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Popes, Bishops, Deacons, and Priests: Church Leadership in the Middle Ages
By Colin D. Smith
Introduction: In January of 1077, at the apparent climax of what became known as the Investiture Controversy, Henry IV, the stubborn German Emperor, stood barefoot in a hair shirt in the snow outside the castle of Canossa, Italy, begging the pope, Gregory VII for clemency. During the course of the quarrel, Henry had attempted to depose the pope, and the pope responded by excommunicating the emperor and those bishops that sided with him. Historians seem to agree that Henry’s repentance was not all it seemed, and he was actually trying to win back his people and weaken the pope’s hand. In a sense, however, the motive behind why Henry did what he did is less important than the fact that, by the eleventh century, the church had come to figure so prominently, and the pope had ascended to such a position of both secular and ecclesiastical influence. That such a conflict between emperor and pope existed and had to be dealt with personally by the emperor himself bears testimony to the power that had come to reside with the Bishop of Rome.
The purpose of this paper is to survey the growth of the church offices, in particular the papacy, from their biblical foundations, through to the end of the Middle Ages. In the process, the paper will pay attention to the development of traditions, the deviations from Biblical command and practice, and those who recognized the deviations and sought to do something about them. The paper will conclude with an assessment of the clergy just prior to the Reformation, comparing what it had become to the way it originated in the New Testament.