Man is a pliable animal, a being who
gets accustomed to everything.
Fëdor Dostoevsky (1821-1881),
The House of the Dead
We have seen how material from the Bible has been manipulated
in the past, but many Christian teachings and practices are
not mentioned in either the Old or the New Testaments. The Church
has traditionally justified these teachings and practices as
God-given, absolute, binding and immutable. In this section
we assess how well this claim stands up against the alternative
theory that the Church has adopted, amended and discarded practices
as a matter of convenience.
We have already seen that some of the most important doctrines
date from the third or fourth centuries for example the
doctrines of the Incarnation, the Trinity, the Harrowing of
Hell, Original Sin, and Mary's perpetual virginity. Some doctrines
were hammered out only in the Middle Ages for example
transubstantiation and the sacraments. And many of these were
abandoned by Protestants, whose own doctrines were fluid for
centuries. Some teachings have been recognised as dogma by the
Roman Church only in recent times. Examples are the Immaculate
Conception (1854), papal infallibility (1870), and the bodily
Assumption of Mary into Heaven (1950). The lack of a firm historical
basis is often reflected in the disparate views of different
Churches even disagree over the number of grades of the Christian
ministry ("Major Orders" or "Holy Orders"):
Eastern Churches 3, traditional Western Churches 2, some Methodists
1, other nonconformists 0. Some doctrines have never been fully
defined. For example the Atonement, grace, and whether or not
the human soul and the spirit are identical or separate. Nevertheless,
it must be said that the Eastern Churches have changed their
views much less frequently than the Western ones over the last
millennium, and this section therefore concentrates on the Western
Churches. The following are examples of other teachings and
practices that have changed, or are still in the process of
Status of the Bible As we have already seen, the
Western Church regarded its own Latin translation of the Bible
as divinely inspired and infallible, despite its known errors.
In early times vernacular translations were also used, often
to help missionary activity, but as doctrines diverged more
and more from the biblical texts, it became expedient to permit
translations of only selected parts (for example the psalms).
After the reign of John VIII (pope 872-882) the use of local
languages was banned so that all Church business, including
services, was to be conducted in Latin , the language approved
by God. The Vulgate was the only permitted version of the Bible,
and only clerics were permitted to read it. Western Church Councils
forbade the laity from possessing bibles, especially vernacular
versions. Reading the Bible for a layman was contrary to the
faith, and thus an invitation to the Inquisition of the day.
Following the Reformation all this changed: it became acceptable
for anyone to read the Bible, and more accurate translations
were made into English, French, German and many other languages.
Today, translations can be made into any language and even into
dialects: there is one in Yorkshire dialect and another in the
dialect of Harlem in New York. Inexplicably, the Catholic Church
no longer seeks the death sentence for the translators or even
seeks to condemn them at all.
Following the Church Fathers, the Church taught that the Bible
was written by God and was therefore infallible *.
The Roman Church confirmed at the Council of Trent that God
was the true author of the Bible (Session 4) , and so did Pope
Leo XIII in the encyclical Providentissimus Deus of
1893. According to Leo, every part of the Bible was written
under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and this precluded
all possibility of error, since God must be incapable of teaching
error. Until recent times a number of translations were held
by various Churches, Protestant as well as Roman Catholic, to
be the divine word of God. Each Church claimed that its version
was free from error and that it was to be interpreted literally.
Under pressure from scholars, historians and scientists, this
position became untenable during the course of the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries. One by one, the mainstream Churches
were obliged to abandon their positions. Now only edenists,
or fundamentalists as they have come to be known, hold to the
traditional teachings. Others talk about the divine inspiration
of the human authors, but the stark fact is that the mainstream
Churches have all shifted their ground. They no longer interpret
the Bible literally, just as they no longer burn lay people
alive for reading it for themselves.
Belief in eternal hellfire was taught by Jesus and was once
universal among Christians. Those who denied the reality of
hellfire, or doubted whether it was eternal, were heretics.
As the infallible Second Council of Constantinople put it in
553 "Whosoever says or thinks that the punishment of demons
and of the wicked will not be eternal, that it will have an
end .... let him be anathema". The only questions concerned
matters such as the range of punishments available there, and
whether the damned shed real tears.
For centuries children and peasants were terrorised by the
promise of eternal damnation. Theologians assured them that
they would be crushed in giant wine presses, torn to pieces
by wild animals, fed with the gall of dragons, burned for eternity,
tortured by demons, and so on.
Cardinal Newman pointed out, belief in Hell was central to Christian
theology, it was "the critical doctrine you can"t
get rid of it it is the very characteristic of Christianity".
The existence of God was held to prove the reality of eternal
hellfire, so denial of eternal hellfire amounted to denial of
God. The reality of Hell was simply not open to question. Well
into the twentieth century children were encouraged to read
works such as that of Father Furniss, a Roman Catholic priest
known as the "children's apostle". He, like his contemporaries,
had no doubt about the reality of eternal damnation. Here he
is describing a boy in Hell:
His eyes are burning like two burning coals. Two long flames
come out of his ears…Sometimes he opens his mouth,
and breath of blazing fire rolls out of it. But listen! There
is a sound just like that of a kettle boiling. Is it really
a kettle which is boiling? No; then what is it? Hear what
it is. The blood is boiling in the scalding veins of that
boy. The brain is boiling and bubbling in his head. The marrow
is boiling in his bones! *
The little child is in the red-hot oven. Hear how it screams
to come out; see how it turns and twists itself about in the
fire. It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps
its little feet on the floor.... God was very good to this
little child. Very likely God saw it would get worse and worse
and never repent, and so it would have been punished more
severely in Hell. So God in his mercy called it out of the
world in early childhood
This booklet is full of descriptions like this - you can read
the whole thing here.
