So much of Christian history is about the planting and rise of communities, a saga of creators and builders. On occasion, though, churches are destroyed, to the point that Christianity is eliminated entirely in particular regions. Alternatively, it is reduced to a miserable handful of clandestine believers faced with the daily danger of persecution and death. This is what happened, for instance, in North Africa or Nubia following the Muslim conquest; in much of the Middle East or China in the late Middle Ages; and in Japan in the seventeenth century. In my book The Lost History of Christianity, I raised the obvious the question of how Christians can possibly place these calamities in a theological dimension. Why did (and does) God permit his churches to be destroyed?
Looking at the remains of these lost churches is always evocative, sometimes heart-breaking, and we don’t need to travel to Iraq or the Sudan to do so. I grew up in Great Britain, which still notionally claims the status of a Christian country, with a church dating back many centuries. Underlying the churches we know, though, there was another church, and indeed a Christian nation, that was uprooted and all but destroyed.
Christianity probably came to the land we now call England in the second or third centuries, when it was part of the Roman Empire. By the third century, a Christian called Alban was martyred at the city later known as St. Alban’s, which became a noted center of pilgrimage. When the Roman Empire tolerated Christianity, there would have been a whole diocesan structure with perhaps twenty bishops and, surely, some monasteries. Three British bishops appear at the Council of Arles in 314, perhaps representing London, York and Lincoln.
By the fifth century, British Christianity was confident and complex enough to produce its own heresy in the form of Pelagianism, a special bugbear of Augustine of Hippo. The church presumably survived and flourished in southern and eastern England at least through the mid-fifth century. (It lasted a lot longer in the poorer lands of the far north and west, and in Wales, but that is another story). By that point – by 450, say – the church had at least two hundred years of organic development behind it.
And then catastrophe befell. Accumulating barbarian attacks reached a critical new stage in the 430s and 440s, as pagan Anglo-Saxon mercenaries rebelled. The ensuing war utterly smashed the cities and towns that had been the centers of civilized life, and the barbarians slaughtered or enslaved the inhabitants. A hundred years later, the monk Gildas recorded the scenes: All the major towns were laid low by the repeated battering of enemy rams; laid low, too, all the inhabitants–church leaders, priests and people alike, as the swords glinted all around and the flames crackled. In the middle of the squares the foundation-stones of high walls and towers that had been torn from their lofty base, holy altars, fragments of corpses, covered (as it were) with a purple crust of congealed blood, looked as though they had been mixed up in some dreadful wine-press. Unburied bodies littered the streets.
Some surviving Christians fled north or west to the lands that still resisted the invaders, or to a new colony in Brittany. Others remained as slaves or as members of an underclass, possibly living in a kind of apartheid system under the ruling Anglo-Saxons. By 450 – roughly the time of the Council of Chalcedon – Roman/urban/Christian civilization was ceasing to exist across what had been the most advanced and civilized regions of the island of Britain. At some point in the fifth century, there must have been men who were the last Roman bishops of London and Lincoln, Leicester and Winchester, although we can never know their names or their fates. Perhaps one died in a ditch, one as a refugee, the others as slaves: we will never know.
Although it is only a guess, many of the native British families who had been Christian in 400 or so simply lost their faith, with no access to clergy. I say “guess” because nobody remained to write their history. In stark contrast to France or Spain, the Latin of the native British church entirely vanished. Nor did the Celtic language of the once-Christian survivors make any significant contribution to the Germanic language of the new country: we speak English.
When a new Roman-inspired mission arrived in 597, under St. Augustine of Canterbury, he reported finding virtually no Christian presence in the south or east of England, although he still had to confront cantankerous Welsh bishops to the far west. Even in London, we see no signs of survival. A once-flourishing church evaporated, and there are very few obvious bridges between the old order and the new.
Christian England was built on the abject ruins of a lost Christian Britain. So what is a Christian to make of that fact? We could be optimists, suggesting that once God establishes his church, he will restore it even after it succumbs to worldly defeats. But another interpretation is possible, and more troubling. For whatever reason, perhaps God does indeed allow a whole church not just to suffer but to be annihilated, and to be replaced by a whole new structure. New tenants succeed to the vineyard.
In Britain, then, as in Iraq or Nubia or Japan, historical experience raises theological issues that mesh poorly with the assumptions of most contemporary churches. For churches as for individuals, contemplating extinction can (and should) be a sobering exercise.
Now there’s a different suggestion for beginning the new year …