Sunday, 5 February 2017

A Short History of the Church of England - Part 2

"A Layman's History of the Church of England" by G.R. Balleine is history told as story, told a lot from the point of view of a small fictional parish in England. Not all the history stands up to scrutiny today - Balleine's view of druids and their practices is very problematic, as shown by Ronald Hutton in recent years. But it is a lively narrative which still is engaging with the reader.

Most of Balleine's books are either currently in print - as for example his History of Jersey - or online in the form of PDF versions. This book is not, so this is something different. As well as being a Jersey historian, Balleine was also a priest in the Church of England, and Ministre Deservant at St Brelade's Church for a time.


Let us visit Durford Church one Sunday morning. It is sunrise, and all the Christians in the village have assembled for public worship. Two priests stand at the Lord's Table, for the British Church allows no one but a bishop to administer the Communion alone. They wear no special vestments ; their dress is exactly the same as that of the laymen around.'

[The first outward mark distinguishing clergy from laity was the tonsure, i.e. the shaving of the front of the head up to a line drawn from ear to ear. This was the badge of slavery, and was adopted by the clergy as a sign that they were bondservants of Christ. The practice began about the beginning of the sixth century. A special vestment for use in Church was not introduced till the seventh century, and then only through the clergy retaining for their ministrations the old-fashioned, flowing, secular robes, which were going out of use in ordinary daily life. ]

They are married men, earning their living on weekdays as carpenters or masons ; but they have each been duly ordained by a bishop.

The service is in Latin, a language which all can understand. The preliminary service for the catechumens [those who are being prepared for baptism] has just ended, and all who are not full members of the Church are bidden to withdraw. The unbaptized, the children, the excommunicated quietly file out, and the Liturgy of the Faithful, the Communion Service begins.

We notice several strange customs-the ceremonial combing of the priests' hair, the kiss of peace which all Church members have to give one another, but there are no non-communicants; the laity receive the Cup as well as the Consecrated Bread ; the ritual which in later years grew up around the Mass has hardly yet begun to obscure and complicate the rite.

But Christianity was still a forbidden religion, and soon there came a rough reminder of the fact. On the Feast of the God of Boundaries, A.D.193, an appropriate day for putting an end to the Christian superstition, Diocletian the Emperor issued an edict that all churches were to be demolished, all copies of the Scriptures burnt, and all Christians outlawed.

Britain was an outlying province, and Constantine the Governor not unfriendly, and so the persecution here was milder than abroad, but Durford Church was levelled to the ground, like all the other churches, and soon news carne that the first British martyr had laid down his life for Christ. In every Christian home the story was repeated how Alban of Verulam, while still a pagan, hid a fugitive priest ; how, as he watched his guest's behaviour, he too became a Christian ; how he put on the priest's cloak and gave himself up in his stead ; how, when ordered to sacrifice or die, he joyfully chose death; and, when he and his guards could not cross the bridge for the crowd of spectators, waded through the water, so eager was he to gain the martyr's crown.

This was almost the last attempt of Roman Paganism to stamp out Christianity. Inj the Emperor Constantine himself became a Christian, and the edict of Milan gave freedom of religion to every province of the Empire. Many who had fallen from the faith in the hour of persecution now asked to be re-admitted to the Church. What should be done with them?

To decide this a Council was called at Arles (A.D. 314), and at this three British bishops were present. British bishops attended later a Council at Rimini (A.D. 359).

And this is important, because it shows that all Western Christendom recognized the British Church as orthodox and duly organized. Her bishops were summoned as a matter of course to the greatest councils, and met the bishops of other countries on perfectly equal terms.

For three hundred and sixty years Britain had been part and parcel of the Roman Empire, but now Durford began to see a strange and ominous sight.

First one legion, and then another, marched down the village street on its way to the sea, and no fresh ones ever came to take their place. The Mistress of the world was fighting at home for her very life. Alaric and his Goths were pouring into Italy, and Rome had no troops to spare to defend her distant colonies.

In 407 the last legion set sail, and Britain was left to protect herself as best she could.

While the civil officials were grappling with the difficulties of the new position, the Church was troubled with the heresy of the Pelagians whose "vain talk" is still denounced in our Thirty-Nine Articles. Pelagius was himself a Briton, "a big, fat dog from Albion, bloated with Scotch porridge," St. Jerome calls him in an indignant letter. Like many heretics he was a good man, but he believed that man could be good without the grace of God : whereas the Church has always taught that " we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God without the grace of God preventing us (i.e. first putting the thought into our minds), and working with us, when we have that good will".

