Reformation. In the first half of the first millennium, to accept the authority of Rome meant that you were in communion with the churches that affirmed the Nicene Christology. Interesting, by the eleventh century, it had come to mean the opposite: submitting to Rome meant that you did not say the original Nicene/Constantinopolitan formula., but accepted the controversial addition known as the Flioque clause. Once the papacy was unhinged from the entire Eastern half of Christendom, there were no brakes to prevent the office from increasingly claiming an extraordinary network of honors and privileges.

So much for what was going on in the East. What about in the far Western recesses of Europe? The question is important since the Celtic Church also resisted the hegemony of Rome.

Celtic Christianity

It should come as no surprise that the Celts had trouble accepting the papacy, since it had been thriving on the British Isles long before the Popes began to claim grandiose honors.
No one knows for sure how the Celts living in Britain first heard about the gospel. According to one set of legends, Christianity was first introduced to Britain shortly after the resurrection by Joseph of Arimathea, a tin merchant who is thought to be Jesus’ great uncle. Whether there is any truth to such stories or not, what is clear is that Christianity was well established in Britain early in the second century, possibly earlier. Writing around 200 AD, the church father Tertullian could observe that, “In all parts of Spain, among the diverse nations of the Gauls, in regions of the Britons beyond Roman sway but subjected to Christ…the name of Christ now reigns.” Origen of Alexandria (185–254) also testified to the faith of the Britons, commenting that “The divine goodness of our Lord and Saviour is equally diffused among the Britons…”

St. Hilary, St Athanasius, St. Chrysostom, St. Jerome and St. Augustine of Hippo all applauded the vigour, soundness and extent of the British Church in the 4th century. Consider, British bishops were present at the Council of Arles in 314 AD, Council of Nicaea in 325, the Council of Sardica in 347 and the Council of Ariminium in 359. Records clearly state that the bishops of London, York, Llandaff, Glasgow and Carlisle, with over ten thousand other British Christians, were put to death for their faith in Christ in the Diocletian persecution that reached Britain in the early fourth century. 

It is clear that Christianity was fairly well established in Britain by the 4th century, well before the memorable but hugely overrated little boat journey of Augustine of Canterbury (considered by many to be the one who brought Christianity to Britain).

The Mission of Augustine

When the Romans began leaving Britain in the early 5th century, this created a power vacuum which allowed the Anglo-Saxons to invade Britain in droves. This pushed the original Britons into Wales and Cornwall.

The Anglo-Saxons were pagans and this is what prompted Gregory the Great (bishop of Rome from 590 to his death in 604) to send the Benedictine monk Augustine to convert the Anglo-Saxons. (He is not the same person as the great theologian Augustine of Hippo).

Thus it was in June 596 AD, Augustine set off with about forty other monks on a journey to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons in England. After reaching Gaul, the company took ship to England, where they landed in the spring of AD 597 at Cliffsend, near Ramsgate Kent. From there, messengers were sent to the Saxon King Æthelberht, who travelled out to meet Augustine at the place which is now Ramsgate Abbey. Being well received by the king, who later became a convert, Augustine was encouraged to move his base to Canterbury, which is why is he now considered to be the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

Opposition to Augustine

The Anglo-Saxons whom Augustine converted came under the authority of the Bishop of Rome whereas the Britons in Wales and Cornwall wished to retain their independence. In his book
History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth writes,
But when Augustine came, he found in their province seven bishoprics and an archbishopric, all filled with most devout prelates, and a great number of abbeys; by which the flock of Christ was still kept in good order.

Bede records how conflicts arose between these indigenous believers and Augustine's people as a result of the Britons refusing to subject themselves to the bishop of Rome.

