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.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Shape of the Liturgy - Gregory Dix

I've recently been reading one of the classic works of 20th century Anglican theology - The Shape of the Liturgy by Dom Gregory Dix. It's spurred quite a bit of thinking, both in agreement and disagreement with Dix himself and with the way his work has been appropriated or not.

Who was Dix?

Dom Gregory Dix was an English monk and historian. As far as I can tell, he is just about the greatest English-language expert ever on early liturgical texts – what Christians from AD150 to 500 or so wrote about how they worshipped. He was the kind of scholar who could not just quote the 3rd Century Syriac Liturgy of Addai and Mari, but would also know if there was a manuscript in Coptic which put it differently, and whether that might be because they were both translations of a Greek original which said something slightly different.

What was his book?

His magnum opus was The Shape of the Liturgy, written during WW2, in which he shows how the Communion Service has come to take the shape it has. It was written primarily to argue that the BCP communion service (1662, but mostly dating back to Cranmer's work in 1549/1552) had got it all wrong. At the time, 1662 was the only service permitted in the Church of England, and most of the revisions to it, including Common Worship, have been strongly influenced by Dix's work.

What did he think of the Reformation?

Dix hated the Reformation, though he wasn't a great fan of late medieval Catholicism either. For example, he spends a couple of pages considering whether Luther was equivalent to Hitler. To be fair to Dix, he does conclude “no”, but even asking the question seems a little excessive.

Why did you read this book?

I grew up with the BCP liturgy, and I still use it now some of the time. I also use some of the modern liturgies, and I wanted to understand why they've made some of the changes, and to understand some of the oddities of Anglican communion liturgy.

Such as?

Why the Lord's Prayer isn't used during the prayers, but interrupts the middle of Communion instead.

It turns out that the Communion bit used to be (sometimes) a separate service, with only one prayer in. In AD348, a chap called Cyril of Jerusalem came up with the idea that God is present in the bread and wine after they've been prayed over in a way that he wasn't beforehand, and so praying after that makes the prayers more effective. So he tagged lots of prayers (Lord's Prayer included) onto the end of the Communion prayer. Cyril was seen as being at the cutting edge of new liturgies in the 4th century, and by 600AD, everyone was doing it. Cranmer disagreed, and put it after the people had received communion, but the modern liturgies have moved it back.

I'm content that Cyril's theology of communion is wrong, and if that's the reason for the Lord's Prayer being there, then I'm happy to move it back to the prayers where it belongs. I like to tinker with stuff, but I want to understand why things are where they are in the first place so that I don't break anything important by my tinkering.

It's worth mentioning that I've found reading the book a really interesting experience, and will probably be writing more thoughts spinning off it in the near future. For what it's worth, I think Dix makes some really good points that haven't been properly taken on board properly in Common Worship and some spectacular mistakes too.

Friday, January 10, 2014

TV Series - Dangerous Journey

When I was a kid, I loved watching this on TV. It's a children's adaptation of Bunyan's classic Pilgrim's Progress, free on Youtube if you've got a couple of hours to watch it - I'm doing one 15-minute episode a day for a couple of weeks...

(HT - Justin Taylor)

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Book Review - What is the Mission of the Church?

There's quite a bit of debate around at the moment among Christians about what is meant by mission. On one side are positions like the Anglican 5 Marks of Mission:

The Mission of the Church is the mission of Christ:

  • To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  • To respond to human need by loving service
  • To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth


Most official documents then include a comment like this (from the same page)

The first mark of mission... is really a summary of what all mission is about, because it is based on Jesus' own summary of his mission (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:14-15, Luke 4:18, Luke 7:22; cf. John 3:14-17). Instead of being just one (albeit the first) of five distinct activities, this should be the key statement about everything we do in mission.

Comments like this are important but all too often ignored in practice by churches that (for example) adopt the UN Millennium Development Goals as their mission statement, or count their valuable work in running a recycling centre as mission.

DeYoung and Gilbert's book is the best statement I have come across of the other side of the debate. Here's a rough summary of what they say:

The Church's mission is summarised in the Great Commission – “to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father.” (p62)

The gospel is about the restoration of the whole of creation, but the centre of the gospel is the reconciliation of God and humanity brought about by forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus. Being part of the kingdom of God requires acknowledging the kingship of Jesus – hence all gospel preaching demands response of repentance and faith.

We cannot build or grow God's kingdom – that is God's work and is never ascribed to people in Scripture. We are to bear witness to it – we are subjects and heralds of the kingdom, not its agents.

Biblical challenges to just living are about supporting those who cannot provide for themselves, treating the poor with dignity and not showing partiality to the rich, and not oppressing the poor by cheating them of promises payment. “If we truly believe the gospel of God's grace, we will be transformed to show grace to others in their time of need.” (p171)

“Social Justice” is a slippery phrase, but it's much clearer to talk about loving each other. Doing good to others and alleviating need is an opportunity for the church, not a responsibility to beat ourselves up over when we hear of injustice that we can do nothing about. “We really ought to love everyone, not all in the same way, but when we can, where we can, however we can.” (p193) “We are finite creatures and therefore it's important for us not to flog ourselves with undue guilt because we cannot show full, unbounded, active, suffering-relieving love to all seven billion people on the planet.” (p225)

The Biblical concept of “shalom” needs a lot more scholarly attention. There is both continuity and discontinuity between the Old Creation and the New Creation, but entrance into the New Creation is only through Jesus. Peace with God is the most important sort of peace, and so when we talk about seeking shalom for our communities, seeking peace between people and God has to be our top priority.

“It is not the church's responsibility to right every wrong or to meet every need, though we have Biblical motivation to do some of both. It is our responsibility however – our unique mission and plain priority – that this unpopular, impractical gospel message gets told, that neighbours and nations may know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, they may have life in his name.” (p249)

In other words, DeYoung and Gilbert argue that the mission of the Church is not the same as the mission of God, because we are finite beings called by God to witness to what he has done, is doing and will do in Jesus. They also draw a distinction between the mission of the church and the good that Christians as individuals should do in the world when we have the opportunity to do so.

Why does this matter? Because what our mission is affects what our focus is. If the mission of the church is to evangelise and make disciples, that is what we should focus on. (Making disciples of course includes encouraging and equipping members of the church to live for God in the world.) But if the mission of the church is seen as including striving to safeguard the integrity of creation, then the church would look rather different.

My Response

I have to say, I found DeYoung and Gilbert's main idea persuasive and compelling. I think they did enough to establish what they set out to do. In particular, I liked their argument that we should see injustice as a potential opportunity for us to love others rather than as an area of responsibility which we should feel guilty over. It was immensely liberating, especially given the way that so many sessions on global justice issues often present it in a guilt-tripping sort of way.

The biggest weakness, I thought, concerned their discussion of whether the Western Church is currently unjust. They recognised the importance of justice at an individual level, but didn't consider the potential for structural injustice. It is quite possible that even though we as individuals might not be oppressing the poor or defrauding workers of their wages, we might well be participating in and supporting structures which do oppress the poor by keeping them poor and denying them opportunities which are offered to the rich. There's obviously a lot more work to be done on that, but it doesn't affect their overall argument.

I started this post by saying that there is quite a bit of debate around. Actually, there is nowhere near enough. Last year I went on a conference, organised by evangelical Anglicans, on the issue of Seeking Justice. I was hoping it would at least address the sort of question that DeYoung raises, but there wasn't even a seminar on it - the opposite view was everywhere assumed. For those in the UK, DeYoung is speaking on themes from his book at a conference on 31st January.