It was not the product of a maverick. It represented mainstream
Roman Catholic thought and sold over 4,000,000 copies. Here
is the text of the approbation on the inside cover:
I have carefully read over this Little Volume for Children
and have found nothing whatever in it contrary to the doctrines
of Holy Faith; but, on the contrary, a great deal to charm,
instruct, and edify our youthful classes, for whose benefit
it has been written.
William Meagher, Vicar General, Dublin, 14 th December, 1855
The horrors of Hell were taught to countless generations as
the literal truth, Roman Catholic, Protestant and nonconformist
alike. Images like the one shown on the left could by seen in
almost evey church and were explained as genuine factual representations
of Hell, where demons literally fed sinners into the fiery mouth
of Hell (bottom right). Now belief in Hell seems to be no longer
necessary. Certainly the Church of England does not require
it. The Privy Council decided many years ago that belief in
it is optional*. Theologians
have now started to redefine Hell. In fact, according to the
Church of England's Doctrine Commission, traditional teachings
of hellfire and eternal torment are "appalling theologies
which made God into a sadistic monster and left searing scars
Dante's vision of hell (Inferno) was
based on the Church's accounts of the physical reality
to recent theories Hell is not a place at all. It is, as the
heretic Origen suggested, a condition of being distant from
God. Alternatively, if it does exist it is probably empty! This
solution attempts to reconcile the traditional doctrine of the
reality of Hell with the requirement for a modern, caring, God.
It is a classic example of the way in which teachings change
when doctrine starts to become unteachable because of widespread
disbelief. The Church cannot bring itself to agree explicitly
with the atheist Lucretius (c.96-55 BC) and admit that "There
is no murky pit of Hell awaiting anyone"*,
but that is really what churchmen have come around to after
and Indulgences The idea of Purgatory has no foundation
in scripture*. It has never
been well defined, especially in the Eastern Churches. The Western
Church developed the doctrine and confirmed it at the Council
of Trent. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, Purgatory was
a place where the dead atoned for their venial (pardonable)
sins, though they were sometimes permitted to return to the
world of the living, where they appeared as ghosts. An individual's
suffering in Purgatory could be reduced by the actions of the
living. The theory underlying it is that the Pope had the power
to redistribute the merit of the saints in Heaven to those less
worthy. It was once common practice in the Roman Church to sell
or exchange this merit in the form of indulgences. In practice
it was a sort of contract: a simple Christian would pay money
or perform some service in exchange for a piece of paper letting
his or her soul off some of the punishment due to it after death.
Pope Boniface XI is said to have instituted an indulgence, Boniface's
Cup, for those who drank a toast to his health after grace.
It was common practice for the building of cathedrals to be
financed by the sale of indulgences, and this practice became
a scandal in the Middle Ages. Professional fund-raisers (Pardoners)
were employed on commission to sell indulgences, much like travelling
salesmen. These indulgences (or pardons) from the Pope were
hot property to Chaucer's Pardoner:
His walet, biforn him in his lappe,
Bretful of pardoun, comen from Rome al hoot*
Indulgences were also used to benefit the Papacy financially
in other ways. For example one condition inserted into indulgences
after 1462 was that they were invalid for anyone importing Turkish
alum (as the Pope was trying to establish a monopoly within
Christendom for his own newly discover alum deposits at Tolfa)*
An Indulgence, dated 1515, offered by
Albert, Archbishop of Mainz, on the authority of Pope
came to a head in the sixteenth century when a Dominican called
Johann Tetzel (c.1465-1519) undertook a sales tour of Germany,
hawking indulgences. Proceeds were to be used partially to pay
for the building of St Peter's in Rome and partly to discharge
debts incurred by the Archbishop of Mainz. As soon as a coin
rang in the bottom of Tetzel's coffer so soon was a soul released
for Heaven, or so he said. Better still, Tetzel sold the right
to sin in the future. It was this sales tour that so outraged
Martin Luther, lighting the touch-paper of the Reformation.
Protestants reject the doctrine of Purgatory, holding that
the dead proceed immediately to Heaven or Hell. The Church of
England is scathing about it. The 22nd of the 39 Articles of
Religion for example says:
The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory .... is a fond [i.e.
foolish] thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty
of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.
The Roman Church has also backed off recently. For centuries
it had set tariffs for certain virtuous actions. Specific pilgrimages,
relics, prayers or gifts to the Church bought specific reductions
in one's sentence. It was possible to read off the reduction
of suffering against specified acts: so many days for a certain
prayer, so many days for a certain pilgrimage, so many days
for joining a crusade, so many days for acquiring a holy relic,
and so on. Pope Leo X calculated that a pious German who collected
over 17,000 holy relics had saved himself 694,779,550.5 days
in Purgatory. More recently, in 1991, one considerate believer
organised a campaign to induce 200,000 people to say a certain
prayer five times a day for a year. He pointed out that St Gertrude
the Great had been told by Our Lord nearly 700 years ago that
this prayer would release 1000 souls from Purgatory. It was
thus believed that 365,000,000,000 souls could be released each
year. The challenge was to empty Purgatory altogether.
