The early Church
After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Gospel (good news) was spread throughout the Roman Empire. In some places Christians gathered in secret due to persecution, and in others the Christian faith became established within Jewish communities.
It was in this period that the Christian scriptures were written, and worship included public reading from these writings as well as from the existing Hebrew (Jewish) scriptures. The rite of Baptism replaced that of Circumcision for converts, and the Jewish Festival of Passover evolved into the Christian Eucharist, or Holy Communion. In AD 313 Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the Church began to develop more formal creeds, organizations and structures.
After the Reformation, preaching became an important part of Church worship
In the 16th century a movement developed that saw some drastic reforms of Church structure and worship. Various theological abuses were corrected, and worship took place in the vernacular rather than in Latin. The invention of printing made the Bible more accessible, and people were encouraged to read it themselves and hear it read in their own language in Church services. Preaching, or public application of the words of the Bible, became very important. The people were directed to respond or join in many of the prayers, either reading them from books or repeating them line by line after the priest. From this movement developed many of the huge variety of Protestant churches that can still be seen today.
The Reformation in the Church of England was not as drastic as in other places, with many earlier aspects retained, albeit modified. The English Prayer Books of 1548 and 1552 eventually became the Book of Common Prayer in 1662. This still remains the official form of worship for the Church of England and many of the Anglican Churches world-wide.
The Church today
The 20th century saw great changes in the words and style of Anglican worship. The Book of Common Prayer was supplemented by more modern forms, which express the changes that have occurred in theological and spiritual thinking, as well as in the English language.
Anglican churches today display great variety in their worship, from very informal to richly liturgical, dependent on local, ethnic, historical or theological conditions. This variety and diversity is seen as one of the strengths of Anglicanism. The Anglican Church still strives for a high standard in preaching, with the requirement that clergy have an appropriate theological education, enhanced by a disciplined life of faith and study.
- The most distinctive form of worship in Christianity has a variety of names, including Holy Communion, Eucharist, Mass and Lord’s Supper.
- On the night before his death the Gospels tell of Jesus having a meal with his close followers (disciples). It is generally thought that this was the Passover meal, celebrated annually by Jews to recall their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and their journey to the Promised Land. Although the Gospels differ in detail, it is generally accepted that Jesus took the bread and wine, which were important components of the Passover, and gave them a new and dramatic meaning. By giving thanks to God over these elements, and declaring that the bread was his body and the wine his blood to be shared by all, he inaugurated a new and intimate observance, which he commanded that Christians follow for all time to maintain a special remembrance of him after the conclusion of his earthly existence.
- It is evident from the writings of Paul that Christians were sharing in this meal in the very earliest days of the Church. Historical documents from a hundred years or so after the ‘Last Supper’ give us glimpses into how the celebration developed, using ancient hymns and prayers, many of which are still in use today.
- Over the centuries there has been much debate about the theological operation and significance of the Eucharist (‘Thanksgiving’), which has polarized Church thinking and practice. Today, however, the rite is repeated, albeit in a huge variety of ways, by virtually all Christians. Anglicans have traditionally maintained the belief that the Eucharist is a ‘sacrament’ of the Church, which means an outward and visible sign of an inner grace or blessing given by God. In the Anglican tradition a priest or bishop will always preside at the Eucharist, and the rite may be accompanied by more or less solemnity, ceremony and dignity.
Courtesy of Perth Cathedral