28 September 2012

Church History (full-time) 1.1: Introduction, Why do Church History?

An icon of the Church as a boat, including Christ, the Apostles and the Church Fathers

Patrick Comerford

Year I MTh, Church History elective module (TH 7864)

9.30 a.m., Friday, 28 September 2012, Hartin Room

Church History 1.1: Introduction, Why do Church History?


Module outline and description; readings:

Semesters: 1 and 2

Semester 1:
3 hours on Friday mornings on three stated weeks (Weeks 1, 9 and 11), plus one residential weekend with seminars and field trips.

Semester 2: 3 hours on Friday mornings on four stated weeks, plus one self-directed field trip.

Course description:

The elective module in Church History is designed to provide an overview of the story and the development of the Church, with attention to the history of Christian doctrine, the causes of the Reformation and the origins of Anglicanism, with attention to the context of the Irish situation and the Church of Ireland. Students are expected to understand the historical and cultural contexts in which the Church was formed and developed, to explore the development of Christianity over the centuries, to examine the origins and development of Christianity in Ireland, and to place the historical changes and developments in the Church of Ireland within the context of Anglicanism in particular and the wider church, political and social life over the centuries.

Learning Outcomes:

On completion of this module, a student will be able to:

● Critically relate the historical contexts of theological, doctrinal and liturgical developments;
● Understand the historical development of the Church;
● Identify the main changes and developments in the Church of Ireland, Anglicanism and the wider Church;
● Appreciate the historical developments in Christian art, architecture and literature.

Teaching and learning methods:

● Lectures;
● Seminars and group work;
● Field trips to cathedrals, churches, museums and other sites.

Assessment Modes:

Coursework totalling 5,000 words (Two assignments of 2,500 words each).

Dates for submission of Essays:

17 December 2012, noon; 8 April 2013, noon.

Required or recommended reading:

David L Edwards, Christianity, the first Two Thousand Years (London: Cassell, 1997).
Diarmuid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity (London: Penguin, 2010).
John McManners (ed), The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

Alan Acheson, A History of the Church of Ireland (Dublin: Columba, 2nd ed, 2003).
JR Bartlett, SD Kinsella (eds), Two Thousand Years of Christianity in Ireland (Dublin: Columba, 2006).
Brendan Bradshaw, Dáire Keogh (eds), Christianity in Ireland, Revisiting the Story (Dublin: Columba, 2002).
MD Chapman, Anglican Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2012).
Kevin Ward, A History of Global Anglicanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Week 1:

1.1, Introduction: Why do Church History?

1.2, From the Apostles to Constantine

1.3, An introduction to Patristics and the Early Fathers

Week 6 (Residential Weekend I):


2.1, The arrival of Christianity in Ireland

2.2, Early Irish Church History

2.3, Field Trip 1: May include: Slane or Tara, Kells, Trim, and Clonard or Drogheda


3.1, Introduction to Church Art

3.2, Introduction to Church Architecture

3.3, Field Trip 2: May include: Dublin Castle, The Bank of Ireland, Trinity College Dublin, the National Gallery of Ireland.


4.1, Introduction to Liturgical History

4.2, Introduction to Music in the History of the Church

4.3, Closing Eucharist

Week 9:

5.1, Setting the boundaries of Christianity: Creeds, Heretics and Orthodoxy

5.2, The arrival of Islam and the triumph of Rome

5.3, External and internal priorities: the Crusades and the Monasteries

Week 11:

6.1, A house divided: Rome and Byzantium

6.2, Seminar: readings in key thinkers in the late Mediaeval Church: Gregory the Great, Aquinas, Francis, &c.

6.3, Meanwhile, back in Ireland: the Anglo-Norman and post-Norman Church.

Semester II:

Week A:

7.1, New questions: Lollards, Hussites and Erasmus

7.2, Reformation readings: Luther, Calvin and Zwingli

7.3, The Anglican Reformation: readings.

Week B:

8.1, Trent and Jesuits: Catholic expansion

8.2, Missions and colonies: Protestant expansion

8.3, Revolution and enlightenment: old certainties challenged

Week C:

Meanwhile back in Ireland:

9.1, Why did the Reformation fail?

