Plan of a Christian Church from
the Roman Period found at
Silchester, England. A curious
feature of this church is that it faces
west rather than east as was the more
Let me digress for a moment to tell you about the diptychs as this is an important feature—and a feature we still follow today—for the unity of the Church. The diptychs were two panels hinged together on which were written the names of the living for whom prayers were offered on the one side, and the names of the dead to be commemorated in the prayers on the other. On the side of the living would be included the names of the prominent bishops and Churches of Christendom. The priest or deacon would read out these names during the prayers so that hearing the names of the leading bishops, a travelling Christian would know they were in a catholic (note the small “c”) and not some breakaway sect or heretical faction. Today, at Mass, we include the name of the Pope and the local Bishop in the Eucharistic Prayer. Thus when I am at Mass away from home, and I hear the Pope’s name I know I am in a Catholic Church and not an Episcopalian or a Lutheran Church where the Liturgy is very much the same. (Don’t be smug. I know devout Catholics who have been to Episcopal or Lutheran Eucharists and not known they were in the wrong pew. This can be particularly tricky if there is a language barrier.)
While these Churches in Britain were in communion with the Roman Church they were in no way “under” the Roman Church or its Bishop, whom we may now refer to as “the Pope.” (It would not be precise historically to call the bishop of Rome “the Pope” before Leo the Great, (pope 440-461) or certainly before the Constantinian settlement, c. 315. But that is another subject entirely.) Each of these Churches would have elected its own bishop in the traditional way—an assembly of the laity along with the clergy—with the election confirmed by the bishops of the surrounding communities. That bishop, once elected, would have governed the local Church without reference to outside authority other than that of any council of the bishops of his region that might be held, or an Ecumenical Council called by the Emperor.
The coming of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in the fifth century uprooted but did not destroy these British Christian communities. At the beginning of the fifth century, Roman troops were called home from the far-flung corners of the Empire to protect the city of Rome from the various invaders that threatened it. Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410, threatened by Attila in 452, sacked again by the Vandals in 455, and finally sacked once more by the Ostrogoths in 546. (We won’t deal here with later sacks.) Once the Roman troops had withdrawn, these Germanic tribes saw room for expansion in the rich and fertile British Island. As they moved in, the native British population shifted more and more to the west and to what is now Wales to escape them. The Germanic peoples were pagans of the old Germanic religion with Wotan and his buddies from the Ring of the Nibelung. In places like York and London and Eboracum (York) Christianity held on by a thread but the centers of Christianity shifted to the west and south west and to Wales with the surviving Briton population. This was the Britain of Arthur and we know little about it with any certainty, but at the very time Christianity was most vulnerable, reinforcements to the faith came from the west in the Celtic missions. And that is for next time.