Project Canterbury

The Church and Society in the Second Century

By Frank Gavin

New Tracts for the Times, Number 4.
Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1934.


THIS IS THE FOURTH of a series of booklets entitled New Tracts for New Times. Finding ourselves like-minded in our approach to the great social movements of the day from the vantage point of historic Christianity, we are issuing upon our own responsibility a series of interpretations of the Catholic Gospel and its radical implications for the building of a new era, when justice and cooperation shall take the place of exploitation and competition for profit. This new day will provide a social background in which we can function in full and sincere allegiance to the moral order of Christ and the Church. These booklets do not represent the platform of any secular social movement, but rather what we believe to be the sure implications of our religion in the sphere of human relationships.

While the editors are and will be in general agreement with the point of view of the Tracts, we are not constituting ourselves a board of censorship in connection with individual authors, lest we hinder that freedom of approach which we believe to be the privilege of those whose loyalty to Christ and His Church is unquestioned. The Tracts are offered to the clergy and laity of the Episcopal Church in the assurance of the fact that there are thousands of the faithful who are seeking guidance in the present social, economic, and personal chaos.

Some other subjects for 1934 are as follows: The Red Festival, M. K. Simkhovitch; The Mass and the Masses, Alden D. Kelley; Divine Economics, Spencer Miller, Jr.; and Is Religion the Opium of the People? Additional copies of Tract No. 1, A Call to Action, by J. D. Hamlin, Tract No. 2, The End of Our Era, by William G. Peck, and Tract No. 3, The Sacred Humanity, by Daniel Arthur McGregor, may be obtained from the publishers.

One new subject of the series will be published each month—the series to continue for a year at least—and may be obtained from the Morehouse Publishing Co., Milwaukee, Wis., at 10 cts. each or $1.00 a dozen, or $1.00 per year's subscription.


Frank Gavin
Julian D. Hamlin
D. A. McGregor
Spencer Miller, Jr.
Mary K. Simkhovitch
Clifford P. Morehouse


WHAT HAS THIS SUBJECT to do with the price of eggs today? Offhand you would say that this is a very far cry—a cry back seventeen centuries—from anything that might give us our bearings in the twentieth century. There is an old French proverb that has a very real relevance in this connection: reculer pour mieux sauter. There is also a phrase in George Herbert, which may have its application. He speaks of the divine alchemy by which the self is enabled to transform a fruitless into a fruitful situation: "so shall the fall further the flight in me." The farther we have fallen from the ideals of primitive Christianity, the greater the need to recover ourselves for a new attack.

Early Christianity had no interest in trying to reform the world. The Primitive Church speedily made of itself an omnicompetent organism. There was no province in life on which the touch of the Fellowship failed to impress itself. In reading what we can deduce from second century records, the striking fact that emerges is the sense of entire separation from that world and society that lay about the small Christian Fellowship.


OUR PICTURE of primitive Christian life will be drawn chiefly from Hippolytus' Apostolic Tradition. There is no need to go into any details as to the background of this interesting document, but we can take it as proven that it is the first fairly complete picture of the quality, character, and practical working of an early Christian community. The author died out of communion with the Roman Church. As that Church has in her past been more hospitable than she has shown herself in recent centuries, St. Hippolytus is still included in her list of canonized saints. He wrote chiefly to re-define the good old ways as against the innovations of his own day. He himself was pursuing the idea contained in the French maxim given above.

What was the early Christian Church like? First of all, it was a Fellowship. Its corporate and social quality dominates all expressions of the life of each several believer. It was as if to say that the proudest boast of the believer was that he was a "member." His most essential quality was that he belonged. Even in the profession of faith, in which matter we moderns would be inclined to feel that we were doing the believing, our earlier brethren in the faith would be proud of the fact that the faith had gotten hold of them rather than they had gotten hold of it. In other words, even the profession of belief was a social matter. The intensely social quality of the life of the early Church is shown in every possible respect: the way we in modern days describe the "Days of Fasting, on which the Church requires such a measure of abstinence as is more especially suited to extraordinary acts and exercises of devotion," would have left the early believer cold. Fasting was a social act. In primitive Christianity abstaining from food on some special occasion was not primarily for the benefit of one's own soul, but for the good of the Brotherhood: when you fasted, you saved the price of the meal to give to those in greater need than yourself. Likewise, when you ate, the little gesture Godward (which we call "saying Grace") was for the early Christian an act of sacrifice. He "offered" the food; he "made sacrifice," when he sat down to table alone or in company. In fact, he was never expected to sit down alone to a meal. He was expected, on the contrary, to share what he had, no matter how small a portion it might be, and the cleric was presumed to be present to break bread before they both partook.