Popes before the third millennium taught
that purgatory really existed, and looked like this
After many centuries of acceptability the authorities are now
embarrassed by this sort of thought, and tariffs have generally
been abolished. The sale of indulgences is now universally regarded
as corrupt and inimical to Christianity. No longer is it possible
to tick off the days of one's sentence in Purgatory as one collects
Dress The earliest priests wore the same clothes as
everyone else. Then they took to wearing white, imitating the
garb of priests of pagan religions. Later their dress became
more and more colourful and distinctive. In 428 Pope Celestine
I censured bishops in southern Gaul for wearing distinctive
costumes. Bishops and other clergymen found a way to circumvent
such prohibitions. They did not adopt new costumes; they simply
continued to wear old ones after they had fallen out of fashion.
Nearly all modern clerical vestments are remnants of antique
upper class secular Roman dress. The traditional Eucharistic
vestments of amice, alb, girdle, maniple, stole, and chasuble
are all secular clothing of the second century. Cassocks were
ordinary everyday clothes up to the sixth century. Much later,
they came to be colour-coded to show ecclesiastical rank: currently
black for priests, purple for bishops, red for cardinals, white
During the Reformation, Protestants rejected the wearing of
distinctive costume and made it illegal for clergymen to wear
the chasuble, alb, tunicle, biretta, girdle and stole. English
clergy were required to wear a simple surplice, though even
this offended Puritans. Over the years, various gorgeous vestments
have crept back into the Anglican Church, but are clearly unlawful.
Decisions of the Privy Council have confirmed that it is even
illegal for an Anglican bishop to wear a mitre and carry a pastoral
staff*. Nevertheless, they
are now standard equipment. Others also rejected special vestments,
and for the same reason as the Anglicans had done, but all this
did was to reset the clock. Protestant pastors still wear sixteenth
century black outfits with white ruffs. The Moderator of the
Free Church of Scotland wears clothing that was fashionable
in late eighteenth century Scotland.
An archbishop of Canterbury wearing an
unlawful gold mitre, in the company of a pope in 2010
Women Priests In the earliest days of the
Church women played a full role: "…there is neither
male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians
3:28). There were helpers in Jesus Christ such as Priscilla
(Romans 16:3), whose designation was indicative of official
authority, but who are never given a formal title in translations.
Again, Phebe had been a Christian teacher. Had she been a man
she would probably have been regarded as a bishop on the strength
of Romans 16:2, but because she was a woman she became a mere
deaconess (Jerusalem Bible) or servant of the church
(Authorised Version). Similarly, at some time in the Middle
Ages, a person with a woman's name, Junia (Romans 16:7), acquired
a man's name, Junias (Jerusalem Bible), though earlier authorities
unanimously regarded her as a woman*.
She had been counted among the apostles, but the Church did
not want to know about female apostles, so her name and her
gender were changed.
When a system of Holy Orders and a hierarchy of bishops, priests
and deacons were established, deaconesses were accepted into
Holy Orders. There were no fewer than 40 of them on the staff
of the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople in the year
612. In time the hierarchy decided that it could do without
them. Deaconesses disappeared in the Western Church in the fifth
century and in the Eastern Church in the twelfth century. Women
were excluded from lesser functions as well. They were prevented
from serving at the altar and even debarred from church choirs.
For centuries it would have been heretical to claim that women
could be priests or deaconesses.
In recent times women have once again demanded, and have gradually
been granted, a greater role in Church affairs. Girls have been
accepted into Church choirs and given minor official roles.
The office of deaconess was restored, although initially without
Holy Orders. The first Protestant deaconess was appointed in
1836, the first Anglican one in 1861, and the first Methodist
one in 1888.
The position is similar with regard to the ordination of women
as priests. Not long ago the mainstream Churches universally
held that women could not be ordained, indeed such an idea was
plainly heretical. But public opinion shifted during the twentieth
century. Anglican, Lutheran and other Protestant Churches changed
their minds and now ordain women priests. Some have consecrated
women bishops. As soon as the volte-face was complete
in 1991, the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that "The
idea that only a male can represent Christ at the altar is a
most serious heresy"*.
Yesterday's heresy was today's orthodoxy, and yesterday's orthodoxy
was today's heresy.
As popular opinion continues to change, more Churches may follow.
In North America and parts of Europe there is already significant
pressure within the Roman Catholic Church. At the time of writing
it is still likely to be many years before the pressure becomes
strong enough for women priests to be accepted in all denominations*.
Whether or not there are more changes to come, there have already
been enough to compromise any claim to constancy.
Marriage Christian teachings on marriage have
changed continually since the time of Jesus. In its early years
the Church simply followed Roman law, which was based on the
maxim consent constitutes matrimony. If a couple declared
to each other that they were married, then they were
married. They did not require witnesses, or a priest to officiate.
Such marriages were described as "clandestine" but
there was never any question about their validity.