9.2, The Boyne and the Penal Laws

9.3, Disestablishment and the Ultramontane triumph

Week D:

10.1, From Kant and Schleiermacher to Pugin and Biblical Criticism: rethinking and reshaping Christianity

10.2, Slaves, soldiers and women: new challenges that shaped new priorities

10.3, Preparing for the third millennium

Field Trip III:

11.1, Self-directed field trip to three churches or church locations, in consultation with the lecturer and with report to seminar.


The geographical area that provides the setting for the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles

The story of the early Apostolic Church, found in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, and as a preparation for this elective module, you have been asked over the past week to read that part of the story of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles.

Many of you are also familiar, at this stage with more recent Church history. For example, we are all familiar with the decade of commemorations for the events between 1912 and 1922, including the Ulster Covenant (1912), the Lockout (1913), World War I (1914 on), Gallipoli and Suvla Bay (1915), the Easter Rising and the Somme (1916), the Russian Revolution (1917), the War of Independence, Partition and the Civil War.

Many of you may not have done history beyond O Levels or Junior Certificate level at school. You may wonder about the hows and whys of Church History, and where it fits into any programme of theological, spiritual, pastoral and liturgical training.

But let me first begin by challenging some of our understandings of history:

Is the present economic, political and constitutional crisis in Ireland an historic moment for us, socially, politically or economically?

Was the papacy of Pope John Paul II historic?

Did Bertie Ahern make an historic contribution to Irish politics?

It may be too soon to judge any of these, it may be too early. I know a Byzantine historian who says that everything that happened before 1453 is history, everything after that is politics and current affairs.

What a later generation may describe as historic may not be what we see as momentous now, for it may not be seen as historic by a later generation.

Group work:

In your groups discuss and name:

● 2 important people in history
● 2 important dates in history.



T-shirts on sale in the Plaka in Athens … We think the way we think because of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There are fashions in history. Today the fashionable studies include the history of sport, clothing, and local and family history studies. But a generation ago, the fashion in history was for biographies and battles, generals and Prime Ministers. A century ago, peerages and genealogies of the landed gentry were big sellers. How many of you have dusted down your copy of Burke’s or Debrett’s lately?

Who knows what events today are shaping the future and will be regarded by future generations, therefore, as historic? History is not fixed, something we can objectively set out, and that will always remain so.

Dr Who meets Charles Dickens in Victorian Cardiff

Are any of you Dr Who fans? In one episode some years ago, back in 2005, Dr Who was visiting Victorian Cardiff and teamed up with Charles Dickens. But what we see as important in Victorian days was not see as such by Victorians, and future generations may have their own priorities.

We cannot all travel in the same Tardis. We construct our histories out of what we think was important in the past. Our priorities today are reflected in the facts we collect, how we prioritise and emphasise them, and even by what we accept on the one hand as fact, and what, on the other hand, we question, and more so by what we decide to collect and what we decide not to use at all in telling about the past.

Compare a biography of Winston Churchill and a biography of David Beckham. What would a biography of Churchill be like if it concentrated only on his clothes, his hairstyle or lack of hairstyle, and his sporting interests, and drew on interviews with his cigar suppliers and former neighbours?

Our judgment of Churchill has been different since the popular outburst of public sentiment following his death than the judgment passed on him by the electorate in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Those voters had a different idea of how history might judge Churchill.

It may be that historians in 200 years’ time decide that the great liberator of Eastern Europe or the unifier of modern Europe was not Pope John Paul II or Mikhail Gorbachev. They may have different priorities. Could it have been sport – the UEFA championships, the European Championships or the Moscow Olympics of 1980 – that did more to make Eastern Europeans more aware of the West, to open their demands, to give them a spirited approach to demanding liberation and European Union?

Who knows?

In the past, we men have underplayed the importance women have played in history. Historians who have been educated in middle class schools continue to underplay the importance of sport and popular culture in transforming the everyday lives of individuals, families, communities and societies. If I sound a little absurd, remember your own background and conditioning, and remember that in 1969 war broke out between El Salvador and Honduras at a football match and 5,000 people were killed in the four-day “football war.”

