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after Constantine

May 28, 2013

Last week I shared my discovery that Cuthbert (and the other “Celtic” Christians) had a radically different way of being Christians than the “Roman” Christians who won the day at the synod of Whitby. Remember this was centuries before Luther and even further from the split that formed the Church of England! So what we read back into the divide may be very different from the divisions that exist today.

So what are the differences? I think there are five fundamental differences, some of which overlap a bit. The parish system, the counter cultural `culture` of the church, the overall organisation of the church, the role and function of the “clergy”, and the focus of what the church does. I may have missed something, if so please leave a comment – or indeed please comment if you agree or disagree with my conclusions.

First up is the parish system. When the Christian faith was practised by people who were a persecuted minority in was fairly easy to know who was “in” and who was “out”. After all if you were not prepared to be persecuted you were likely to be outside of the faith. Those who formed the early churches were united in support and care for each other simply because they all faced the reality of suffering and possibly death from a common enemy [of course we also have to remember that their way of battling the enemy was to serve and love them – which also meant people we united in practical tasks] . For Cuthbert and the Celtic monks this meant that there was no coercion, people joined the monasteries by choice, and when the monks went on their preaching missions, people responded because they were convinced of the truth, the rightness, of what they heard. As I pointed out last week it was a battle for hearts and minds that the monks seemed to be very good at!

but after the Edit of Milan, Emperor Constantine effectively made Christianity the official  religion of the Roman empire. This changed everything because now being “inside” the faith was literally a matter of being born, or belonging to, the right place. It was external and not internal, (at this stage there was no evidence of coercion – although sadly that comes later) – this meant that, for those who were charged with caring for the people there were big gaps between those who gathered, and those who belonged: in other words, with the best will in the world, not everyone turned up to church. To tackle this the land was divided into parishes, and the priest cared for the people, alongside the ruler who ruled the people. Church and State were hand in hand! This caused a further problem as we shall see tomorrow!

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