An article on the worship of early house churches published by Fr Peter is this week’s Church Times (24th April 2020), entitled, “No, this is not like the Early Church”:
What was it like to worship in an early Christian house church?
It is a question which has grabbed the imagination of a number of people over the past few weeks as we have got used to the curious reality of worshipping in our homes rather than in churches.
It has almost become a commonplace for some to claim that as we do this, we are simply returning to the sort of worship practiced by the earliest Christians.
This way of thinking seems to assert that in our present difficulties we can rediscover the purer, freer, simpler worship practiced by early Christians in house churches, who were unencumbered by our stuffy attachment to church buildings and formal, ossified patterns of liturgical prayer.
I want to argue that outlook represents an overly idealised and simplistic view of what house church worship was like. Indeed, it is blind to many of its less attractive characteristics, and underestimates how little our present situation has in common with that of the earliest Christians.
The first problem with this view is that it involves comparing two scenarios which are almost entirely unlike each other.
The situation we find ourselves in is one in which we are being asked entirely reasonably not to leave our homes by a legitimately elected government for sound scientific reasons. We consequently find ourselves having to worship either on our own, or with members of our family. Unless there is a priest living in our household, that worship cannot be eucharistic.
This is completely unlike the worship of Christians in house churches which we read about in the scriptures and in antiquity. There we tend to see gatherings of the whole Christian community rather than individual families, and usually in order to celebrate the Eucharist.
What is more, early Christian house churches sometimes met in circumstances of persecution. Their worship behind the closed doors of domestic locations was often designed to evade the notice of hostile authorities.
The only thing that connects our present mode of worship with that of the pre-Constantinian church is that they both take place in homes. What is going on in them, who is present, and the political context is completely different.
There is also a second problem with loose talk about how wonderful house churches were. Much of this approbation presumes an extraordinary degree of static uniformity in what constituted a house church. The evidence shows this is untrue. Great diversity existed across different regions, economic classes, theological backgrounds, and periods of time as worship and buildings changed.
Indeed, Edward Adams’ excellent work (The Earliest Christian Meeting Places: Almost Exclusively Houses?) shows Christians often met in places that were not houses: in shops; bathhouses; storerooms; outdoor spaces; cemeteries; inns; and rented rooms.
The simplistic, dewy-eyed fantasy that all early Christian worship was uniformly like the cosy parochial fellowship groups of our own age crumbles when subjected to serious analysis.
A third problem with fantasising about the house churches of antiquity is their dependence on the patronage of the wealthy. We read in 1 Corinthians 11 about the tensions which emerged between the richer members of the Christian community who hosted its Eucharistic worship, and the poorer members who were treated shabbily.
One might argue that the emergence of more publicly open church buildings from the Fourth Century onwards was experienced as a democratising and liberating impulse by Christians of lower social status. Sacred space became less the domestic fiefdom of the wealthy, and increasingly the possession of the whole Christian community.
A fourth problem with the unthinking lionisation of house churches is the underestimation it represents of how early a sense of sacred space emerges within Christian culture.
The liberal protestant fantasy that early Christian worship was universally unstructured, aniconic, peripatetic, and seldom sacramental has been shown in recent scholarship to be mistaken.
Work by scholars such as L. Michael White (The Social Origins of Christian Architecture), and more recently James Hadley (Material Culture Review80-81, 2014-15, “Early Christian Perceptions of Sacred Space”), shows how liturgical space, objects associated with worship, the increasingly canonised scriptures, and buildings in which Christians gathered swiftly became sacralised and perceived as set aside for Christian worship long before Constantine and the Edict of Milan.
A renewed interest in the worship and practice of the earliest Christian centuries is surely a good thing. However, we need to be careful not to fantasise about that period through the lens of the novelty, stress, and anxiety of our present situation. Much can be learned about new ways of worshipping whilst we are in lock down. However, the present crisis in which churches are closed will also reveal, I am convinced, just how much our physical buildings are loved and appreciated by the People of God as sacramental signs of Christ’s presence in our communities, and how we dismiss that beautiful reality at our peril.