Because of the conditioning of our family backgrounds and schooling, many of us think history is all about dates and battles, kings and generals. Is there anyone in this room who does not know the significance of these dates:

432 (Saint Patrick arrives in Ireland)

802 (Burning of Iona)

1014 (Battle of Clontarf)

1066 (Battle of Hastings)

1170 (Anglo-Normans arrive at Baginbun)

1366 (Statutes of Kilkenny)

1549 (First Book of Common Prayer)

1641 (Ulster Rebellion)

1649 (execution of Charles I, triumph of Cromwell)

1662 (revision of The Book of Common Prayer)

1690 (Battle of the Boyne)

1776 (American Revolution)

1789 (French Revolution)

1798 (Irish revolutions)

1800 (Act of Union passed)

1829 (Catholic Emancipation)

1845 (Great Famine, until 1849)

1869 (Disestablishment)

1886 (First Home Rule Bill)

1891 (Death of Parnell)

1904 (Sinn Fein formed)

1916 (Easter or Somme)

1932 (de Valera wins election)

1945 (end of World War II)

1949 (Declaration of Republic)


Is there anybody who does not know the historical significance of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Henry VIII, Napoleon, Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Padraic Pearse, Wallace Simpson, Churchill, Stalin?

We find it more difficult when it comes to counting in memorable moments in history – events such as the death of Socrates, or when it comes to counting among the great figures in history people who gave us ideas (Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Luther, Marx), or people who wrote great works (Aristophanes, Chaucer, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare), or were great artists, architects and composers (Rembrandt, Mozart, Wren, Pugin and Picasso).

How many of the two people in history you named were drawn from the English-speaking world? Think again of what you said in your small groups.

History shapes our memories; and memories shape our sense of history. This is important for how we see ourselves today, as products of our past. And it is important for how our neighbours see us as perpetuating that legacy from the past.

Why do Church History?

Archbishop Rowan Williams ... says Church History deepens our present thinking and helps us to think with more varied and resourceful analogies about our present problems

Why should we study Church History on course such as this?

The simple answer that is usually is that we learn lessons from the past.

Woody Allen has asked: Why does history keep on repeating itself?

He says it’s because people refuse to listen the first time round.

Quite a lot of us refuse to listen not so much to history, but to the presentation of history the first time round, particularly if it is presented in a dull, boring, pedantic and condescending way. And it is dull and boring if it is only about dates and battles, kings and generals, a chronology listing merely dates and names, without relevance to the present.

No! History is about how we have been shaped and how we are moving into the future. History is about a legacy. And if we fail to learn from the lessons, we cannot own the good and say goodbye to the past.

In his book on Church history – Why study the past? The quest for the historical church (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005)– Archbishop Rowan Williams argues cogently that Church History deepens our present thinking and helps us to think with more varied and resourceful analogies about who we are and the world we are in, with our present problems. He says reading Church History should be theologically sensitive, and he continues:

This does not mean allowing theological interests to settle historical questions or pretending that you should not pay attention to human motives and social or political conditioning when you look at the Christian past: good theology does not come from bad history. We have to admit that some of the Church histories of the past are indeed bad history because they move too quickly from theology and spirituality to the shape of past events... [T]he Christian believes that Christians past and present (and future for that matter) are all bound up together in the Body of Christ, the community in which each contributes something unique to the life of all. And this means that the Christian will be looking and listening in his or her study of Christian history for what feeds and nourishes belief now; they will not simply write off the past as a record of sad or cruel or stupid error… There will be an element of expectation: we shall emerge from the study of the past with some greater fullness of Christian maturity.

The Church depends in many areas on an understanding of its history. And so Church history is used by theologians not just to prove arguments but to clarify what we are as human beings.

Is that how you have perceived Church History in the past?

Is your understanding of Church History relevant to your understanding of theology?

Is your understanding of Church History relevant to today’s Church?

Church History needs to be relevant to your faith, to your spirituality, to your worship, to your ecumenical endeavours, to your ministry and to your mission.