Pelagius taught his heresy in Rome and Carthage and the East, but there came to Durford the priest Agricola, whom Pelagius had sent to spread his views in Britain. Here, as elsewhere, he met with a mixed reception. Some of the richer folk inclined to the new doctrines, but the clergy and the poorer people stood fast for the old Faith.

During the next twenty years the Pelagian views distinctly gained ground. But one day there arrived in the village (A.D. 429) a tall and dignified stranger, Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, one of the greatest orators of the age. The British bishops had invited him over to help them to check the heresy.

He preached in church, and then went out, and preached in the open air, and, as a Breton by birth, he was able to speak to the people in the British tongue. With his companion the Bishop of Troyes, he passed from village to village, and soon the Pelagian leaders felt their followers slipping from them. They challenged the bishops to a public debate in the city of Verulam, but that was their undoing.

When the day came, they spoke first, and then Germanus answered in such a flood of oratory, that the multitudes who had flocked to listen were won to his side in a moment, and his chief difficulty was not to convince them of the danger of heresy, but to prevent their tearing the Pelagian speakers to pieces.

This is the last glimpse we get of the British Church in this part of England. For suddenly a far more serious problem arose. The question was no longer whether orthodox views on the Doctrine of Grace should prevail, but whether there should be a Christian Church at all in Britain.

Even before the Romans withdrew, two sets of marauders had been giving trouble. The Picts, or painted folk, of Scotland were ever swarming over the wall, and having to be driven back ; while savage pirates from Denmark and North Germany were constantly raiding the coast. When the .legions left, these raids naturally increased in frequency : and at last the Government in despair adopted the fatal ;policy of trying to hire the pirates to repel the Picts.

In 449 the rulers of Kent hired sea-rovers from Jutland. Then the inevitable dispute arose over pay or rations. The pirates turned on their employers : and the men of Durford watched from the forest tall mail-clad savages burning their church and homes, and putting their kinsmen to death. In a few years the Jutes had conquered the whole county; large numbers of the Christian inhabitants had been slain those who remained were either outlaws hiding in the forests, or slaves kept by the conquerors to till the ground. Northward in Essex, westward in Sussex, bands of Saxon sea-robbers did the same thing.

Further north the Angles were winning all the East coast. More Saxons seized the district which they named Wessex. By 580 half Britain had passed into possession of the pirates, and in that half all outward observance of the Christian Faith had been stamped out in fire and blood.

Let us watch what happened at Durford. The village had been burnt to the ground in the first raid. When the time came to divide the land, this district fell to the Glaestings, a group of ten families, who were all kinsmen. Their first act was to remove all trace of the British village, lest spells and enchantments should haunt the stones and walls. Ten homesteads were then built with wood from the neighbouring forest. Huts were thrown up around them in which the slaves could sleep, and the whole was surrounded with an earthen rampart, topped with a quick-set hedge.

Herethryth and Waerlaf, Ceolmund and Hwita were now the chief men of the village, fierce heathen, worshipping those German gods whose names we still repeat when we call the days of our week Tiw's day and Woden's day, Thor's day and Frig's day.

And of these Greater Gods Woden was King. Minor deities might be appeased with offerings of clogs and hawks, but Woden would accept no lesser sacrifice than a man. The temple of Woden with its sacred stump stood on the site of the Christian church, and on certain days of the year great feasts were held around it; but the average man was far more influenced by the terrorism of the lesser gods, the ghosts who dwelt in solitary places and stalked through the land at night, the goblins who haunted the sacred circles of the old religion, the valkyrs and the nicors, the imps and demons, the werewolves, the nightmares and the elves, the prolific host of Grendel the Evil One, against which it was necessary to defend oneself by carefully woven chains of charms and spells and incantations.. Totemism or animal worship was also practised, and in Kent the White Horse was specially sacred.

The Christian slaves, no doubt, clung to their religion in secret, but they were ignorant and crushed with suffering ; their leaders had fled to the West or over the sea to Brittany ; there was no public worship and no means of instruction. What wonder, if their faith grew feeble as the years passed by !

For a century and a half Durford was once more a heathen village.

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