Monday, January 27, 2014

How did the Early Christians Worship?

One of the pleasant surprises in reading The Shape of the Liturgy was finding a summary of how "church services" worked in about 200AD. There were two main types of service, a non-communion service (called the Synaxis - being led together), and a communion service (called the Eucharist - giving thanks). They sometimes happened separately, sometimes one after another with the synaxis first. This is roughly what the synaxis service looked like:


  1. Greeting: the minister would welcome the people, often saying "the Lord be with you", and they'd reply "And also with you".
  2. Bible Reading
  3. Time of Sung Worship: they then sung a selection of (mostly) Psalms in the then-contemporary style, which was kind of like chanting led from the front by special singers with choruses for everyone to join in on. These were in response to the first Bible reading.
  4. Bible Reading: or sometimes more than one
  5. Sermon: It was always the senior minister (episkopos) preaching - in fact, it was seen as a scandal if the minister was there and not preaching. The sermon was clearly based on the passage that had just been read, not on the preacher's own opinion. The minister preached while sitting on his seat, which was in the middle at the front, facing the congregation. That's the origin of the phrase "ex cathedra".
  6. Outsiders leave: Outsiders were asked to leave at that point - folk who were on the way in but hadn't been welcomed into full memmbership yet (catechumens) were allowed to stay.
  7. Prayers: A deacon would read a topic for prayer; the people would pray in silence while kneeling; the minister would say a prayer to sum it up; loop.
  8. Dismissal

The meetings were usually in the large central area of the house of a well-off member of the church. The minister wore normal clothes for the service (which might look rather like today's robes...)

What struck me as encouraging about that service pattern is how similar it is to a lot of contemporary evangelical services. Dix always over-interprets in a Catholic and ceremonial direction, so it was especially encouraging to find this as his summary of a church service. I guess what's striking comparing it to the first century is that there's a lot more scope for spontaneity. Paul writes in 1 Cor 14:26.

When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.

I guess if services had the same pattern, the most natural place for these would be in the time of sung worship, especially since Paul sees the possibility of outsiders being there (e.g. v22). It's possible that sort of thing is still going on in AD 200, but either that it isn't clearly recorded or that Dix ignored it. As I said, he always over-interprets in a Catholic and ceremonial direction.

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