Back in 2010, my now PhD supervisor remarked that as confessional entrenchment/denominational attachment has decreased, so has interest in ecclesiastical history (is this one reason we rebranded ourselves here as History of Christianity?). I’m not sure if this is true or if it was simply a feeling she had, but if it is true, I’m not so sure it makes a lot of sense.
I think that church history as a field of study can truly blossom with lessened denominational hostilities. This thought came to me today while reading about this guy Apiarius of Sicca Veneria in North Africa. Briefly, he was a presbyter who was removed from holy orders by his local bishop and decided to appeal to Rome. Pope Zosimus got involved and — well, ecclesiastical history. An important moment in western canon law, despite how little attention it tends to receive.
The book I was reading, Merdinger’s Rome and the African Church in the Time of Augustine (complaint: Why always Augustine?), observed that this issue has been misread and obscured by a lot of scholarship because of the confessional commitments of the scholars discussing it. A crude caricature of the scholarship in this case is pretty much the same as it always is whenever the popes get involved:
Catholics: Well done Popes exercising your apostolic authority against those rebellious Africans.
Protestants: Well done Africans in resisting the arrogant self-aggrandisement of the Popes.
This is also not far from every time the Bishop of Rome butts heads with orthodox Eastern Bishops, Gallic bishops, Sicilian bishops, Spanish bishops, Welsh and Irish bishops, and so forth. The pope and/or his representatives or those who at least side with him are pictured by Catholics as representing good order and good government, putting right the wrongs of the world, and by Protestants as representing the arrogation of worldly power and the stamping out of true Gospel spirit in the provinces.
Sometimes one side has more of the truth than the other, but it’s not really what’s usually going on.
With weakened, once-ingrained confessional prejudices clouding our vision less, we are in a time when scholarship about ecclesiastical history can really flourish. No longer need Catholics be embarrassed by badly behaved popes to sweep under the rug. No longer need Protestants hunt for some sort of proto-Protestant resistance. No longer need Protestants ignore the entire history of the church from the death of Augustine to 31 October, 1517 — nor need they ignore the awkward Catholicky (emphasis on ‘icky’) bits from before the 430 cut-off date, where church fathers whose Christology and triadology, and even beliefs about salvation, they praise also do awkward things like, well, exercise monarchical episcopal authority in their hometown. Or send people relics. Or talk about Eucharist in terms of sacrifice. Or have anything to do with canon law. Or burn incense.*
Also, we can lay off the anti-papal polemic. Gregory the Great sent missionaries to England because he thought London would become a rival patriarchate? Really?
And we can turn our eyes to the world beyond Europe and the Mediterranean basin. Since we no longer feel compelled to obsess over our own Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran history, we can look at the history of the church in Mesopotamia or Ethiopia. We can ponder Franciscans in the Caliphate. We can take into consideration the Church of the East (‘Nestorian’) in China during the Middle Ages.
We have 2000 years of ecclesiastical history to play with. Just because something didn’t happen within one’s own confessional sphere of influence doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting and doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold wisdom for the church today.
*Fun fact: St John Chrysostom whose exegesis is much beloved by low-church evangelicals of late did all these things.