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Catherine Gunsalus González on Resources in the Ancient Church for Today's Worship

In this episode, Catherine Gunsalus González shares about her book "Resources in the Ancient Church for Today's Worship" which celebrates the riches of going back in time to enrich the practices of worship today.

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Episode Transcript:

Host: 

Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this series of conversations hosted by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff members, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of cultural contexts, including places of work, education, community development, artistic and media engagement, and more. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. We pray this podcast will nurture curiosity and provide indispensable countercultural wisdom for our life together in Christ.

In this episode, Maria Eugenia Cornou, an associate director at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, talks with early-church historian Dr. Catherine Gunsalus González about her book Resources in the Ancient Church for Today's Worship, which celebrates the riches of going back in time to enrich the practices of worship and today's context.

Maria Eugenia Cornou: 

Welcome to this podcast on Christian Worship and the Public Life. In this episode, we have a special guest with us, Dr. Catherine Gunsalus González, to talk with us about one of her books, titled Resources in the Ancient Church for Today's Worship. This is, in fact, a bilingual book, English and Spanish. The title in Spanish is Lecciones del culto antiguo para la iglesia de hoy.

Thank you, Catherine, for being with us today. Tell us the story behind this book. Why did you write it, and why did you choose to publish this book as a bilingual text?

Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez: 

I'm not sure about the bilingual, but the book really had its start in a series of classes in church history that Justo [González] and I were giving in Lima, Peru. And it was to a class that was part of Reformed Seminary there. And we were teaching the main things that you would expect in a church history course. And then something came up about early worship. And I started in on some things about early worship. They were fascinated. They kept asking questions and we eventually almost dedicated a day to the character of the early church worship. And afterwards the professor there said, you know, you have to write this. And so for ages, we kept talking about the Lima book that I had to write, but I didn't until we decided to do it bilingually and with the association. So that's the story behind it. It really was a response that I have seen so many times both in English-speaking audiences and in Spanish-speaking. I think one would approach them a bit differently, but it is a response of an enormous hunger, of perhaps there's something here that we need to know about.

Maria Eugenia Cornou: 

And we know that in other traditions, especially after Vatican Council II, the study of early worship has been very relevant. And this has happened across denominations in a more ecumenical world.

Catherine Gunsalus González: 

But it has happened much more in North America than it has in South America. And I think there is such a feeling that almost anything that the Catholic church does is Catholic and not Protestant, and you mustn't do it. There is, I think, the need to show that some of the things that are there in the early church are not specifically Catholic. They are clearly the early church and they have biblical foundations. And so that was the task, essentially, to show the biblical foundations, to show how knowing about these worship practices can help us interpret passages that otherwise we might find very strange in the letters of Paul or elsewhere in the New Testament.

Maria Eugenia Cornou: 

And as someone who speaks Spanish as a first language, I'm grateful for this resource because we have less books available on this topic in particular in the Spanish language. So I think in this sense, this book is a great contribution. And having this in a bilingual version is also very interesting in the context where we live here in the US. How are you hoping people will engage with this book?

Catherine Gunsalus González: 

I think it's not a matter of saying, OK, this is what they did, so we must do it this way. It's a matter of saying, what were the values of a certain character of worship and what are the biblical foundations of it, and how do we do that in a way that makes sense in our own time. The biggest hurdle is going to be the stress in the early church on the community of faith rather than the individual, and the great stress on the individual rather than the community in the church really since the Middle Ages. It's not a matter of just more recent; it's been there. The church is there to help people gain salvation--but individuals. And so baptism is really something for the individual. Communion is there for the individual. There's no sense that it really strengthens the community of faith, that it is basically for the community before it is for the individual.

Maria Eugenia Cornou: 

Fascinating, because in this sense, this is very countercultural to the realities of our churches, especially in the Western world. How do you see the process of writing the book, have your thoughts changed since you wrote the book, or are there any other topics or perspectives that you would include if you write the book today?

Catherine Gunsalus González: 

We are writing today, and that's because Justo and I are doing a history of early church worship that is much more a straight history and is much bigger. So I think there are many more things that can be said. But this book is really an introduction to all that. It picks up on the places that most Christians can grab hold of, these things that they know in the church like baptism and communion. It's clearly more written for pastors, so there's a whole section on preaching and things of that sort, because if there's going to be a change in the worship life of the church, it's going to have to include the pastor.