There was private ownership, apparently, but it was private ownership entirely different from the modern connotation of the term. If I should say that the believer owned privately in order to give publicly, I should scarcely be overestimating the case. The Fellowship was marked by innumerable small brotherly acts, and the Apostolic Tradition gives us different instances of what we have come to call the Love Feast or Agape. Apparently, the only principle involved in having possessions was that thereby one could be generous. To have was not to hold—but to give. One of the first essential notes, then, in the Christian Fellowship is reflected in the words "sharing in things which become holy by being offered." It is one meaning of the phrase translated "Communion of Saints."


FROM THE CRADLE TO THE GRAVE the Church took cognizance of every act of the Christian. When a heathen became sufficiently interested in Christianity to apply for instructions for baptism, the Fellowship began making demands on him before it extended any privileges to him. The Apostolic Tradition gives us a whole list of "occupations which those who wish to be baptized must leave off." Some of them are definitely anti-social and harmful. Of these a considerable group is easily recognizable as immoral and wrong: being a pander, a magician, an adulterer or adulteress, maker of abortifacients, of idols, and the like. The group of occupations which had to be given up would include not only things which are anti-social, harmful, and sinful in themselves, but occupations and work which were socially useless and non-productive: secular education as such, making amulets, teaching horse-racing, and the like. It is significant that both the soldier and the Roman officer ("a magistrate with the sword, or a chief of prefects, or he who is clad in purple") are to be rejected. The whole list is too long to be quoted, but it is interesting to note that the Church is not conforming her conditions to the practice of the world nor coming hat-in-hand prepared to conciliate and make compromises. She is holding up an inflexible standard. The candidate must give up a gainful occupation which the Church is not prepared to sanction before the Church gives him anything.

Furthermore, the catechumen had to undergo three years' "preparation," with weekly instruction, under the constant eye of the Church officials. Not only the steady continuance of an acceptable motive was regularly subject to scrutiny, but the actual conduct of his life in all its detail. Queerly enough, as proof of good faith, the candidate for baptism was expected to behave like a Christian before he was admitted into the Fellowship. The note of austerity and authority is dominant in the Church's relationship to the incoming convert. There was no cheapening, no letting down of the standards, no relaxation of demands. I might even go so far as to say that the Church demanded that the catechumen take upon himself her way of life and ideals in the actual everyday details of living, before the Church committed anything to him whatever. The human commitment preceded, so to speak, the Divine commitment.

After the candidateship was over (which could be shortened under certain circumstances) the candidate was baptized on Easter Even. Three stages marked this rite of initiation into the Fellowship: Baptism preceded by exorcism and containing a confession of faith, Confirmation, and First Communion. The Easter Liturgy was also the First Communion of the newly-baptized. He was admitted into participation in the Holy Things. This is a second meaning of the words in the Creed "Communion of Saints."

We see, then, that the early fellowship of Christian believers instead of modifying rather sharpened the difference between the Church and society, and demanded in advance the whole committal of the personality, a reversion of life habits, and their utter abandonment, before the priceless privilege of incorporation into the Fellowship was extended. In these two respects, then, what is most remarkable in a comparison between second-century and twentieth-century Christians is how differently we do things today! They were entirely unprepared to whittle down standards of belief or practice in order to conciliate, or accommodate, or commend themselves to the fashions of the world about. The incoming convert had truly to forsake entirely his whole way of looking at and doing things, of thinking and behavior, before the Church would admit him into the outer fringe of the Fellowship, but once he was received he went straight to the heart of it all: participation in the Holy Things, the Eucharist, Communio Sanctorum.


IT IS EXTRAORDINARY to what an extent the Fellowship ruled the life of the individual. The Fellowship was convinced that "we all have the spirit of God." It was a Spirit-indwelt Fellowship. There is no sign to suggest the existence of that easy fallacy that besets so many Christians: from believing that the Spirit possesses the Fellowship, it has often been fatally easy to believe that the Fellowship possesses the Spirit! The organic body of believers in all the relations of daily life constituted the external sign, outward and visible, of the inward and spiritual reality, the Presence of the Spirit within the Fellowship.

The whole of life was, therefore, sacramental. Every action of the day meant an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. From his First Communion the new convert was sent off immediately "to do a good work." He now "belonged" fully and completely, both by his commitment and by incorporation into the Fellowship. Not only was his manner of life subject to scrutiny, but the fruits of his labors—in the way of earnings and possessions—were morally his, only for the sake of the Fellowship. His day belonged to God as well. He began the day by communicating himself from the Sacrament reserved at home. The ordinary layman, apparently, was expected to pray at cock-crow, as well as what came later to be called the canonical hours: at 9 A.M., 12 noon, 3 P.M., and nightfall. "Moreover, pray before the body takes its rest in bed. Then about the middle of the night, rise, wash thy hands, and pray. If thy wife is present, do both of you pray together, but if she is not yet a believer, withdraw into another room, pray, and then return to thy couch. Do not be lazy about praying!"

