In the late Roman Empire most people were poor. The state was in the hands of a hugely wealthy elite who called all the shots. The logic for a religion was inevitable. The only source of converts was to appeal to people in poverty. The only source of cash was the government. The winning formula turned out to be highly centralised Christianity. This combined stuff that would appeal to the broke who stood to inherit the Earth if sufficiently meek while guaranteeing that that which was due to Caesar would actually be rendered unto Caesar. Anything that convenient had to be true. It was also worth wiping out any competition. So we ended up with Christian monoculture.
May day has always seemed to me to be a day in the calendar that cries out to be celebrated. It is about this time of year that the evenings become light for long enough to enjoy. If we are lucky we can pack away our winter coats and jumpers for the year. A bank holiday moved around from year to year to suit commercial requirements has never really seemed adequate to it. Even the bank holiday seems to have been conceded rather grudgingly. I am old enough to remember the first one. I seem to remember a conservative politician suggesting dropping it in favour of a day to commemorate the battle of Trafalgar.
“The ruin of Paganism, in the age of Theodosius, is perhaps the only example of the total extirpation of any ancient and popular superstition; and may therefore deserve to be considered as a singular event in the history of the human mind.”
Was the Catholic Church simply a new way for the Romans to rule their empire? The traditional conquest model didn’t work any more, so was this another way to keep control in the same hands? It is a thought that has occurred to more than one person over the centuries. If you were looking for evidence to support the idea you’d be off to a good start with the career of St Ambrose. His father was the governor of a large province in Gaul. Ambrose was educated in Rome with the intention of following in his father’s foot steps. And he started off doing exactly that, being the governor of a region including Milan. Rome was still the nominal capital, but Milan was where the emperors lived and so that was where the real power was.
Gregory of Nazianzus has an enviable reputation among the leading lights of church history. But it his ideas and writings that are remembered. His actual achievements in the real world are less impressive. His biggest one, his appointment as bishop of Constantinople by Theodosius – probably the top job in Christianity at the time – didn’t last long. Once again it was politics that let him down. Some intrigues originating in Egypt (where else?) aimed to replace him. Given how hard he had worked for the cause of Orthodoxy that was at the very least ungrateful. Gregory ostentatiously resigned, no doubt as a manoeuvre.
Theodosius as a new emperor wanted to bring an end to the religious in-fighting that was weakening the empire, particularly that between the Arians and the Orthodox. Theodosius came from a part of the empire where Arianism hadn’t really penetrated, and so presumably was a believer in the orthodox form. Whatever his personal convictions, the most straight forward way to achieve the unity he needed was to support the strongest group against all the others. This meant enforcing the orthodox position against the various heresies that challenged it. The biggest single step in this direction was to win Constantinople over from the Arians. To do so he appointed the obvious candidate, Gregory of Nazianzus as the patriarch of Constantinople.
The hot topic in the empire of the 4th Century was the nature of Christ. This issue was resolved not by theologians like Gregory of Nazianzus but by the soldier emperor Theodosius. If you read between the lines of some of my earlier episodes on the history of the Church, you might pick up the sense that I am not particularly an admirer of Christianity.
I was shocked to hear the news that women will not be allowed to become bishops in the Church of England. I had no idea that they were banned in the first place. I had thought that when they were allowed to join the clergy in the first place, that opened up the whole hierarchy. Oh well, it is only the C of E. It is not as if it is anything that important. In fact, I should have realised that if there was a crazy option to take on the subject of gender, the established church was likely to take it.
I only have to look at some of the curious arrangements in the churches in the little bit of the patchwork of the English countryside where I happen to live. The local Catholic priest lives with his wife. He can only do that on the basis of a special dispensation from the Pope. He used to be an Anglican vicar who went over to the Catholics over the issue of women priests. The Catholics were flexible enough to allow married ex-Anglican clergy to sign up even if they were married. Not too far away a former Catholic priest has turned Anglican. He was obliged to make the switch when he fell in love and got married. Not all local clergy have such problems I should point out. The previous vicar in the Church nearest to me was a confirmed bachelor, who was happy to make do with the companionship of a good friend who lived in with him. So that was alright.
|Christ’s Death must have been hard to cope with for his followers|
“Imagine no religion, it’s easy if you try.”
So sang John Lennon. I miss you John. It would be really nice to think you were up there somewhere and could know how much we all love you. I imagine that the followers of Jesus felt much the same. Their much loved charismatic leader was dead. Who can blame them for wishing him back to life, in some form or another. It is very human and very understandable.
So that is how I think Christianity got started. Jesus was a man who inspired a lot of love, and deep down that is what it is all about. It has been twisted into some pretty evil forms since then, but there is still something good and wholesome buried extremely deeply at its core. But why was this originally harmless cult persecuted so ferociously from its very origin?