Marriage was essentially a civil contract, sponsalia,
which in medieval England generally took place at the church
porch (in facie ecclesiæ). Chaucer's wife of
Bath makes reference to this practice in her Prologue
(l.6) when she says "Five husbands have I had at the church
door". There was no great religious significance to this;
the local church was simply the social centre of the village
and the natural meeting place for people to negotiate various
kinds of personal business and conclude contracts. The couple
would simply plight their troth with a ring outside the church,
after which they might or might not enter the church for a nuptial
Mass. Often the priest's role was confined to blessing the marriage
bed. There was an ecclesiastical counterpart of marriage, called
matrimony, but this was optional. Sponsalia created
a legal bond, even before consummation.
The Western Church started to secure control of marriage ceremonies
at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 , but it was not until
1563, at the Council of Trent, that an obligatory form for matrimony
was introduced. Suddenly, a priest and two witnesses were indispensable
conditions of a valid marriage *.
The Council of Trent also declared matrimony to be a sacrament.
It had not previously been a sacrament but now it was. Later,
Anglicans decided that matrimony was not a sacrament after all,
as Article 25 of the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church confirms.
In Protestant countries civil marriages continued to be recognised.
Courts would uphold sponsalia in preference to holy matrimony,
if for example one party subsequently married someone else in
Church *. In England
these civil marriages were valid up until Lord Hardwicke's Act
in 1753. In Scotland they continued until 1940 *.
They live on in the popular imagination as “common law”
The whole topic of marriage is a confusion of changing views
and regulations. For centuries the Church argued with itself
about whether marriage was a contract authenticated by a ceremony,
or whether sexual intercourse was required to consummate it.
At different times the Western Church reached different conclusions,
although in the end it was decided that sexual intercourse was
required. In 1982 a priest refused to marry a man suffering
from muscular dystrophy and his visually impaired fiancée
until they could prove that they were able to have children
Traditional Christian marriages were arranged marriages. There
was no concept of love involved, and no mention of it in the
traditional marriage service. As in Moslem and other traditional
cultures, marriages were often contracted for dynastic or business
reasons, or just to control assets. She passed from being the
property of her father or guardian, to being the property of
her new husband (which is why the marriage sevice still includes
the officiating priest asking "who gives this woman ...".
Church law was explicit about this:
Only those who have authority over a woman, and from whose
custody she is sought as wife, can make a lawful marriage.
(Decretum gratiani, Case 30, q V, C1)
For most of Christian history the normal form of marriage was
arranged marriage, and children could legally marry at 7, 12
or 14, though there was no lower limit for senior nobility where
marriage was required "for the sake of peace" - ie
for diplomatic and dynastic reasons.
At one time cannon law permitted bigamy. (In the following
legal case the term "render the debt" means to have
One who is weak may lawfully marry another, if his sick wife
cannot render the debt to him on account of her infirmity.
You have asked what a woman's yoke-mate should do, if she
is weakened by sickness and cannot render the debt to him?
He would best remain as he is and practice abstinence, but,
because that is very difficult, one who cannot control himself
may marry instead. But let him continue to support the woman
disabled by illness and not cast her off as for a detestable
(Decretum gratiani, Case 32, q VII, C18, citing Pope Gregory
III to Bishop Boniface, [in Letter iv])
And the same exemption permitting bigamy was made for wives
with impotent ["frigid"] husbands:
...[Pope] Gregory writes to John, bishop of Ravenna:
A woman can lawfully marry another because her husband's frigidity
prevented him from knowing her. You have asked about those
joined in matrimony who could not have intercourse. Can he
or she take another? About such, it is written [Lombard Laws,
I, ix], ``If a man and a woman are joined together, and afterwards
the woman says the man could not have intercourse with her,
and a just trial proves this to be true, let her take another.
But if he takes another, let them be separated.''
(Decretum gratiani, Case 33, q I, C1)
Another area of confusion is the marriage of Christians and
members of other faiths. As soon as it could do so, the Church
had prohibited marriage between Christians and Jews, making
such a marriage a capital offence. In medieval times the penalty
was relaxed to forceable divorce:
Unless a Jew adheres to the Faith, let him be separated from
his believing wife.
The bishop of the city should warn Jews who take Christian
women in marriage that they must become Christians if they
intend to live with them. If they refuse after being warned,
let them be separated, because an unbeliever cannot stay united
to one who converts to the Christian Faith.
(Decretum gratiani, Case 28, q I, C10, citing the Fourth
Council of Toledo, [c. 62])
For centuries the marriage of a Christian to one of another
faith was treated as a crime. Similar feelings were expressed
after the Reformation about marriages between Roman Catholics
and Protestants (or between members of any two sects opposed
to each other). Now mixed marriages are not such a great tragedy,
and Churches no longer insist on capital punishment for those
who "marry out". Some Churches now even recognise
More on changing Christian ideas on Sex
More on changing Christian ideas on Rape
More on changing Christian ideas on the Treatment
More on changing Christian ideas on Contraception
More on changing Christian ideas on Abortion
More on changing Christian ideas on Divorce
More on changing Christian ideas on Family
More on changing Christian ideas on Children,
child marriage, children's rights and child abuse,
The Sacraments Different denominations recognise
different numbers of sacraments. To cite just a few examples
Salvation Army Nil, Church of England 2, Roman Catholics
7. Eastern Churches have mysteries instead of sacraments
and their number has varied between 2 and 10, and is still not
fixed *. That there are
seven sacraments was first suggested in the twelfth century
*. There was still disagreement
as to what they were. Some held an oath to be a sacrament, others
the Incarnation, others holy scripture.