After Augustine told the Britons that they needed to come under his authority and submit to the Roman church, the British Bishop Diaothus wrote to Augustine as follows:
"Be it known and declared that we all, individually and collectively, are in all humility prepared to defer to the Church of God, and to the Bishop in Rome, and to every sincere and Godly Christian, so far as to love everyone according to his degree, in perfect charity, and to assist them all by word and in deed in becoming the children of God. But as for any other obedience, we know of none that he, whom you term the Pope, or Bishop of Bishops, can demand. The deference we have mentioned we are ready to pay to him as to every other Christian, but in all other respects our obedience is due to the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Cærleon, who is alone under God our ruler to keep us right in the way of salvation." [Cited in Henry Spelman’s Concilia, Decreta, Leges, Constitutiones in re Ecclesiarum Orbis Britannici: Volume 1, 1636, republished Haddan & Stubbs (Wilkins), Cambridge England,. pp. 108-109].
The problems between the Christians Brits and the now Romanized Saxons prompted the Synod of Chester in 601. Augustine was there with some of his followers, and there were seven British bishops and many men of great learning from the Welsh monastery Bangor-on-Dee. At this Synod, Augustine attempted to bring the Britons under the authority of Roman ecclesiology, but the general assembly refused to submit. The fact that the Britons associated Augustine’s church with their Saxon enemies only fueled their antagonism to Augustine’s claims.

In his Ecclesiastical History, the Venerable Bede writes as follows about these ‘Protestant’ Christians (if I can use the adjective without anachronism):

"For they did not keep Easter Sunday at the proper time, but from the fourteenth to the twentieth moon…Besides, they did several other things which were against the unity of the church…but, preferred their own traditions before all the churches in the world… [Augustine] said to them, "You act in many particulars contrary to our custom, or rather the custom of the universal church, and yet, if you will comply with me in these three points, viz. to keep Easter at the due time; to administer baptism, by which we are again born to God, according to the custom of the holy Roman Apostolic Church; and jointly with us to preach the word of God to the English nation, we will readily tolerate all the other things you do, though contrary to our customs." They answered they would do none of those things, nor receive him as their archbishop…. Augustine, is said, in a threatening manner, to have foretold, that in case they would not join in unity with their brethren, they should be warred upon by their enemies; and, if they would not preach the way of life to the English nation, they should at their hands undergo the vengeance of death. All which, through the dispensation of the Divine judgment, fell out exactly as he had predicted." [Book II, chapter II; see also D’Aubigne, History Reform, Vol. V; Milman’s History of Latin Christianity, Vol. II, p. 234.]

Massacre at Bangor

In AD 664 the Synod of Whitby was convened over the problem of the British celebrating Easter at the wrong time. The result "brought the Northumbrian church into the mainstream of Roman culture." [Colgrave, Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, p. 9.] The Synod of Hertford occurred in 673 in which British bishops agreed to meet with one of Augustine’s predecessors. The Church in England agreed to acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope. However, the promise of a smooth working, amicable relationship between the Church in England and the Papacy was not to be.

The dispute between the Christian Brits vs. Augustine and his now Romanized Saxons did not remain purely theological. Geoffrey of Monmouth describes the sad incident of the Massacre at Bangor, where the Saxons took their revenge on the Brits for refusing to submit to Augustine. The event is described in the Penguin Edition of Geoffrey's Histories, pp. 266-267, or Book XI, chapters 12 and 13 of THIS online version.

This massacre accentuated the conflict between the two groups, a conflict that would continue to foment right up until the reformation.

Continuing Tensions

For many years the Celts in Scotland remained fiercely independent from the papacy. Sometimes this was for noble reasons, but quite often it was because they were insular and of a schismatic bent. Saint Columbanus (c.543 – 615), for example, had no problem moving into France and disregarding existing ecclesiastical jurisdictions (I have written up his biography here). Columbanus wrote to Gregory the Great, making striking claims for the purity and independence of the Celtic Church. Later Columbanus also wrote to Pope Boniface IV as follows:

“Your Chair, O Pope, is defiled with heresy. Deadly errors have crept into it; it harbours horrors and impieties. Catholic? The true Catholicism you have lost. The orthodox and the true Catholics are they who have always zealously preserved in the true faith.” [Elder, Celt, Druid and Culdee, p. 28, available online HERE.]
The Britons, whom we now call the Welsh, continued to be strongly independent of the Roman church. In AD 610, Cadvan, Prince of Wales, said:

