Friday, November 11, 2011
the messy early church: women, houses and churches
Recently I’ve been getting a bit grumpy about the phrase “messy church.” I’ve been thinking that all church all the time should be messy. Shouldn’t the normal be the involving of all the ages and all the senses and deal with the real stuff of people’s lives, while the abnormal is quiet, respectful, adult only church?
So I was most interested to recently pick up A Woman’s Place: House Churches In Earliest Christianity which looks at everyday existence in ancient households, with a special focus on women’s everyday experience. The book has chapters on hospitality, funerals and education. And the data points to messy early church indeed being the norm.
Houses led by women in the New Testament include Mary mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12), Lydia (Acts 16:14, 40); Nympha (Col. 4:15). Married couples were “vital to the life and infrastructure of the communities.” (48).
But is this simply hospitality? The answer is no. There is evidence of women who acted as patrons, teachers and dinner hosts. They were presiders (and in an environment in which presiding meant a meal that interwove eucharist, food and conversation).
While there is a tendency to concentrate on the expectional woman of early church history, like Priscilla, Phoebe and Perpetua, recent research into Roman families allows us to appreciate the ordinary and domestic. In other words, “within the setting of early church groups, it is safe to assume that conversations about nursing and rearing children were part of daily life and were intermingled with conversations about what we would normally consider as more typical church concerns.” (247-8)
What about messy church? well, “house-church meetings must have been noise and bustling places. The sounds of a woman in labor somewhere in the background, the crying of infants, the presence of mothers or wet nurses feeding their children, little toddlers under foot, children’s toys on the floor.” (67) “Children were present everywhere; nothing – not even sexual activity – escaped their gaze.” (93).
Which all leads to messy worship. “The attention given to such “liturgical questions” in later patristic documents as the placement of children during church meetings … reflects a commitment to the inclusion and valuing of children in continuity with the period of the house churches.” (93)
In sum, what emerges is a very messy early church, “a picture of church life that challenges preconceived notions of solemnity in favour of the boisterous and somewhat chaotic exchanges of household life. House-church meetings took place in a setting where midwives were hired, babies were born, nursed, and nurtured, and children grew up.” (246-7)