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Ancient Christian Worship

Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective

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An Important Study on the Worship of the Early Church

This introduction to the origins of Christian worship illuminates the importance of ancient liturgical patterns for contemporary Christian practice. Andrew McGowan, a leading scholar of early Christian liturgy, takes a fresh approach to understanding how Christians came to worship in the distinctive forms still familiar today. Deftly and expertly processing the bewildering complexity of the ancient sources into lucid, fluent exposition, he sets aside common misperceptions to explore the roots of Christian ritual practices--including the Eucharist, baptism, communal prayer, preaching, Scripture reading, and music--in their earliest recoverable settings. Students of Christian worship and theology as well as pastors and church leaders will value this work.

1. Introduction: The Origins of Christian Worship
2. Meal: Banquet and Eucharist
3. Word: Reading and Preaching
4. Music: Song and Dance
5. Initiation: Baptism, Anointing, and Foot Washing
6. Prayer: Hours, Ways, and Texts
7. Time: Feasts and Fasts
Epilogue: The Making of Christian Worship


"Consistently learned and insightful, Andrew McGowan offers a comprehensive introduction to the worship life of early Christians. He covers the broad spectrum of Christian practice, from celebrating common meals to reading and commenting on Scripture, praying in various forms, initiating new members, and shaping sacred time and space. He is sensitive to both the continuities and the evolutionary changes in practice as Christians adapted their common life across a range of cultures and social circumstances. McGowan covers an impressive range of primary materials and deftly sifts through the scholarly debates surrounding them, preparing an easily accessible feast for anyone interested in the origins and multifold forms of early Christian liturgical practice."

Harold W. Attridge, Sterling Professor of Divinity, Yale Divinity School

"This is the book that I wish I had written, but Andrew McGowan has done it so much better. Easily accessible to a nonspecialist reader, it nevertheless contains the fruit of the most up-to-date academic scholarship. Anyone wanting a reliable and comprehensive introduction to the practices of the early Christians must start here."

Paul Bradshaw, emeritus professor of liturgy, University of Notre Dame

"Ancient Christian Worship is the book that scholars, teachers, and students of early Christianity and liturgical history have long needed. Andrew McGowan provides an authoritative, accessible, and up-to-date synthesis of what we know (and do not know) about the worship lives of the ancient Christians. Anyone interested in the early church or Christian liturgy will learn from this gracefully written and clearly argued book."

David Brakke, Joe R. Engle Chair in the History of Christianity and professor of history, Ohio State University

"Andrew McGowan provides a clear and beautifully written introduction to ancient Christian worship. While never oversimplifying the richness and complexity of his subject, McGowan has produced a study that is simultaneously comprehensive and accessible. All readers, from beginners to those more advanced, will be rewarded by both his erudition and his insight. This work justifiably will be cherished by students and teachers alike for generations to come."

Robin Jensen, Patrick O'Brien Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame; author of Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity

"Ancient Christian Worship provides pastors, students, and interested readers with a lively, detailed account of how Christians ate together, prayed, read Scripture, and celebrated with song and dance from New Testament times to the fourth-century basilica churches. The story of diversity and change will encourage twenty-first-century believers struggling with church renewal."

Pheme Perkins, professor of theology, Boston College

"One of our best liturgical historians has written the book we hoped he would. In readable and engaging prose, Ancient Christian Worship draws together a quarter century of recent scholarship on the origins of Christian worship. It will soon be required reading for anyone interested in the critical study of the ancient Christian church, including students and scholars of the New Testament and Late Antiquity."

Charles A. Bobertz, St. John's University

"The proliferation of detailed studies of ancient Christian worship leaves nonspecialists in want of a reliable and well-researched survey. Andrew McGowan comes to our aid in this splendid volume. Informed by an expert knowledge of the field and a keen methodological awareness, yet writing with a clarity that renders the work accessible to any educated reader, McGowan surveys the early Christians' communal eating and drinking, teaching and preaching, song and dance, initiation and prayer, and feasts and fasts. He gives due attention to the diversity attested in the first four centuries but also recognizes commonalities discernible in the sources. When students inquire about early Christian worship, this will now be the book I recommend as the starting point for serious research."

Jeffrey Peterson, Jack C. and Ruth Wright Professor of New Testament, Austin Graduate School of Theology

"Ancient Christian Worship is a wonderfully broad but deep introduction to the sources and complex history of early Christian liturgical traditions. Readers will find here not only an astute interpretation of the backgrounds and foregrounds of early liturgy but also a vivid demonstration of what the various components of early worship services actually looked and sounded like. Here indeed is a treasury of insights into the formative theology of worship and into the manifold actions of praise, of holy feasting and fasting, of reading and proclaiming and interpreting the Word, and of holding forth a vision of sacred time that bridged salvation history with the present experience of the church."