The list of seven now accepted by the Roman Church (baptism,
Confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, Holy Orders, matrimony,
and anointing of the sick or last rites) was first recorded
by Peter Lombard in the second half of the twelfth century,
and received papal sanction in 1439 *.
The Eastern Churches accepted the list at a Council of Constantinople
in 1642 but in practice disagree on a number of points. Protestant
Churches rejected the list as lacking biblical authority. The
Church of England accepts only two sacraments, baptism and the
Eucharist, although there is some ambiguity on the matter in
the wording of Article 25 of the 39 Articles.
The Eucharist, Communion, or Mass has proved particularly problematic.
We have already seen the difficulties associated with the doctrine
of transubstantiation, but there is more. When Jesus invited
his followers to remember him as they ate bread or drank, he
seems to have envisaged them doing so at ordinary meals, as
in their own homes. The Church was soon turning these meals
of remembrance into rituals, and insisting that priests conduct
them. The ancient Church provided both bread and wine at the
Mass, apparently as part of a full meal. The full meal seems
to have disappeared during the first few centuries, leaving
just the bread and wine.
After a further 1,000 years, by the thirteenth century, the
Roman Church took to reserving the wine for priests only. This
practice had no biblical authority and was rejected by the Eastern
Churches and later by Protestant Churches. Offering wine to
the laity contributed to the appeal of Protestantism and so
to its popularity. In an attempt to stop the slide into Protestantism
in the sixteenth century, Pope Pius IV authorised the Communion
of both kinds (i.e. both bread and wine) to the Roman Catholic
laity in Germany, Austria and other regions. Once the Protestant
threat had passed, the faithful were soon back to bread only.
To Christians it is a matter of the greatest importance whether
or not they should be permitted to share fully in the Lord's
Supper, and yet the Roman Church changed its mind for political
rather than doctrinal reasons. In recent times there has been
a widespread recognition that there is no real reason for denying
the wine, and since the Second Vatican Council it has become
common for both bread and wine to be given to communicants in
the Roman Church.
Other sacraments have been just as variable. For many centuries
only a bishop could give absolution. Confession (penance) took
place only once, just before death. Then it could be made after
any grave sin, then once a year*
(on Shrove Tuesday), then once a week. Now confession can be
made more or less at will. Baptism originally required immersion
in cold running water. Total submersion in warm water or still
water was permitted only if cold or running water was not available*.
For the Eastern Churches and for Western Baptists immersion
is still required. Other Western Churches offended the orthodox
by abandoning the practice of total submersion. At one time
total submersion was required not merely once, but three times,
and in the earliest times the practice was for candidates to
be baptised in the nude. St Augustine was baptised naked by
St Ambrose as late as 387. Again, baptism was once routinely
preceded by an exorcism. At the Church door the priest would
blow in the child's face and instruct the "unclean spirit"
to leave it. During the baptism the North Door of the Church
was (and sometimes still is) left open to allow the Devil or
the unclean spirit to leave the building. The formal exorcism
however was dropped from the second Edwardian Prayer Book of
Sacraments have varied enormously over the centuries, which
tends to suggest that they are merely human constructs. This
suggestion is supported by the differences between the practices
of different denominations today.
Festivals. There is no evidence that the early Church
celebrated any of the festivals that are now such an integral
part of the religion. Important observances such as Pentecost,
Ascension Day, Lent, Holy Week and Christmas were unknown before
the fourth century. They are all accretions that have acquired
a patina of antiquity in the course of centuries. Once a date
was fixed for Christmas it was possible to create a number of
other annual festivals. For example the Annunciation must have
taken place nine months before Christmas Day (25 th March);
the Feast of the Circumcision seven days after Christmas Day
(1 st January), and Epiphany, when the magi were supposed to
have arrived, a few days later*
(6 th January). The only festival that is likely to date back
much earlier than the fourth century is Easter.
The Churches of Asia Minor preserved the oldest method of calculating
Easter. They simply used the date of the Passover, the 14th
of the Jewish month of Nisan. Alexandrian Christians chose to
hold their celebrations on the Sunday immediately after the
Passover. No one seems to have minded about this innovation.
The Alexandrian Church was autocephalous and entitled to decide
such matters for itself. Around AD 160 an annual Easter festival
was adopted at Rome, and the Alexandrian practice was adopted
there. Within 30 years the Bishop of Rome was claiming that
everyone should adopt this method of reckoning Easter. Since
the date of the festival was arbitrary, and the Bishop of Rome
was the Patriarch of the West, many in the West did so, though
others did not. The Celtic Church was less than enthusiastic,
but eventually decided to fall into line with the rest of the
Western Church at the Council of Whitby in 664. Those in Asia
who kept to the old ways Quartodecimans as they
were nicknamed came to be regarded as heretics. If the
date of Easter seems a minor matter it is well to remember that
people have been executed in the past as heretics for disputing
Since early times Churches have taught that dead Christians
will be bodily resurrected on the Day of Judgement. In anticipation
of this, Christians have traditionally striven to ensure that
their bodies are buried in one piece. They have apparently wanted
to make God's job that much easier when the great day arrives.