"All men may hold the same truths, yet no man can hereby be drawn into slavery to another. If the Cymry believed all that Rome believes, that would be as strong a reason for Rome obeying us, as for us to obey Rome. It suffices for us that we obey the Truth. If other men obey the Truth, are they therefore to become subject to us? Then were the Truth of Christ made slavery and not freedom.” [Caerwys, MSS, cited Ibid, p. 125]

Even as late as AD 705, the Roman Catholic Adelm wrote to the Britons complaining that“ The precepts of your bishops are not in accord with Catholic faith.” (Adelmi opp., ed. Giles, pp. 24 ff. Monumenta Germ. History Tom, III, pp. 231 ff.) “We adjure you not to persevere in your arrogant contempt of the decrees of St. Peter and the traditions of the of the Roman Church by a proud and tyrannical attachment to the statutes of your ancestors.” [Montalembert,
Monks of the West, Vol IV, p. 233, cited by Elder, Ibid].

Christianity in Iona

For some time after this, part of the British church (based in Iona and part of an ancient monastic order known as ‘The Culdees’), was considered distinct from Rome. This is acknowledged by the Venerable Bede tells says how in AD 679 he visited the churches of Northumbria and Ireland and succeeded in bringing most of them under the dominion of Rome apart from the ones that were under the dominion of Iona. In chapter 4, the Venerable Bede tells how they “[practiced] only such works of piety and chastity as they could learn from the prophetical, evangelical and apostolical writings.”

The Culdee monastery at Iona remained free from Rome even after the rest of Britain came under the dominion of the Papacy. For years the church at Iona sent missionaries out to other parts of Europe, despite continual opposition from the Roman Church. [D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, Vol. IV. Also McLauchlan,
The Early Scottish Church, p. 216.] Indeed, the Culdees even held services in the same Churches as the Roman priests as there were two parallel systems operating simultaneously in certain areas. It is on record that the Culdees officiated in the Church of St. Peter, York, up to AD 936 (Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum, Vol. V, II, p. 607).

Gradually, however, the Roman church began to dispossess the Culdees of their property and ancient privileges, until by the eleventh century, they had been fully absorbed into the Roman church. [Alexander, Ten-Centenary of the Scottish Reformation (Edin. 1860), pp. 13, 17]

In Ireland the Culdee church did not come under Rome until 1172. As one Roman Catholic historian notes: “The ancient Order of the Culdees existed in Ireland previous to Patrick; and all their institutions proved that they were derived from a different origin from that of Rome.” [O'Driscoll, cited in Elder, pp. 133-34.]

In Views of Ireland, O'Driscoll writes that “The Christian Church of that country, as founded by St. Patrick, existed for many centuries free and unshackled. For about seven hundred years this Church maintained its independence. It had no connection with England, and differed on points of importance from Rome.” [O'Driscoll, Views of Ireland, pp. 26-27]

Archbishop Ussher says similarly: the Northern Irish “continued in their old tradition in spite of various papal bulls.”

This backdrop is often overlooked when people study the English reformation. When Henry the VIII broke with the Pope in 1534, much of England was ready and had been ready for centuries. In fact, England had been ready to break with Rome ever since Augustine's memorable little boat ride
It is true that Augustine converted the non-indigenous Saxons, but this was itself a mixed blessing since it fueled the existing tensions between them and the Brits, a tension that found expression in the tragic incident at Bangor (an incident which raises questions about just how real the Saxons' conversion really was). None of this is to overlook Augustine's very real accomplishments in converting the Saxons, but it is to attempt to put those works into some much needed perspective. Further, the ancient tradition of Christianity in the British isles serves as an antidote to Roman historiography which tends to portray acceptance of the papacy as being universally normative for the entire Western church until the reformation. I hope that this post has shown that such an understanding is grossly anachronistic.

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