Meal, Word, and Prayer: A Review of Andrew B. McGowan’s “Ancient Christian Worship”

ancient christian worship

First, a slightly provocative—and hopefully not completely unsubstantiated—claim: It seems to me that Andrew McGowan’s Ancient Christian Worship explicitly tells a story and implicitly makes an argument. In each of his colorful and well-written chapters, McGowan takes people on a trek through the different ways in which ancient Christians worshiped. He introduces readers to influential theologians like Augustine, Origen, and John Chrysostom, sharing ample examples from their writings on worship. McGowan also incorporates archeological research and makes use of fascinating early Christian documents like the Didache and the Apostolic Tradition, which give glimpses of how these ancient communities lived out (or sought to live out) their worship practices.

In other words, McGowan intentionally brings together multiple streams of academic research on early Christian worship in order to tell a coherent introductory narrative of how these worship practices originated and developed, while avoiding the tempting pitfalls of over-simplification and excessive generalization. He’s realistic about what is known, unknown, and unfortunately lost to history regarding how these early believers lived.

The scope of Ancient Christian Worship spans from the earliest followers of Jesus to around 400 AD (p.16). McGowan justifies limiting his study to this period because it constituted a genuinely foundational era, not just in terms of the emergence of creedal orthodoxy, but also in “the formation of liturgical patterns that would remain fundamental to Christian practice thereafter” (p.16).

In my eyes, one of the main points McGowan wants readers to understand is that the story of Christian worship as practiced through the centuries contains both continuity and discontinuity (p.17). Some might ask, “Why does studying early worship practices require an entire book? Didn’t they just worship like us?” Well… in some ways yes, but in other important ways, not really.

As it’s commonly used today, the word “worship” carries with it a number of different meanings, ranging anywhere from communal prayer and ritual to a more inward-oriented belief or basic orientation of life (p.2). In addition to these meanings, it also (maybe even more commonly) refers nowadays to a specific genre of Christian music, often sung while gathered together and simultaneously expressing a deeply personal sense of devotion to God.

Of course, there is nothing necessarily wrong with this. McGowan does, however, think that these differing contemporary meanings illustrate some of the differences between how ancient and modern Christians have conceived of worship. As he puts it, “No one in the ancient church could have asked about ‘styles’ of worship” (p.4). He goes on to add, “Where ancient talk of ‘worship’ was about the whole of service or devotion, modern ‘worship,’ even though diverse, refers to more distinctive and discrete things” (p.5).

This leads to what I see as the implicit argument of Ancient Christian Worship. In the early Church, sharing meals, singing hymns, preaching the Word, and praying communally etc. all took place when Christians gathered together.  While the purpose of McGowan’s work is to “reconstruct a sense of what was said and done in various ancient churches, not of what ought to have been done,” his survey does show that many ancient believers saw these activities as all being different expressions of worship, rather than as separate, rather unrelated things (p.14). This more broadly defined, interconnected understanding of “worship” is compelling, and I suggest that recovering at least some aspects of this vision would be healthy for many present-day Christian communities.

We will now briefly look at a few of the early worship practices examined by McGowan to get a more detailed picture of how he puts them into social, historical, and theological perspective.

Feasts and Prayers

One of the earliest portraits we have of Christians gathering together comes from the New Testament itself. In Acts 2:42, Luke writes, “They [the believers] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (NRSV). Even in this brief description, we can see several important things going on here. McGowan claims that:

A distinctive meal tradition—here called the “breaking of the bread”—was not a social event additional to worship, or a programmatic attempt to create fellowship among the Christians, but the regular form of Christian gathering… They were not merely one sacramental part of a community or worship life but the central act around or within which others—reading and preaching, prayer and prophecy— were arranged. (pp.19-20)

When looking for the origins of these early Christian banquets, he brings up a number of influences, the most obvious being Jesus’ “Last Supper.” Looking beyond that specific event, he adds,”The first Christians remembered not just the last but many meals of Jesus as models for their own eating. Those meals also belonged to a wider cultural tradition of shared eating and drinking” (p.20).