Paul Blowers, Dean E. Walker Professor of Church History, Emmanuel Christian Seminary

The Author

  1. Andrew B. McGowan

    Andrew B. McGowan

    Andrew B. McGowan (PhD, University of Notre Dame), an Anglican priest, is president and dean of the Berkeley Divinity School and J. L. Caldwell McFaddin and Rosine B. McFaddin Professor of Anglican Studies and Pastoral Theology at Yale Divinity School. He...

    Continue reading about Andrew B. McGowan


"This is a fine thematic survey of ancient Christian liturgy; it is informed by the most up-to-date scholarship on the subject yet caters to the needs of nonspecialists. . . . [McGowan's] approach, which aims at underlining both broad continuities and rich diversities in the tradition, is ecumenical and will appeal to readers of different Christian traditions. . . . McGowan's [survey] is unique in its broad scope and thematic approach. . . . Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through graduate students; general readers."

J. P. Blosser,


"A major new resource for any who share my interest in historical origins of Christian worship practices. . . . The scope of topics/practices covered is impressively wide, as is the time-frame covered (the first five centuries or so). . . . The larger chronological breadth of McGowan's discussion of each of the topics covered [is] informative. He cites primary texts helpfully, and shows a generally impressive familiarity with scholarly work of others. . . . The breadth of coverage, the wealth of detailed information, and the balanced judgments . . . combine to make it essential for the study of early Christianity."

Larry Hurtado,

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"Here is the authoritative guide to the practice, context, and theological interpretation of worship in early Christianity. It is the new required text for my survey courses in liturgical history at the master's level and the companion [volume] in my doctoral-level seminar on early Christian liturgies. . . . Unlike other studies of early Christian liturgy, the fact that McGowan treats both the reading and preaching of Scripture and the treatment of music is to be praised highly. . . . This excellent study brings together, into a wonderful synthesis of the best in contemporary liturgical scholarship, a comprehensive coverage of the subjects he treats and a fresh approach free from the presuppositions that often color the judgments of more traditionally trained liturgical scholars. I recommend this book with my highest possible endorsement."

Maxwell E. Johnson,


"One of today's most renowned scholars of early Christian liturgy provides an introduction to this wide-ranging--but understudied--field. . . . McGowan's volume works well as an introductory book because it introduces a wealth of sources and issues, while being organized and written in an accessible way. . . . Particularly valuable is the way McGowan stays so close to the primary sources, and signposts how readers could engage with the material more deeply."

Jane Heath,

Expository Times

"Much of the freshness of McGowan's interpretation comes from his extensive engagement with the social history of the Greco-Roman world. . . . Of particular value is McGowan's extensive treatment of the word of God--in terms of reading, proclamation, and preaching--and his inclusion of both music and dance in the study. . . . McGowan's book will remain a most valuable companion for the study of early Christian liturgy for a long time to come."

John F. Baldovin, SJ,

Theological Studies

"This rich study provides a wealth of information about and understanding of the practices of early Christian worship. . . . The careful and disciplined research that undergirds McGowan's study makes it particularly valuable. Although he deliberately does not offer extensive reflections on the meaning of all this for contemporary 'worship,' his research inevitably prompts reflection on such connections."

Donald Senior, CP,

The Bible Today

"A helpful compendium of ancient Christian worship practices. . . . The need for this type of book seems so obvious, one wonders why it had not been written before. The greatest value of this book is the clustering together of topics under a tight historical banner. No longer does one need to comb through each church Father or even do word searches through Scripture, because McGowan has provided texts, analysis, and synthesis of ancient Christian worship practices. . . . It was refreshing to read a book where the aim was to lay out the evidence and let the reader come to his or her own conclusion. All data is interpreted data, and McGowan had to do a fair bit of interpreting, but his interpretation always seemed balanced and aimed away from arguing a particular perspective. With so many books yelling, 'think this' or 'do this,' McGowan's book comes nicely alongside with a quiet footstep but an authoritative stride."

Patrick Schreiner,

Fides et Humilitas

"McGowan has provided an admirable and wonderfully informative study, neatly setting out a rich array of historical data and recent thinking about it in a way that is accessible even for readers new to the field. . . . This book offers a very helpful introduction to the issues."

Timothy Wiarda,

Bulletin for Biblical Research

"Ancient Christian Worship is an outstanding book worthy of multiple readings. Liturgical historians will be the first to recognize the mastery of subject matter Andrew McGowan has demonstrated with this book. . . . Those beginning their studies of the ancient church could not find a better resource. Precise, detailed, careful descriptions of early church writings, theology, and practice allow one to absorb extremely complex historical nuances in a form that is accessible and retainable. . . . This is a superb book destined for the bookshelves of liturgical scholars, historians, seminarians, and all who have a fascination with ancient Christian practices."

Sylvia A. Sweeney,

Anglican and Episcopal History

"This text is designed for teachers, seminarians, pastors, church leaders, and readers interested in the practices of Christian worship among the earliest Christian communities. . . . For anyone with interest in the kaleidoscope of historical accounts regarding ancient Christian worship practices, Ancient Christian Worship provides the reader with rich commentary. Additionally, for those hoping to prepare seminarians and young scholars with a deep understanding of early liturgical principles, McGowan's interdisciplinary approach functions to help students of the early Church to understand more clearly the contextual, spiritual, and liturgical roots of later sacramental liturgical practices."

