Church and State in Medieval Times

An important theme in medieval European history was a struggle to define the relationship between the power of the Church and the power of human governments. The Cluny Reform represents one attempt by Church leaders to disentangle Church work and Church workers from worldly governments and their concerns. Yet, as long as Church leaders accepted gifts of land from donors, their leadership remained enmeshed in the feudal structure of Europe, which was political and sociological as well as economic.

A document called the Donation of Constantine supposedly gave the Pope, the head pastor in Rome, political control over not only the city of Rome but also many more properties in central Italy. Later research demonstrated that the Donation was not written in the time of Constantine but instead around the time of Charlemagne. Still, its existence and enforcement of its terms meant that Church leadership, beginning with the Pope, could not be separated from worldly power, not even by high-minded movements such as the Cluny Reform. The most significant form this struggle produced has come to be known as the Investiture Controversy.

“Investiture” means the giving of a job within the Church—a pastor or preacher in a local congregation, a bishop or overseer of several congregations, an archbishop overseeing a region with many congregations, or the Pope himself, who came to view himself as the overseer of all Christianity on earth, the Vicar of Christ representing his earthly authority over the Church. In feudal Europe, though, kings and emperors wanted to participate in the task of choosing Church leaders, particularly at the administrative level of bishops and archbishops. In a sinless world, Church leaders and worldly politicians would cooperate to find the best leaders for every open position in the Church hierarchy. Because both Church leaders and worldly politicians were imperfect sinners, they sometimes battled for control, each seeking appointments within the Church for his own benefit. Church leaders and worldly politicians all had relatives and friends to whom they owed favors, and the jobs of bishop and archbishop were highly-sought privileges. Church leaders wanted newly-named bishops and archbishops to be loyal to the Church; worldly politicians wanted bishops and archbishops to be loyal to the local authorities and to the people they served in their positions.

Sometimes worldly politicians would attempt to procure Church positions for men who were highly unqualified for leadership in the Church—men more interested in their own wealth and power than in service to Christ and His people, men who had not renounced sinful habits and ungodly living, men who had not even been educated in the Bible or the teachings of the Church. On the other hand, Church leaders sometimes imposed preachers and bishops upon their congregations who had no knowledge of the local customs or language, who had no interest in the part of Europe to which they were assigned, and who—on occasion—did not even bother to move to the location where they were assigned to serve, but merely told the congregation where to send the people’s offerings. Both sides in the Investiture Controversy could point to abuses made by the other side and could claim right motives for their own positions. As a result, the controversy raged for centuries.

The most famous episode of the Investiture Controversy involved a Holy Roman Emperor named Henry and a Pope named Gregory. When important Church positions opened within the borders of the Empire, Henry had men of his choice invested into those offices. Gregory objected, accused Henry of sinning against the Church and its Lord, and excommunicated Henry—indicating that Henry was no longer a Christian. Not being a Christian, Henry could not be Holy Roman Emperor, and Gregory actually chose a man to replace him. Of course Gregory had no authority to put that man in charge of the Empire, but Gregory’s proclamation led to civil war in the Empire which could only be ended by resolving the controversy. Henry visited a castle in northern Italy where Gregory was staying. According to tradition, the Emperor stood barefoot outside the castle for two days, waiting for the Pope to grant him an audience. (The actual two-day wait was probably spent mostly indoors, with occasional trips to the castle door to see if the Pope was ready yet to meet.) Eventually the leaders met and worked out a compromise that pleased them both, although it set no precedent for quarrels over Investiture at other times and in other places.

Another significant episode involved King John of England and Pope Innocent III. John is mostly known from the Robin Hood stories, although the real Robin Hood probably lived long after the time that John ruled. But John, like Emperor Henry before him, had a man of his own choice invested as Archbishop of Canterbury. Innocent demurred, preferring Stephen Langston for the office. Stephen was a talented scholar, who not only wrote profound commentaries on the Bible and penned a Pentecost hymn still sung often today, but who also is responsible for dividing the books of the Bible into chapters. Innocent not only excommunicated John; he also declared England to be under the Interdict until John capitulated and allowed Stephen to be invested. “Interdict” meant that the Church workers were out on strike. No church services. No weddings or funerals. No promise of forgiveness for sinners. The people of England panicked, and King John surrendered to the Pope; Stephen Langston became Archbishop of Canterbury.

King John was so weakened politically by this event that, not long afterward, he was forced by his nobles to sign the Magna Carta, or the Great Charter of England. Church life was free from political interference. Human rights were recognized in England. Taxes were limited and needed to be approved in advance by the nobles. While the Magna Carta was by no means the first effort to limit government in medieval Europe—Germanic customs had placed limits upon kings and emperors all along, providing a structure of government more in line with the Roman Republic than with the Empire of the Caesars—it was an important step toward the later recognition of human rights and of the need to limit government power in the lives of its citizens, including the principle of balancing power among the branches of government to provide such limits. J.

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