The Western Church*

   In the early Middle Ages the authority of the Bishop of Rome increased in relation to the other bishops in the Western church. He became known as "pope"or "Papa" in Latin, an early informal title for any priest. Strong popes insisted that kings and emperors in the West were members of the church and therefore, like anyone else, subject to church authority and discipline. In the East, however, the Emperor understood himself as divinely appointed, and outside the authority of the church.

Gregory the Great - 11678 Bytes

    Rome also still had vestiges and associations of its imperial glory, and after the barbarian invasions, its church remained the most stable institution in Western Europe. As tribes converted to Christianity, they accepted the ecclesiastical authority of Rome as a given, increasing its power base.

   Strong popes influenced the development of Christianity by direct involvement in church and theological controversies. Leo the Great, pope from 440 until 461, is credited with stopping Attila the Hun at the gates of Rome, as well as mediating Christological debates within the church. The Fourth Ecumenical Council met at Chalcedon during his reign.

   Gregory the Great, pope from 590 until 604, was an able administrator. (He also wrote hymns, one of which can be found at #680, The United Methodist Hymnal.) He assisted in the conversion of Spain to Christianity, and also sent missionaries to England. Gregory appointed the first Archbishop of Canterbury, Augustine, in 597, linking the Christians already there to the Roman hierarchy.
Celtic Art adapted from the Book of Kells - 10539 Bytes

   The introduction of Roman church authority into Britain created some tension with the older Celtic church structure already in place, centered in Ireland. By and large the Celtic churches were subjugated or absorbed into the Roman church, especially as invasions from Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and later Norsemen, destroyed many of the Celtic church centers and monasteries. Pockets of non-Roman Christianity remained that kept older worship forms, and sometimes used vernacular languages. These non-Roman traditions were recognized many years later, as reform-minded Christians looked for alternatives to Roman dominance.


   The Eastern church flourished in the context of the Byzantine Empire, as the Eastern Roman Empire was now called. Church authority was closely linked with imperial authority, to the point that the Emperor was almost considered holy, and the bishops of the great metropolitan centers, especially the Patriarch of Constantinople, were almost as powerful as the Emperor. As the empire became increasingly autocratic, the church functioned more and more as an arm of the state. The Emperor’s power grew absolute, and the Patriarch either pleased him, or was deposed and replaced by someone more loyal.

   Beginning in 622, the followers of Muhammed rapidly conquered vast regions of the Byzantine Empire. Within a generation, all the great Eastern Christian centers of the ancient world--Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria--had fallen to the Muslims, whose persuasive policy of conversion left Christians as small minorities in Egypt, Palestine, North Africa, Arabia, and Persia. Only Constantinople remained as the bastion of Christianity in the East. The remnant of the Byzantine Empire lived under relentless pressure from its Islamic neighbors, shrinking to the regions around the capital. Constantinople itself finally fell in 1453.

   The West also lost large provinces to Islam, especially North Africa and Spain, and it lost any ease of communication with Constantinople. The pope’s unifying authority was enhanced as the rest of the Mediterranean world was lost. At the same time, Roman missionaries successfully converted the peoples to the north, who naturally looked to Rome as the seat of authority. When Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Franks in 800, it was the pope who set the crown on his head.

   The Eastern church sent missionaries to convert the Slavs of Central Europe in the ninth century. The brothers Cyril and Methodius translated the Bible into Slavonic, leading to the establishment of new, growing Orthodox churches in the distant, inland Eastern provinces. Farther east, Grand Duke Vladimir of Kiev adopted Christianity in 988, beginning the conversion of Russia. After the fall of Constantinople, which had called itself the Second Rome since Constantine, the Grand Duchy of Moscow identified itself as the Third Rome, the heart of the Orthodox church in the East. Constantinople still had a Patriarch, as did the other ancient patriarchal sees, but they had tiny domains within the Muslim world.

   *An excerpt from The Bible the Book the Bridges the Millennia by Maxine Clarke Beach Copyright © 1998 Maxine Clarke Beach.

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