Nam Joong Kim,


"McGowan's Ancient Christian Worship is a very fine introduction to the subject. Though it is up-to-date academically, and, as McGowan says, includes the results of some of his own research, it is accessibly written, clearly organized, and highly informative. . . . [McGowan] is neither a splitter nor a bundler; he recognizes the diversity of early Christian liturgies but also points to overarching commonalities. . . . [For] readers looking for a sure-handed survey of the landscape, this would be a good place to begin."

Peter Leithart,

First Things blog

"McGowan's fresh, new, and fascinating study of the worship of the first Christian communities . . . secures his place in the front rank of contemporary Anglican liturgical theologians. The sweep of the book is pleasantly and unusually comprehensive. . . . McGowan manages the complex and often disparate evidence deftly, and keeps us anchored in primary texts about which he makes sane and sensible judgments. . . . His ability to marshal the relevant fruits of recent scholarship on the Bible, the history of the church and spirituality, and other related fields helps to lend further substance to his already authoritative treatments of the topics he discusses. . . . This volume is now the standard treatment of the subject, and it is the only book I know that covers such a range in such a short space with such deftness and sureness of touch. Although this book will now be the first place to which both student and teacher will turn, it would be a shame if it were confined to the academy. McGowan writes accessibly and easily."

Peter Eaton,

Anglican Theological Review

"Anyone interested in the worship practices of the Church should read this book. Andrew McGowan has produced an excellent resource describing early church practices with obvious implications on contemporary expressions. The research of the book is impressive, the organization is clear, and the content is well written. . . . Throughout the book, McGowan demonstrates an impressive familiarity and interaction with early church writings. . . . In each of the topics addressed, the author unpacks the richness and complexity of the Christian tradition. . . . This book would be a helpful addition to any minister's library. Readers will want to read it slowly. Have a highlighter and a pen handy as nearly every page contains informative and engaging content. . . . As soon as I finished the book, I added it to the required reading for my course and immediately made plans to read it again."

Deron J. Biles,

Southwestern Journal of Theology

"McGowan conveys a superb grasp of early Christian sources and unique synthesis of early Christian scholarship for the reader. This volume would benefit those interested not only in Christian worship but also in ancient Christianity in general. . . . McGowan writes masterfully, with power and clarity. The prose offers a natural flow between McGowan's voice, his exposition, and the citation of primary and secondary material. . . . I recommend this volume with high acclaim. It offers the student, pastor, and early Christian scholar a repository of primary texts. Professors would do well to add this volume to lecture preparation and consideration for assigned reading. McGowan offers a wonderful gift to early Christian scholarship."

Shawn J. Wilhite,

Trinity Journal

"This thorough, authoritative work gives a challenging glimpse into the lives of our forerunners in the faith."

Plough Quarterly

"Where this book shines is in its lucidity and inviting prose. The author clearly has command of the ancient texts and leads the reader through many a primary document, from Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus, to Tertullian and Chrysostom, and just about everywhere else. . . . This book reminds us that we have a much better chance of understanding the present if we consider our past. You will not be able to read this book without walking away enriched and immersed in ancient writings. . . . The book does well to remind us that ancient Christian worship life was just as complex and complicated as is our worship today. . . . McGowan's work would serve as an inviting resource in a history of religions course, and as an excellent entry into the descriptive world of the early church."

Peter J. Scaer,

Concordia Theological Quarterly

"Scholarly yet thoroughly readable, McGowan offers what will no doubt be the benchmark introduction to worship practices of the early church."

David Bjorlin,

Covenant Companion

"The literature on early Christian worship and liturgy grows ever larger each year, so a book aiming at comprehensive coverage of this topic making use of the latest scholarship is indeed welcome. This handsomely produced volume takes a thematic approach. . . . McGowan's stated aim--and in this he admirably succeeds--is to enable the reader to understand the early church on its own terms rather than simply to mine the past to justify current liturgical practices. . . . A balanced, nondenominational presentation that could sit comfortably on Catholic college and seminary bookshelves."

Barnaby Hughes,

Catholic Library World

"McGowan, an expert on ritual practices in early Christianity, focuses each chapter on one aspect of worship, such as 'Meal,' 'Word,' 'Music,' and 'Prayer,' an approach useful for general readers and scholars alike. . . . The great contribution of McGowan's book is that [it shows that] early Christian worship, in his words, was not about services, but service. . . . McGowan's synthesis of earlier liturgical scholarship succeeds in making the Christian ritual tradition accessible to non-specialists."

Lee M. Jefferson,


"McGowan's book is essential for anyone interested in understanding the origins of Christian worship. His straightforward writing and organization makes it easy for the reader to grasp his thoughts. . . . McGowan's book would be wonderful as a course textbook for upper undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral classes to slowly study each chapter and discuss McGowan's arguments on the origins of each element of Christian worship."

Jessica Wan,

Artistic Theologian