Some Christians still retain amputated limbs and surgically
removed internal organs, and even extracted teeth, so that they
can be buried along with the rest of their bodies, to be reassembled
later by God. So too, eunuchs were buried with their severed
genitals in the hopeful expectation of a bodily reunion. All
good Christians were encouraged to keep their bodies as intact
as possible for burial, in anticipation of their bodily resurrection.
Criminals on the other hand could not expect Christian society
to help them in this respect and thus were publicly gibbeted
or dissected. As late as 1752 a British Act of Parliament stated
that "in no case whatsoever the Body of any Murderer shall
be suffered to be buried"*.
So too heretics were traditionally burned, and their ashes scattered
into a river.
Christians had to be buried, preferably in sacred ground, along
with their fellow good Christians. In the Middle Ages the requirement
about burial became inconvenient. In times of plague the requirement
to bury bodies ensured that virtually everyone came into contact
with a deadly disease. A theological excuse was therefore found
to change the rules, and cremation suddenly became an acceptable
alternative, in direct contradiction to previous ideas. Many
survivors were convinced that their dead relatives had missed
the chance of eventual resurrection. When the plague had passed,
burial became obligatory again.
It was not until 1884 that cremation was permanently permitted
in England, against the wishes of bishops of the Church of England.
The Roman Church has permitted cremation only since 1965. It
still earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be
retained, and seems to imagine that people might be cremated
for "anti-Christian motives"*.
Greek Orthodox Christians, like Muslims and Orthodox Jews, still
The Church once found it enormously important to ensure that
certain sinners were not buried in consecrated ground. The motivation
seems to have been to make God's job of separating the sheep
from the goats on the Day of Judgement a little easier. Mothers
and babies who died in childbirth were sometimes denied a Christian
burial because of the sin associated with conception. Such practices
would cause outrage now, and so have been completely abandoned
and almost totally forgotten.
martyrs of the early Church were really suicides, since they
sought and welcomed their own deaths. (Whole sects were wiped
out because of this). Later, suicide was discouraged and came
to be regarded as a mortal sin. Up until 1824, suicides in England
were buried on a highway (often a crossroads) with a stake through
the body (usually through the heart). Since 1882, the Anglican
practice has been merely to deny to suicides a Christian burial
service*, unless the
suicide was found to have taken his or her own life while of
unsound mind. Such conventions could always be ignored when
they did not suit. Thus, in 1988 a host of Anglican bishops
and priests officiated at the funeral service of the Rev. Gareth
Bennett, an Oxford don who had committed suicide after being
revealed as the author of an anonymous attack on the Archbishop
of Canterbury. The same flexibility is evident in the Catholic
Church. In 1981 Catholic priests found no doctrinal difficulties
in offering communion, absolution, final unction, and funeral
masses to ten convicted prisoners who starved themselves to
death in jail in Northern Ireland. These prisoners were explicitly
committing suicide as a form of protest because they did not
like being treated as common criminals, regarding themselves
as political prisoners and therefore entitled to privileges
such as not having to wear standard prison clothes. Again, when
Fr Sean Fortune committed suicide in 2003, having been accused
of multiple sex crimes against children over many years, his
bishop, the Bishop of Ferns, Dr. Brendan Comiskey, found no
difficulty in delivering the main homily at the funeral*.
Immutable rules proved sufficiently elastic to accommodate changing
mores and personal preferences of the Church hierarchy.
A few of the many Anglican bishops and
clergymen at the funeral of the Rev Garreth Bennet,
who committed suicide on 7 December 1987 in the wake of
internal Anglican Church squabbles.
Diet Jesus and
his disciples followed the traditional Jewish dietary laws.
The following foods, amongst others, were prohibited: pig, camel,
hare, shellfish, ostrich, various owls, cormorants, pelicans,
storks, herons, hoopoes, bats, and most arthropods except locusts,
crickets, and grasshoppers. Also banned are weasels, mice, geckos,
chameleons and other lizards*.
These rules were soon abandoned by gentile Christians, and in
time were replaced by entirely different rules about eating.
For many centuries Roman Catholics were not permitted to eat
meat on certain days. To do so invited a visit from the Inquisition.
Roman Catholics generally ate fish on Fridays. Rather disingenuously,
a number of animals were classified as fish. The Barnacle Goose,
for example, was regarded as fish on the erroneous grounds that
it developed from a goose barnacle. Beaver's tail was regarded
as fish for no better reason that it was hairless, and beavers
spend time in water. When Christianity arived in South America,
large indigenous rodents prized for their meat, capybaras, were
also classified as fish because they spend much of their lives
Pius XII did away with the need for such deceptions in 1953
when he announced that Roman Catholics could eat meat on Fridays
after all. Fast days in the Roman Church are now reduced from
well over 100 to a mere two (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday).
Fast days were mentioned in the 1969 canons of the Church of
England, but no one seems to know what is required for their
How can the rules be so uncertain and flexible if fasting is
so important to God? And if it is not important to God, why
were people tried and executed for failing to follow arbitrary
Baptising Bells. Since
ancient times bells had been considered powerful, and the Church
needed to justify the superior power of its own church bells.