Church History and theology:

Walking on the beach in Portrane ... a lesson in understanding how we approach church history (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

I love looking back on those times I have lived close to the sea. Perhaps, it’s because my grandmother was brought up beside the sea in Portrane. I once lived near the beach at Rosslare, and in recent years have managed to spend some valuable time in Achill, in Kilmuckridge, and by the sea in Greece and Turkey.

If you live by a coast or a beach, you know that lots of flotsam and jetsam are washed up every day. Sometimes this includes living creatures, such as seal pups, baby dolphins, or even the occasional beached whale.

I have joked in the past that the approach of the dogmatic theologian to the beached whale or baby dolphin might be to see how it breathes, how its heart beats, whether the main part of the tail is three-in-one or one-in-three, to carve it up to find and examine its component parts, and finally express surprise that it is dead.

The approach of the church historian, on the other hand, might follow this course: ask where it came from; ask which tide brought it in; ask whether this tide was influenced by the phases of the moon; ask is it like previous whales or dolphins seen on this, or neighbouring, beaches; and while going to the county library to find the cuttings for the last sighting of one these in 1927, the creature heaves a last sigh and dies.

If they had both co-operated, they might have first pushed the creature back into the sea, and it might have lived, and we might have more of an idea of why it lives.

Church History needs to be relevant to your faith, to your spirituality, to your worship, to your ecumenical endeavours, to your ministry and to your mission.

Let me share some examples:

Church history helps us understand the way doctrine developed and liturgy was constructed in the 39 Articles and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Church history and doctrine: Here, church history helps us understand the way doctrine has developed. For example, you may have to deal with the 39 Articles, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the construction of liturgy in the past that has led to our present liturgical experiences.

The Duomo of Florence and the Palazzo Vecchio seen from the terraces of the Uffizi ... Church History can help us to understand great works of art and architecture (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Church history and art: How can you understand the great works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo or Rembrandt, the collections in the Uffizi in Florence, the icons in Orthodox history, or the architecture of great cathedrals and churches that have survived the centuries without understanding what the artist or architect was trying to say, and, from the other perspective, how can we appreciate these works without developing an awareness of how they have shaped our images of God and of Biblical figures, or formed culturally our expectations of sacred space?

Inside the Benedictine Abbey Church in Ealing ... Church history opens us to other traditions of spirituality (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Church history and spirituality: Here, Church history opens for us and makes accessible the writings of the Desert fathers; the development of monasticism and its links with Egypt; how early Irish monasticism, in a very short time, drew on the tradition of the East – from Pachomius, Basil and Anthony, and then spread to Europe. But how many of us know how to own much of this as Anglicans? History and spirituality have often come together for me in my pilgrimage or retreats in a monastery, such as Glenstal, Ealing, Mount Athos, Mount Sinai or Patmos. But think of the opportunities of being enriched spiritually and in the tradition of the early Church by going on a retreat in Orlagh with the Augustinians, or in Rostrevor or Glenstal with the Benedictines.

Church history opens us to other understandings of salvation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Church history and our essential understanding of salvation: Much of what passes as a Protestant understanding of salvation is Augustinian. It is not so much based on Scripture as on an Augustinian reading of Scripture. And therefore it is Western as opposed to Eastern.

In the East, there is not the same emphasis on original sin, and therefore there is not the same emphasis on the need for personal salvation, nor are the same questions asked about justification. In the East, salvation is to be found in the church, and therefore people associate salvation with going to Church and taking part in the liturgy. In that sense, Western Protestant and Catholic questions about sin and salvation have more in common with each other than we ever admit or accept. Church history helps us to understand that.

Church history teaches us that the Reformation was not a unique event. There were other Reforming movements. It begs questions such as why Francis of Assisi was kept in the church, but Luther was expelled?

Dante’s statue in Florence ... the first person to write in modern Italian (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Church history and the other arts: The monastery played a crucial role in the development of western understandings of music, through chant and organ. In literature, Chaucer was the first person to write in modern English, and Dante was the first person to write in modern Italian. But who can separate these developments in western understanding from the spiritual and theological directions of their work?

