Church Education Trust



The Middle Ages.

The fall of the Roman Empire had the effect of increasing the personal pretige of the Pope in Italy. But outside Italy his influence was weak. The Western Empire was now under barbarian dominion and broken up into various Statese Catholics, Arians and pagans were all thrown together and the Christian Church passed through a difficult time.

In 496 Clovis king of the Franks, was converted and he and three thousand of his warriors were baptised, but the spiritual tone of the Church was low and barbarian practices and superstitions were mingled with the faith.


Gregory was one of the four outstanding men who shaped the papal system of Rome, the others being Leo I (440-461), Gregory VII (1073-1085) and Innocent III (1198-1216). He was born about 540 in a wealthy, senatorial family and, showing unusual ability, he was appointed Prefect of the city of Rome in 573.

This office he administered with signal success, but in the following year he resigned his office, sold his estates and devoted the proceeds to the welfare of the poor and to the building of six monasteries in Sicily. He himself, believing that the end of the world was near and that his main concern must be to prepare for heaven, entered monastic life, and in 586 became the abbot of his monastery in Rome.

In 590 he was elected Pope. His great administrative abilities, trained in his work as urban Prefect, were now exercised in managing the vast papal estates and laying the foundations for the temporal power of the Pope. He set himself to increase his influence in countries where it was weak, and, seeing that more than two-thirds of Europe was pagan, sent out monks to evangelise the heathen.

Gregory renewed the claim to universal supremacy in the Church, first made by Leo, and claimed to be the "Successor of Peter", and the "Vicar of Christ on earth". This claim was recognised nearly everywhere in the West, the Celtic Church being a notable exception. Like Augustine, he taught that there was no salvation for anyone outside the one Catholic Church and he claimed to be the head of it.

Gregory had a deep respect for the Scriptures and looked for the speedy coming of the Lord to judge a wicked world. He was a powerful preacher and an able writer. He officially preached the doctrine of purgatory, which had been developing for a long time, and encouraged the use of pictures and images in church on condition that they were not worshipped.


In England, the Anglo-Saxon invaders who had begun to come across from Germany in the middle of the fifth century had destroyed Christianity in the eastern half of the country. But in the west the Celtic Church continued to develop in association with Ireland and Scotland.

Gregory had little knowledge of the strength of the church in Western Britain and in 596 sent his friend and brother monk, Augustine, to evangelise the Anglo-Saxons. After spending sometime in France, Augustine and his forty followers landed in 597 in the isle of Thanet.

The King of Kent at this time was Ethelbert, whose wife Bertha was a Christian and he gave the missionaries a favourable reception, asking for time to study the faith. Before long the king and many of his subjects embraced the Christian faith, and Augustine established his headquarters in the church of St. Martin at Canterbury, which the queen, Bertha, had been using.

This led on to the establishment of Canterbury Cathedral, which exercised a great influence over the religious life of England. Augustine was unsuccessful in bringing the leaders of the Celtic Church into communion with the Roman Church.

From Kent the work of evangelisation spread to Essex, where the king was a nephew of Ethelbert. In 604 Mellitus founded the Church of St. Paul's and became the first Bishop of London. About the same time Justus became the first Bishop of Rochester. In the same year, 604, Augustine died.


In addition to the claims made by Leo and Gregory, a number of beliefs and practices had been introduced into the Roman Church by the beginning of the seventh century and developments continued during the succeeding centuries. These became distinctive characteristics of the Roman Catholic church. The most important were the following:-

Papal claims.

The pope claimed to be supreme over all the churches and all other bishops.

The Lord's supper.

The idea was growing fast that the Communion service was itself a sacrifice. The doctrine of the Real Presence was widely accepted, with little understanding of what this meant. Some vaguely believed in a corporal presence. In 831 Radbertus published a treatise openly advocating the doctrine of Transubstantiation, but it was not till 1215 that it was officially formulated and promulgated as a doctrine of the Roman Church.


This doctrine was accepted and preached by Gregory and widely believed, though it did not become an article of faith in the Roman Church till 1439.

Prayers for the dead.

These came into practice with the increase in the belief in Purgatory. In time prayers to the saints came to be regarded as normal and were officially recognised by the Church in 787 A.D.

Worship of Mary.

After the Council of Ephesus in 431 declared that Mary was 'Theotokos', 'Mother of God', the cult of Mary increased. By the end of the sixth century she was widely worshipped and prayers were addressed to her.


From early times confession of sin was required for restoration to fellowship in the Church after a serious fall. This was at first made publicly. From the time of Leo it tended to become a private confession before a priest. In 763, for the first time, it was commanded to be so.

Places of Worship.

Places of meeting tended to become more and more ornate. Jerome and Chrysostom had given warnings about this tendency during their day.

Worship of Images.

Worship of images was increasing. By the early ninth century it had become a scandal. The Muslims taunted Christians with being idolaters because of their image-whoship.

The Priesthood.

The altar became of greater importance in the Church. The priest was now regarded as belonging to a different order from the laity and as having a special grace and divine authority.


Vestments seem to have been first introduced in the reign of Constantine. By the end of the sixth century they had come to be regarded as an essential part of the priest's equipment.

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