It would not do to have Church bells seen as possessing merely
the same potency as bells on farms and in private houses. The
answer was to bless or even baptise Church bells to give them
additional power. Orthodoc and Catholic, and later Anglican,
churches baptised their church bells. In the Catholic Church
they were generally baptized by bishops, which was presumably
thought to increase their power even further. For centuries
the Church talked openly about baptising bells and Church records
referred explicitly to the baptism of bells, for the very good
reason that the ceremony was clearly a baptism ceremony, modeled
on the human baptism ceremony. The bells were first exorcised
(as babies were at their baptism), washed with holy water, anointed
with the holy oil of the sick (externally) and chrism (internally)
and given a name. In some places, they even had a godfather.
at the ceremony, the bishop prayed to God as follows: at
their sound let all evil spirits be driven afar; let thunder
and lightning, hail and storm be banished; let the power of
Thy hand put down the evil powers of the air, causing them to
tremble at the sound of these bells, and to flee at the sight
of the holy cross engraved thereon. Often the name of
the bell was engraved on it, along with a cross.
Today this is all something of an ambarassement. Any admission
on the part of the Church that bells were ever baptised is carefully
avoided. The baptism ceremony is represented as a simple blessing,
just as a sword might be blessed. At the time of writing it
is easy to find Catholic websites representing the whole idea
of baptising Church bells as an "anti-Catholic" invention,
propagated by Protestants. The idea of bells affecting natural
phenomena is also seriously underplayed, as we see next.
Phenomena For many centuries the Churches taught that
God was responsible for natural phenomena. He caused earthquakes,
floods and volcanic eruptions. In the seventeenth century, and
later, many thought it heresy to deny God's personal involvement
in such phenomena, since they were known to be signs of divine
disapproval against a sinful world. God controlled the weather
too. It was for this reason that Christians opposed the innovation
of fitting lightning rods to church buildings: if God wanted
to burn down his own churches, it was no business of ours to
stop him. The Bible says God "sends forth lightnings...
He covers His hands with the lightning. And commands it to strike
the mark. Its noise declares His presence? Under the whole heaven
He lets it loose, And His lightning to the ends of the earth...
Whether for correction, or for His world, Or for loving kindness,
He causes it to happen." [Job 36:27-33 & 37:1-13 &
storms and lightning bolts were directed by God to "discipline
his servants and teach us important lessons," or with God's
permission they were directed by Satan, "the Prince of
the Power of the Air", and his demons. Such explanations
were confirmed by leading Christian authorities over many centuries.
According to the Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, "It
is a dogma of Faith that demons can produce winds, storms, and
rains of fire [ie lightning] from heaven." Pope Gregory
XIII advocated "exorcising the demons" who "stir
up the clouds." Martin Luther stated that the winds themselves
are only good or evil spirits, and that a stone thrown into
a certain pond in his native region would cause a dreadful storm
because devils kept prisoners there. He was in no doubt at all
about the role of demons: "The air all about us is filled
with demons". "Some [demons] are also in the thick
black clouds, which cause hail, lightning and thunder, and poison
the air, the pastures and earth". "The winds are nothing
else but good or bad spirits. Hark! how the Devil is puffing
Consecrating church bells and ringing them during a thunderstorm
was held to provide divine protection. This was most explicit
in the ceremony of baptising
a bell, where the bishop prayed to God at their sound
let all evil spirits be driven afar; let thunder and lightning,
hail and storm be banished; let the power of Thy hand put down
the evil powers of the air, causing them to tremble at the sound
of these bells, and to flee at the sight of the holy cross engraved
thereon". Other Churches believed much the same thing -
that consecrated Church bells would scare away storm demons
- despite the fact that churche bell towers, being the tallest
buildings around, were often struck and countless bell ringers
were killed every year.
the American colonies the eighteenth century "arch heretic"
Benjamin Franklin carried out daring scientific experiments
with a kite in a storm, and as a result invented the lightning
rod in 1752. Many buildings were soon protected by lightning
rods, but not church buildings, because lightning rods were
designed to thwart God's will, and God will not be thwarted.
An earthquake in 1755 was widely ascribed to Franklin's lightning
rods. The Rev. Thomas Prince, pastor of the Old South Church
in Boston, Massachusetts, published a sermon on the subject
blaming Franklin's iron rods: "in Boston are more erected
than anywhere else in New England, and Boston seems to be more
dreadfully shaken. Oh! There is no getting out of the mighty
hand of God." But the statistics piled up throughout Christendom.
In three decades some 400 church towers in Germany alone were
damaged by lightning and 120 bell ringers were killed. The numbers
in France were similar. In one church a bolt of lightning struck
the tower, melted the bell, electrocuted the priest, and destroyed
a painting of Jesus. Everyone knew that this sort of thing happened
all the time, while saloon bars, gambling dens and brothels
next door escaped without a scratch. It became ever more difficult
to reconcile God's behaviour with his supposed morality. Then,
in 1769 lightning struck the Church of San Nazaro, in Brescia,
near Venice in Italy. This strike ignited 200,000 pounds of
gunpowder which had been stored in the church and caused an
explosion that killed one sixth of the city - some 3,000 people.
