Origins of the Church
The Christian Church began with the Holy Apostles. The word apostle means “one who is sent forth”, and is the name used in the Church for those twelve disciples specially chosen by Christ Himself. They are called apostles because Our Lord instructed them to go forth and proclaim the Gospel and to establish the Church in all the world.
Jesus said to them, “All power is given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son of and the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” He promised to remain with them always, “even to the end of the world” (St. Matthew 24:18-20).
Before ascending into heaven, Jesus told His Apostles to wait in Jerusalem until they were “empowered from on high.” They waited in prayer until the Holy Ghost came upon them in the upper room where they were gathered together. That day when the Holy Ghost came to the Apostles is called Pentecost (the fiftieth day after the Passover), or Whitsunday, and is considered the birthday of the Christian Church.
Soon after Pentecost, the Apostles started out on their various missions, separately, or sometimes in pairs, scattering to different areas. It was not many years until they had taken the Gospel to a large part of ‘the world’ – that is, of that portion of the world that was then known.
We are told in the Book of Acts that the Apostles constantly practiced the ‘breaking of bread’, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. That breaking of bread was the main service of the Lord’s Day; it has also been called the Holy Communion, the Eucharist, or the Mass; in the Eastern Churches it has been known as the Holy Liturgy (the word liturgy means ‘a prescribed form of public worship’, principally in the celebration of the Eucharist.)
In the beginning these liturgies were not written, but remembered and passed on by word of mouth; later those oral liturgies came to be set down in writing, and so their structure became more or less fixed. Some copies of ancient liturgies are as old as any manuscripts of the Bible; the liturgy of St. James, for example, is thought to date back to the time of the Apostles. One of the earliest liturgies in the West is preserved in the Gelasian Sacramentary, a book of rites dating back to the mid-eighth century, but reflecting the practice of a much earlier era. During the first few hundred years of the Church, these forms of worship tended to be in the language of the people, Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic or some other tongue.
The first Christians were mostly Jews, and in becoming Christians they did not give up their Jewish customs. In speaking of the religion of the Jews, Christ said, “I come not to destroy but to fulfill the law.” Thus he conformed to Jewish practices. “As was His custom,” St. Luke tells us, “he went into the Synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up for to read.” We are told also that Christ recognized the Jewish practice of fasting, and observed it as a religious duty. He did not forbid his followers to obey the teachings of their Jewish religion, but he warned them to beware of persons who would corrupt His own teachings. The first Christians, being Jews, worshipped in their temples on Saturday, and met for Christian worship on the first day of the week – the weekly memorial of Our Lord’s resurrection.
The first three centuries of the Christian Church were a time of persecution. Christian believers were persecuted first by the Jews and then by the Romans. Tradition tells us that all of the Apostles died the death of martyrs except St. John; he was banished to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation. The Apostles had prepared other men to fill their places and carry on the work of the Church, and ordained them by a ceremony called ‘The Laying on of Hands’, in which they were given “the Holy Ghost for the Office and work of a Bishop in the Church of God.” In this manner, for instance, St. Paul ordained Timothy, and also Titus of Crete; others were ordained in the same way. That is how the Apostolic Succession was established and retained by all Christians everywhere until the time of the Protestant Reformation.
The term bishop means a spiritual ‘overseer’ or director. The word in our language is a form developed in Anglo-Saxon from the Latin (episcopus), from which we have a more direct derivation in the word “episcopal.” When many Churches had been established in different parts of the world, it became the custom that three or more bishops should unite in the ‘laying on of hands’ to consecrate a new bishop to assure the validity of his consecration. No man was allowed to officiate in celebrating the Eucharist, or to perform the special duties of priesthood, unless he had been ordained by a bishop.
The early Churches kept lists of their bishops, some of which are preserved to this day: Eusebius, the great Church historian, gives the list of bishops up to his time, which was about the year 300. Before that, Irenaeus (circa 190) wrote, “we can reckon up the list of bishops ordained by the Apostles up to our time.” For the first few centuries, questions about Christian teachings were decided by all bishops meeting as one for the whole Church in what were called General (or ecumenical) Councils of the One, Holy, Catholic (one over all), and Apostolic Church.
Establishment and Growth
Many of these early bishops faced persecution for their faith, particularly in the period immediately prior to the Triumph of the Church. Near the end of the third century, the Roman general, Diocletian, brought some measure of stability to the Empire after years of civil war by establishing a ruling council of four Emperors known as the Tetrarchy. Inhabitants of the Empire were required to show their loyalty to the Tetrarchs by sacrificing to the traditional gods of Rome, something the Christians were averse to doing. To combat this ‘treason,’ as he saw it, Diocletian issued a series of edicts ordering the destruction of Christian scriptures, the confiscation of Church property, and the execution of those who refused to comply. Many of the early martyrs, including St. Alban of Britain, date to this period in the history of the Church.
After Diocletian went into retirement, however, things began to change. In 306 the legions of Constantius Chlorus, the recently deceased tetrarch of the West, proclaimed his son, Constantine, Emperor in the Roman city of Eboracum (York). The rest of Britain, Gaul, and Spain soon pledged their allegiance as well, and Constantine spent the next several years consolidating his base of power. He appears to have had a favorable view of the Christian faith, and made moves to stop the persecution of Christians in his territory. Later, before a battle against his rival near the Milvian Bridge at Rome, Constantine is reported to have seen the sign of the cross in the sky, accompanied by the words, in hoc signo vinces–in this sign, conquor. Constantine went on to win this battle, and others that followed, eventually becoming sole ruler of the Roman world. Constantine’s religious policy was one of general toleration, but he showed great favor to the Christian Church. In addition to building the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Constantine was also responsible for calling the First Ecumenical Council, that of Nicaea in 325.
Though his personal religious affiliation remained uncertain for much of his reign (he also patronized the cult of Sol Invictus–the Unconquored Sun), Constantine was baptized into the Christian faith at the end of his life. His successors continued to promote Christianity, both within imperial household and across the territories of Rome as a whole. In 380 Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, which for a short time still, would include the faraway province of Britain.