Sermon: Faith after Constantine
Preached on 23rd July 2006
(1700th anniversary of the proclamation of Constantine as Roman emperor at York)
by Carolyn Roberts
I'm sure many of you here are regular visitors to York. As you've hesitated outside the south transept of the Minster pondering whether you really want to fork out your £5 to go in, your eye may have been caught by the prominent modern statue which now stands on a plinth by the south door: the seated figure in the dress of a Roman general, a finger of his outstretched right hand pointing down to the pavement below, as if to say ‘it all happened down there'. The figure is, of course, the emperor Constantine, and what happened ‘down there' is his proclamation as emperor by the troops assembled in the Roman military headquarters which lie underneath the great bulk of the Minster: an event which, as cognoscenti among you will know, occurred almost exactly 1700 years ago, on 25th July in the year 306. From these beginnings of his rule at York Constantine and his army would cross the Channel, and in due course the Alps, to gain possession of Italy and Rome itself, then eventually extend his empire to the eastern Mediterranean and establish a new capital in the ancient city of Byzantium, renamed Constantinople lest any of his new subjects should need reminding who was now in charge. One great difference distinguished the later founder of Constantinople from the military pretender at York: along the way (according to most accounts at the time he won control of Rome) Constantine declared his allegiance to the God of the Christians to whom he attributed his victory over enemies and imperial rivals: in gratitude Constantine extended official protection and support to the Christian church. So Christianity became respectable, and (under Constantine and, more particularly, his successors) increasingly indistinguishable from the mechanisms of the Roman state.
Later generations of Christians have of course been very ambivalent about Constantine's role in their history. The Byzantine world of the East hailed him a saint, as he still remains in the Orthodox calendar. The western church has been more suspicious of any assimilation of ecclesiastical identity into that of the state. Our calendar prefers the seemingly private and individual strain of devotion associated with Constantine's pious mother Helena, who went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, founded churches and reputedly unearthed the wood of the cross: it is convenient to forget that she travelled through the provinces of the eastern Roman empire as a reigning empress with all the public panoply which that would have involved.
Of course the pages of history (and not only history) are full of reasons to be wary of an institutionalised Christianity hand-in-glove with worldly power: where the church or religion has been blamed, or continues to be, for all the terrible sufferings which human beings inflict on each other, it is easy to point the finger at a faith which has been twisted and perverted by becoming too institutionalised, too comfortable, too close to those who wield power in the land. Yet Constantine, I suspect, would have had no hang-ups about coupling his new-found Christianity with the structures of the Roman empire. In his world, religion and the state, the divine and human order, were inseparable: the state depended on proper religion for its survival; and those who were leaders in public life, who held high office, who commanded armies and ran the government, were also those who held the priesthoods and had charge of religion. As emperor Constantine was pontifex maximus, the principal religious figure of the Roman state and at the centre of its religious life. Once he espoused Christianity it would never have occurred to him to hive off his religion as something to be distanced or put in a separate box, or to be treated any differently from the old gods which it displaced: just as in the old order these gods had demanded their due worship in return for their protection of the Roman state, so now Constantine proclaimed the worship of the Christian God as what was necessary for the continued survival of his empire.
Constantine also reflected a long-held strand of opinion which saw the very existence of the Roman empire as part of God's plan for the growth of his people on earth. The popular image of the relationship between the Roman authorities and Christendom will tend to conjure up the torments of violent persecution and the triumph of martyrdom, baying mobs and lions in the arena (or as one early Christian writer mockingly put it, ‘so many Christians, but only one lion!'). Such things did of course happen, but usually only locally and spasmodically; while in the earliest generations of the church some actually relished confrontation with a world which was doomed in any case to destruction at the imminent end of time, hence the ‘fiery ordeal' held up as a cause for jubilation in I Peter, or the graphic prediction of the downfall of the great city Babylon (i.e. Rome) in the Book of Revelation. But antagonism and confrontation was not the only view to be had of the Roman world. St Paul famously urged obedience to earthly rulers as instituted by God, and it was not long before Christians began to observe that God's work of salvation had operated in conjunction with, and not in spite of, the history of the Roman empire. It was precisely at the time of the first Roman emperor Augustus (as Luke's nativity narrative reminds us) that God sent his son into the world, an earthly ministry which would reach its climax under Augustus' successor Tiberius, before the Roman governor of Judaea; and it was the prevailing peace of the Roman empire, the pax Romana, which in subsequent generations enabled the transmission of the gospel to the limits of the known world: not least, of course, to these shores in Britain, where Christianity was established in Roman times (dare I say it in this spot!) four hundred years or more before the time of St Cuthbert. Around the time that Constantine was hailed there as emperor, there was already a Christian bishop established in York; and when in later years he looked back over his Christian journey, he saw it mapped out across the whole extent of the Roman empire, beginning from its western edge here in Britain.
Constantine's Christianity, then, was very much identified with the world of the Roman empire: his was undeniably public religion, entirely bound up with the fortunes of the state, converging with, not diverging from, his role as Roman emperor. He would, I take it, have approved Jesus' injunction to his followers to pay Caesar what is due to Caesar. Let us look for a moment at this famous Gospel episode (Matt. 22.15-22). It is the Pharisees who would trap Jesus into a tidy demarcation line between loyalty to the state and loyalty to God, in their attempt to expose him as a political threat to the authorities: ‘are we, or are we not, permitted to pay taxes to the emperor?' To take Jesus' answer out of context (‘pay to Caesar what is due to Caesar, and to God what is due to God') is, it seems to me, to fall in to the very trap laid by the Pharisees, to want to set a convenient boundary where religion ends and the rest of life, as it were, begins, to cocoon one's faith in a private world which is set apart from the ‘state' and all that this entails. But Jesus made a point of getting his hearers to produce from someone's pocket the most obvious physical symbol of everyday involvement with the ruling regime, a Roman coin with the emperor's head on it, precisely the currency familiar to everyone as ‘the money in which the tax is paid': paying taxes has something to say about loyalty to Caesar, yes, and loyalty to God. All things come from God, of course, and there is no neat and tidy way of drawing convenient boundaries to keep God at arm's length from all the messy choices and decisions which confront us as citizens of the world in which we find ourselves.
A religion which knew no boundaries between God and Caesar, a religion which was equally a matter of state as of the individual, came naturally to Constantine in the world of the Roman empire. What such a ‘public faith' might mean 1700 years later here in our pluralist and cosmopolitan Britain, a land which we Christians share with those of other faiths and none, is a question to which I have no easy answer for you this morning. It will, I believe, at the very least, involve respect and responsibility: respect for the beliefs of others (it has been wisely said that the people who take their own faith seriously are also those who take seriously the faith of others), and at the same time responsibility to our Christian calling in whatever circumstances we find ourselves: not as some privileged enclave, but as the ‘salt of the earth' spread here, there and everywhere. We are in the world, followers of the Christ whom (as we heard in our second lesson) God ‘made lower than the angels' (Heb. 2.9) and sent into the world to be our Saviour, and who submitted to the worst the world had to offer at the hands of the Roman government of the day. With such an example before us, how can we not strive to be his faithful disciples, to show ourselves the people of God in every corner of our lives?