Despite the evidence of churches being struck disproportionately
often, it seems that particularly devout believers had still
imagined churches to be safe places to store gun powder. Brescia
was a turning point. After the disaster Franklin's 'heretical
rods' shot up on churches throughout Christendom and Church
opposition was quietly dropped, along with all memory of those
earlier authoritative Catholic and Protestant declarations about
Certain forms of insurance including life insurance had been
prohibitted to Christians for centuries for similar reasons
- to insure oneself or one's family was in effect to bet against
God. It was far better for a man's family to starve to death
after his early demise, than to thwart God's will by insuring
against this eventuality. A few Christians, some Jews and many
Moslems still avoid insurance for exactly this reason.
Celestial phenomena such as comets and eclipses were known
to be divine warnings, a belief that was still common, even
among educated classes, when a comet was observed in 1677. It
was also necessary to believe that (with God's permission) witches
and demons were active in disturbing the weather. Church bells
were routinely rung to frighten off the demons that caused storms.
To deny the existence of witches or demons was an attack on
Christianity itself and was treated first as heretical and later
Churchmen verified for many centuries the idea that God actively
managed events on Earth and in the skies. Today such ideas are
generally regarded as primitive (although insurance companies
still refer to natural disasters as "Acts of God").
Having spent so long controlling every aspect of all natural
phenomena, God is now relegated to the role of disinterested
observer. The 180° shift has taken place without the least
visible trace of embarrassment.
Excommunication In earlier centuries whole
communities were excommunicated. Pope Adrian IV excommunicated
Rome in 1155, and Pope Innocent III excommunicated the whole
of England in 1208. To carry out such an excommunication now
would be seen as absurd. Again, prayers of cursing were once
quite acceptable. Curses and anathemas were distributed liberally.
They were laid upon those who disregarded the decrees of Church
Councils, or read the contents of papal letters, those who failed
to pay their tithes, those who stole, those who committed murder,
and indeed all enemies of the Church. Now they are watered down
to anodyne services of commination. Can it really be that those
excommunicated in the past for failing to pay tithes will burn
in Hell for eternity, while those who fail to pay them now will
and Furniture Jesus" early followers worshipped
in the Jewish Temple and attended synagogues, as Jesus had done.
Gentile Christians met in ordinary houses. The first Christian
buildings to adopt a distinctive architectural style seem to
have first appeared in the fourth century. In an attempt to
return to ancient simplicity, various sects have rejected the
use of church buildings. George Fox dismissively called them
steeple houses, and Quakers still prefer their own
meeting houses to steeple houses. One of the
fastest growing sects towards the end of the twentieth century
was the house church movement, which holds its meetings in ordinary
houses, just as Christians did for the first few centuries.
use of candles, and other Church props, also dates from the
fourth century or later times. Incense was used in many religions
to mask the smell of burned sacrifices. Its use was severely
prohibited in the early Church, but like many pagan practices
it was popular. By the fifth century it was being used in Christian
places of worship. Because it had been banned in the early Church,
its use at services of the Church of England and other Protestant
Churches was made unlawful at the Reformation. Altars, also
inherited from religions that practised sacrifice, were employed
in Christian Churches because masses were sacrificial in nature.
This idea too was rejected at the Reformation. Stone altars
were physically destroyed, and replaced by wooden Communion
tables. Other traditional Church furniture, such as pulpits,
appears to have been introduced only in the Middle Ages. Confessional
boxes were introduced later and pews later still. Pews are still
rarely found in Orthodox churches, and congregations are expected
to stand throughout the service, as they did previously in Western
routinely ignore the canons of ecumenical councils, which are
believed to be divinely inspired and thus infallible. Canon
XX of the First Ecumenical Council, for example, forbids people
from kneeling on Sundays or on any of the 50 days between Easter
and Pentecost, yet this canon is disregarded by the Western
Church and increasingly disregarded in the East. Ideas as to
the acceptability of Church music have also changed from time
to time. In early times singing was always unaccompanied, as
it still is in traditional Eastern Churches. Western Churches
have varied their practices many times. At one time harps were
favoured (there were supposed to be harps in Heaven, but the
rest of the orchestra was condemned to Hell). At other times
all manner of instruments have been permitted, but in recent
centuries they all gave way to organs. Many in the West came
to imagine that organs in Churches dated from biblical times.
When guitars and other instruments were introduced in the 1960s,
many Christians complained that almost 2000 years of tradition
were being overturned.
Conventions as to who may enter churches have also changed.
People are no longer allowed to set up shop in churches, as
they did in medieval times, and dogs no longer roam freely inside
the naves as they once did. Changing moral concepts are highlighted
by the bouncers at St Peter's in Rome, who refuse admission
to women with bare arms, despite the fact that inside are numerous
nude female statues, including a famous one of a papal mistress
(now fitted with a discreet metal corset).
Few, if any, practices have been consistently upheld since
apostolic times, just as few, if any, doctrines have been consistently
taught since those times. There would be nothing remarkable
about an ordinary organisation changing its teachings and practices
to suit current conditions. In the case of the Christian Church,
however, such changes are remarkable because they undermine
the Churches" claims to represent a perfect, infallible
and unchanging God here in an otherwise imperfect, flawed and
It is difficult to believe that Churches were right to execute
thousands of people in the past for their opinions, while they
make no effort now to punish people with identical opinions
and have even adopted some of those opinions themselves.
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