(Pulpit Castle Church, Wittenberg Germany. Used by Martin Luther.)

When Oxford University Press decided to publish a research Encyclopedia of Religion on-line they began a search for a group of editors to oversee, and in some cases, write the articles on the topics of their expertise. I can imagine what took place when they looked for someone for the History of Christian Worship. As this was Oxford they didn’t want some ‘wild colonial boy’ to oversee the field. No, instead someone solid and respected by his peers.

Notre Dame University in South Bend Indiana was mostly colonial boys but a prestigious institution. A safe place to look; lots of folk in liturgy to choose from. One emeritus professor is Paul Bradshaw. He had taught the subject for years and had written numerous books in the field. He was up to date in his subject; and a safe choice. He knew that few actually liturgies existed before the 7th century. He wasn’t one of the gang of these wild members of the SBL workgroup on Greco-Roman Meals.

O K, he went along with some of their speculation they had drawn, which had to do with looking at early worship and gatherings through the idea that they used the pattern of the banquets that everyone else in their time used. Namely, that of the ubiquitous association dinners, small groups reclining for leisurely meals followed by a symposium of entertainment or conversation.

But as the wise old man of liturgy he felt it his responsibility to remind this gang that no new textual sources for the early liturgy had been unearthed, like at Nag Hammedi or the Dead Sea Caves which had added materials on the scriptures. They were teasing out more than the data available justified, he felt.

Countering that, Andrew Magowan has interwoven scripture sources looked at through the lens of the association meals with a result that seems not only convincing but provides valuable insight for the contemporary church. Magowan says “Paul’s attempt to coax the fractious Corinthians into better liturgical manners provides the earliest surviving account of a “ministry of the Word” in a Christian assembly: ‘When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.’”

Further, Magowan points out that the sharing of conversation of the Corinthian church is parallel to what took place in many of the symposium parts of those ancient banquets or dinners. The group would have chosen someone to be the ‘symposiarch’, the master of ceremonies for the evening. The symposiarch was responsible to keep order for the conversation. Not all meals had a conversation. Some were mainly entertainment of one sort or another, but when you add that the drinking of wine was done primarily in the symposium half, in many meetings, it took some effort to keep order.

This is all introduction to the discussion of the Church of the Pilgrims, our focus of attention these weeks.You may recall that the write-up of the Church’s worship by the folk from Duke Divinity School was headed by “D C Church changes worship from passive to participatory”.

That could have been Magowan’s title about the ‘worship’ of the Corinthian church. I put the word worship in quotes to be a warning about trying to equate their first century activity with what we point to as worship today. One difficulty we have in looking at an activity or idea in a different century is that of anachronism: believing there is a one to one correlation of what we do or think with what they do or think.

Should I remind us that the meeting of the Corinthians was not only before we had pulpits and altars, but before we had ministers or priests- or scripture, hymn books and the like. The person in charge was responsible for keeping order, not for saying all the words or doing all the liturgy. WHAT A REVOLUTIONARY IDEA FOR THE CONTEMPORARY CHURCH.
As well, I don’t know what your definition of ‘traditional worship’ is, but I think what occurred in the second half of the first century can’t be trumped.

The first characteristic of the early gathering was participation. How you do it well in today’s church is as hard as Paul discovered it was for the early church. Church of the Pilgrims has been trying it. We’ll need to find out how they do that.

McGowan, Andrew B. Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective (p. 74). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


  1. I’m not clear what is meant that Paul Bradshaw “… knew that few actually liturgies existed before the 7th century.” To comment on issues (to me) very coherent in Paul’s Epistle after his removal from communities of established doctrine, already under siege, scripture will soon become harmonized with non-apostolic material. “ was an attitude very like (1st) Clement’s that St Paul combated in his epistle to the Romans.” I quote from a revealing book, flawed with common errors, nevertheless historic in a
    viewpoint stratagem forming liturgy known to Athanasius as the Didascalia, the Apostolic church Order and the Apostolic Constitutions circa 250. That work based upon Hippolytus, the subject of the volume, The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, translated from Sahidic, by Burton Scott Easton. Copyright 1934 reprinted 1962.


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