Before turning to some of the other Christian references to the nature of the worship of the early Church it might be useful to place the documents that will be considered into a time frame. There are so many materials produced in a very short time scale and these reasonably allow us to conclude that what is being described is indicative of the practice of the Apostolic Church and the communities immediately following this period.
I have in front of me a work called the Apostolic Tradition. It is another of the early manuals, like the Didache of the first century, written to describe the organisation of the Church, and to allow leaders of local Churches to maintain a consistent way of life. It was written by Hippolytus, a leader of the Church in Rome during a time when there was some controversy. His aim was to ensure that the congregations under his pastoral care preserved the most conservative and ancient of practices. He was determined to reject anything that was a novelty and to conserve all those things which originated in the Apostolic Age and Tradition.
We will look at the details of this interesting document in due course, but for now it is enough to note that it was written in about 217 AD. Let’s put the early centuries of the Church in some perspective.
If we consider that we are living in the years and set the events of that first age of the Church in our own times then we could say that our Lord was born in about 1800, and died in about 1835. St Paul was engaged in his missionary work until about 1867. The last of the Apostles died in about 1896 on our time scale. It is reasonable for us to conclude that until 1896 the churches were following what might be called the Apostolic Tradition.
But the authority for this Apostolic Tradition doesn’t end there. St Ignatius of Antioch, appointed bishop of Antioch by the Apostles in about 1867 was not martyred in Rome until about 1917. While an equally famous bishop such as St Polycarp of Smyrna was not martyred until 1955. Does this help us understand the timescales better? What I am saying is that the last disciples of the Apostles, those who had known them and been taught by them, did not finally pass away until as recently as about 1960 in our shifted timescale.
I was born in 1963, and so in this recreation of history I would have not known personally the last of the disciples of the Apostles. But my parents would have known them, and all the older members of my congregation. I often speak with my father about his youth. He remembers it with great clarity and speaks about the older men who were his mentors. I myself remember the way we lived and worshipped in my evangelical congregation in the later 1960s, when it still represented to a great extent the practices of the 1950s and earlier.
If I wanted to discover the tradition which had been passed on from the first years of my particular denomination then it would not be difficult. Even now I could contact many older men and women who were born in the 1930s and even the 1920s and who would be able to provide a direct contact with those who lived in the 19th century.
It would be entirely possible to create a history of the Plymouth Brethren which drew on such recollections and various documentary evidence. Such histories have been written even in recent times. The timescale is not very great at all. We are not dealing with the Dark Ages. And in a similar manner when Hippolytus set out in the equivalent of 2017 to describe in detail the Apostolic Tradition as it had been preserved to his time this was a reasonable project and he would have been surrounded by those who could provide first hand evidence from the disciples of the Apostles that they had themselves known in earlier times. These same older witnesses were also the guarantors that the forms of worship which Hippolytus describes as ancient really were ancient in the terms of the Church. I could, for instance ask my own father about the origins of the unique Plymouth Brethren forms of Eucharistic worship and he would be able to tell me that in his youth, and he was born in 1937, the same forms were used. But he would also be able to tell me what the older men and women had said about the forms of worship used, and that would stretch the record of personal recollection and authority back to perhaps 1880 or earlier.
The extent of time between the life of our Lord, the beginning of the Church, and the documentary record of the Church in the early years of the 3rd century is not very great at all. It is reasonable that when Hippolytus collected the Apostolic Tradition, as a strict conservative, he was indeed recording those practices which could be traced to the end of the first century and the Apostolic era. We will consider this exciting document shortly.