The importance of Florence and the flowering of the Renaissance are essentially grasped through understanding the patronage of the Church. Much popular understanding today of about Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is derived not from the Gospel narratives but from Dan Browne’s Da Vinci Code. But art is important in understanding theology. Think of Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

When it comes to music, church history and theology, think of Mozart and Bach. Bach died in 1750, but nobody realised then what historical significance he would have – his Saint Matthew Passion was not performed until 1829, when Mendelssohn conducted it in Berlin. Yet Bach is an example of how we can theology through music: he inscribed the scores of his religious music with the letters JJ (Jesu, juva, Jesus help) at the beginning, and SDG (Soli Deo Gloria – to God alone the glory) at the end.

Saint Thomas’s Church, Achill ... Church History opens us to our neighbours’ inherited understanding of us (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church history and our Christian neighbours: History is read differently by different Christian communities. The Presbyterian memory of the Church of Ireland is that we marginalised them at the Caroline Restoration in 1660, that we turfed them out of their churches in the north-east, and that we kept all the church endowments for ourselves. Yet the Presbyterian memory of being the true Ulster-Scots is untrue.

When it comes to Roman Catholic memory, we are often seen as a branch of the Church of England, or remembered for the Penal Laws and the landlords and tithes, and we are linked with their sense of disinheritance.

Catholics and Presbyterians together believe that they were the only ones to take part in the 1798 Rising. Methodists too believe in their memories that we turfed them out of the Church. Think of Catholic memory of souperism and the Achill and Ventry missions. How can Nangle and mission in Achill be seen in a positive light today?

The crescent and the minaret at the Irish Islamic Centre and mosque in Clonskeagh, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church history and interfaith dialogue: Church history reminds us that Byzantium was the longest-lasting Christian kingdom, that what we call Turkey was a Christian country – the Christian country – for longer than it has been a Muslim country. On the other hand, Spain was a Muslim country for longer than it has been regarded as a Christian country.

And so, it is surprising the Carmelite spirituality of John of the Cross or Theresa of Avila has echoes of Sufi spirituality?

We can deal properly with our neighbours if we first accept them as our neighbours. And Church history teaches that Muslims and Turks have always been part of Europe, ever since we constructed the concept of Europe.

The Mission … what does Church History teach us about mission and politics?

Church history and our understanding of the political world: Christianity played a key, formative role in shaping European cultural identity. For too long, there was a coincidence of Europe and Christendom. Church history explains the development of principles such as the just war theory. In terms of political science, church history like no other branch of history allows us to compare Savonarola (1498) with Machiavelli. Was Savanarola essentially a political opportunist or a religious fanatic?

In terms of imperialist expansion, Church history helps to explain a great deal of what was happening in Europe for the last 500 years or so, and its legacy. Just think of a movie such as The Mission, and how the Pope carved up Latin America between Portugal and Spain.

The churches played a key role in shaping North America. Think of how they shaped Puritan Massachusetts, Catholic Maryland, Anglican Virginia, or Quaker Pennsylvania.

The French Revolution was as much a revolt against the Church at its worst as against a monarchy that was propped up by the churches teaching and preaching the Divine Right of Kings.

We cannot understand evangelicalism without taking account of its political impulses, including demands to end the slave trade, slavery, and child labour.

We understand Karl Marx in a new light when we understand that his Jewish parents converted to Christianity during his childhood, andc that one of his earliest academic works was on Saint John’s Gospel.

When it comes to assessing the last twelve years of American history, will it be possible for historians to understand the Bush and Obama presidencies without understanding the religious beliefs of Bush’s closest advisers and their apocalyptic theology, and the legacy that left for Obama? But I’ll leave that for later historians.


Bad church history is merely a summary of dates and domineering figures. Good church history relates to the rest of theology, and to the rest of society. If we do not do it properly, people will think we’re irrelevant, or covering up.

And because we have done it so badly in the past, I think, explains in part the reason why many people are attracted to The Da Vinci Code. They know it is a novel, but at the same time many really do believe Dan Brown that the book is based on facts and on real history.

Over the course of this module, I want us to throw aside our old ideas about history, and let us ask searching questions about the Church in general and the Church of Ireland in particular, how we were shaped, and how we got to where we are today.

Next: Church History 1.2, From the Apostles to Constantine

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture on Friday 28 September 2012 with Year I students on the MTh course.

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