Within the Jewish world, the celebration of Passover played an important role in religious life. Indeed, most scholars interpret Jesus’ last meal as being a Passover feast, and this is also how the Synoptic Gospel writers present it (p.24). In the ancient world, banquets could be occasions for the enforcing of social boundaries, or alternatively, for transcending them. Therefore, the table fellowship that Christians were to extend to each other in the spirit of hospitality, regardless of social status or ethnicity is theologically significant.

An account of a Christian meal-centered gathering provided by the North African theologian Tertullian around 200 AD would have still been recognizable to surrounding non-Christians as a banquet, albeit a rather sober one:

We do not recline until we have first tasted of prayer to God; as much is eaten as to satisfy the hungry; only as much is drunk as is proper to the chaste… After water for washing the hands, and lights, each is invited to sing publicly to God as able from holy scripture or from their own ability; thus how each has drunk is put to the test. Similarly prayer closes the feast (Apol. 39.17-18)

Incidentally, this illustrates what I find to be one of McGowan’s strengths. Throughout Ancient Christian Worship, he deftly weaves into his narrative excerpts from relevant primary sources, confronting readers with the voices of Christians from that era, rather than just words about them.

Prayer is a worship tradition with deep roots. Partly because of this, it illustrates well the double-edged sword of continuity/discontinuity that we have already seen a few times. Obviously, it is an important part of the Christian spiritual life, yet some believers don’t necessarily conceive of prayer as an aspect of “worship.”

In McGowan’s survey of prayer in the early Church, a few things stand out. Some parts of the evangelical world, look down upon the use of pre-written prayers, favoring spontaneous ones because they are seen to be more heartfelt and sincere. The early Church does not seem to have had this conundrum. Ancient Christians undoubtedly adapted (or continued) Jewish prayer practices, including the observance of set times of prayer throughout the day. Indeed, when one looks at the Didache or the works of theologians like Tertullian or Clement of Alexandria, the impression given is that the Christian life was to be (at least ideally) soaked in daily prayer. McGowan expands on this point when he writes:

Many of the earliest Christians, like (other) Jews, certainly saw prayer as something to be performed a certain number of times during the day, and that number was often three. Again and again in the ancient sources, one version or another of the same pattern occurs: morning prayer, midday prayer, and afternoon or evening prayer (p.188).

Much of early Christian prayer centered on extensive use of the Psalter and on the Lord’s Prayer. Regardless of geographical location, and even from one century to another, these two elements were used consistently (p.214). Commenting on the essential role played specifically by the Lord’s Prayer, McGowan writes:

[T]hese writers of the late second through the mid-third centuries provide a quite consistent picture of Christian prayer, granted some variation and development. The Lord’s Prayer was its center, but not its limit, and teaching about this prayer often gave rise to reflection on various issues, including and especially the proper times to say it and to pray in general. (p.198)

Of course, the manner in which ancient Christians prayed was not completely uniform. Regional diversity did exist. Therefore, McGowan thinks that the world of early Christian prayer should be thought of more like a “rich and varied landscape” than a “single or simple picture” (p.214).

Conclusion

McGowan’s book paints a vivid picture of the early Church’s worship, persuasively showing that “worship” was widely understood by these ancient believers to encompass a variety of private and communal practices oriented in service towards God… not just “praise” music. Modern Christians (including myself) have often erred by restricting “worship” to the singing of hymns on Sundays, mistaking a legitimate part for the whole.

Ancient Christian Worship is an enormously helpful text for those who want to regain the historical heritage of this conception of worship. Near the book’s final pages, McGowan summarizes the results of his survey, commenting that, “For the authors and communities treated in this book, ‘worship’ was not about services, but service; not about gestures that signaled belief or allegiance, but about allegiance itself” (p.261).

I can also imagine this book being useful in a classroom setting for those perplexed as they read through early Christian documents and struggle to contextualize them. For those, like myself, who are part of believing communities, there is also much to be pondered. Ancient Christian Worship is a clearly-written, accessible, and intriguing introduction to the origins and developments of the various private and communal practices that, for these ancient Christians, embodied a life of worship.

*Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic Publishing for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. 

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