Strenuous as these demands are, there is no indication in the Apostolic Tradition that they were regarded as anything extraordinary. As you belong to God, so you were destined for God, and fellowship with Him is the essential relationship, as well of time as of eternity. There are countless interesting—and even amusing—items that could be culled from the Apostolic Tradition. There is a little scheme by which canonical examinations for Holy Orders might be avoided: If you were a confessor and tortured for the faith, you might be advanced to the priesthood without more ado; if you were a confessor merely reviled but not tortured, you were eligible for the diaconate. There was a regular institution which I might call the "widowate," the representatives of which occasioned no little trouble. But the whole naive picture conveys the inevitable impression of a group of people, lacking in self-consciousness, who both took their religion seriously and, in consequence, were likely not to be so serious about anything else. Some of the Love Feasts were probably very rowdy parties. While there is not the slightest tinge of Puritanism, there is frequent exhortation to the attainment of due decorum.

After all, our common translation of Communio Sanctorum might sum it all up: The Fellowship of Holy People. It is a community in every sense of the word, the koinonia of New Testament times. Living and dead are bound together in one great fellowship in Christ. The Fellowship includes the small and the great, the weak and the strong, the already-good and the not-yet-entirely-good. It is not only a community of persons constituting a fellowship; it is not only a community of goods proceeding from a common unity and a kind of communism in use; it is not only a community of participation in the Blessed Eucharist as both a symbol and a cause—but it is a whole way of life, thought, action lived in largest measure without reference to the world and to the Society of the World. Some centuries later St. Augustine was to write his famous book, De Civitate Dei, of which the true translation would be not City of God but Society of God. In the world these early Christians were: they were born, had jobs, relationships, work—and tribulations. But of the world they certainly were not. There was no canon of the social structure of that day which was not deliberately transgressed and flouted by the Christian Society. Certain concessions to existing fact had to be made—for the true Christian is and has always been an ardent realist. Facts had to be recognized, and were recognized: slavery, concubinage, illicit occupations, and above all, the rivalry of the omnicompetent pagan State. The Society of God did not come to terms with the Society of Satan. It never compromised; it never let down its demands or ideals. With unemotional candor, it recognized facts as they were; with passionate enthusiasm it devoted itself to turning life here into the likeness of the life of God. God is a Society of Selves in unity; therefore, human society is an inevitable reflection of the fellowship within the Holy Trinity.

Today the sharp lines have been blurred; the Society of God bears a strong family likeness in actuality to the Society of the World. It is often difficult also to distinguish the reality under the symbol. May it not be in part due to the fact that we need refreshment and the re-apprehension of our ideals?


WHAT THEN has "The Church and Society in the Second Century" to suggest to us today? Several things, even if obvious, need to be stated. First, the Church is essentially social and corporate, and should evince her true character as an omnicompetent organism. I mean by that to say that Christianity which fails to display demandingness is necessarily a perversion of the real thing. Secondly, human society cannot be redeemed but by the Christian Society. A sharp line of demarcation is imperatively necessary. Paradoxically as it may sound, aloofness from worldly society is the only way to help it. It is impossible to get leverage from within. You can only get a purchase and a fulcrum from without. If Christianity today meant business, there would be an enormous strengthening of the Religious Life among Catholics, and an intense deepening of fervor and zeal among the Orders. If Christianity meant business, the life of the ordinary Christian would manifest in no uncertain terms his fellowship in the Society and his unlikeness with reference to the society of the world. The strenuous asceticism and joyous self-denial, the complete freedom attained by self-abnegation, the cheerful martyrdom, and the passionate search for truth would again distinguish the Fellowship of Christ.

Again, the Fellowship cannot cheapen the terms of its constitution by reducing them to the standard of the world about. There is no beatitude attached to a moderate interest in righteousness, but to the passionate pursuit of it: "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness." There can be no whittling down of the standards of the Christian faith, whether in the theology or in the art of Christian living.

The society of man can only be redeemed by the Society of God within him. The Incarnate One is still coming down from heaven, and His delight is to be with the children of men. He identifies Himself with us in our needs and will give us of His vast riches—aloof and yet intimate, apart from and yet fully with the mankind He came to save. He is of and with us and yet distinct from us; so only will the Society of God, His own Body and Blood, the Fellowship of men in Christ, achieve His work of redemption.

Project Canterbury