WHAT was it like to worship in an early Christian house church?
It is a question that has grabbed the imagination of some people during 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 say that, as we do this, we are simply returning to the sort of worship practised by the earliest Christians.
This way of thinking seems to assert that, in our present difficulties, we can rediscover the purer, freer, simpler worship practised 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 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 that are almost entirely dissimilar.
The situation that we find ourselves in is one in which we are being asked, entirely reasonably, by a legitimately elected government, not to leave our homes, 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 that 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 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 that 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’s excellent work The Earliest Christian Meeting Places: Almost exclusively houses? (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013) shows that 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 that 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 that 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 Review 80-81, 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. We need to be careful, however, 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 while we are in lockdown. The present crisis, however, 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.
The Revd Dr Peter Anthony is Vicar of St Benet’s, Kentish Town, in London diocese. An extended talk on this topic can be viewed on the St Benet’s YouTube channel.