Maria Eugenia Cornou: 

I found very interesting your reference to communion and baptism as identity formation. Could you say some more about that?

Catherine Gunsalus González: 

Yes, they are--for the early church, they were identity formation . . . for the individual, but particularly for the community of faith. So if you can imagine that a slave or a well-to-do wife, who were two people in that structure of the Roman Empire who in many ways had very little authority--the wife because she was married to a powerful man and needed to follow him, and the slave because he was a slave. So what happens when a person like that meets the church and decides to become part of it. First of all, they find themselves at communion services with people they never would have eaten at a meal with, with slave owners, probably not theirs, but slave owners with other slaves, with people that they had nothing in common with in the wider society.

And yet this communion service, this meal--which in the very early church was a meal--somehow it broke all the barriers that were there in Roman society. At least that was what it was structured to do, which is why Paul can say, because you have been baptized and because now you eat together, there is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Those barriers, which were the main divisions of the Roman Empire, no longer function in this community. This is in a sense of foretaste of the kingdom, so that you behave totally differently in this community than you do when you are back in your regular life. Baptism is the way you become part of this. But communion is the high point every week, and it becomes identity-forming, but it's identity-forming for the community as well as for the individual. And it functions that way only when it is done in that way. And what you have with Paul writing to the Corinthians is a case where they didn't behave themselves, and so the rich had all their food and the poor went hungry. And he's saying, that's not communion. That is not the Lord's Supper. So I think that's a very interesting statement. It is not the Lord's Supper unless somehow it breaks the barriers of the society.

Maria Eugenia Cornou: 

This is so relevant. This is where we find the richness of going back in time and find a lesson that is very relevant for our context today. In your book, you choose also to write a chapter about the church year. Could you say some more about the chapter?

Catherine Gunsalus González: 

The church year developed--the Easter cycle developed in the second century, largely; the Christmas cycle not until the fourth. But the function of the church year essentially is teaching. It is a way of teaching the whole gospel, that you cannot just stick to preaching Good Friday. You have to preach on the Nativity. You have to preach on Epiphany. You have to preach on the resurrection and Pentecost and Ascension. . . . You cannot limit yourself to one part of the gospel that fits your theology. You have to deal with all of it. But it's a very important teaching tool at a point where most of the congregation is illiterate.

Host: 

You are listening to Public Worship and the Christian Life: Conversations for the Journey, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Check out our website at worship.calvin.edu for resources related to this topic and many other aspects of public worship.

Maria Eugenia Cornou: 

This is perhaps one of the topics in your book that still, in some parts of Christianity today, is not so used because the Lord's Supper, baptism, and preaching are common practices across all denominations, but the church year still is resisted or not so well known in some parts of our Christian world.

Catherine Gunsalus González: 

That's right. And along with it is the lectionary. Because if you have the church year, . . . early in the church's history you have a lectionary, a common lectionary for mainly the high feasts that everyone is hearing at the same time.

Maria Eugenia Cornou: 

How would you encourage a pastor or a worship leader who are not used to the church year to give it a try?

Catherine Gunsalus González: 

I think to take the parts that are familiar--that is, Holy Week and Easter. I would wait a little while for Lent. That, again, it seems quite Catholic. One of the things that I find fascinating is that if there is a church year that is stressed in a congregation, very often there get to be ways in which what is done in the church is repeated in the home--that is once you get past that early period so you have Christian families. One who realized that was Luther. So he created the Advent wreath, and the Advent wreath was a way of having in the home something that would help children learn about what was happening in the church. And I think there's a great need for things of this sort in our own society where there's been a gap in Christian knowledge. The grandparents may have had it, but the parents probably have lost a great deal of it. And the children, they want to have known, know what this is, but they are not really able to teach them. And you have teaching tools that really help follow the church.

Maria Eugenia Cornou: 

And what you say also makes me think about the catechumen process that was so important in the first centuries of the church, and perhaps we can learn from that process in today's world.

Catherine Gunsalus González: 

In the New Testament period itself, there was no great need for a catechumenate because the people coming into the church were the either Jews or God-fearers who had been close to the synagogue and knew the Jewish teachings. There is no difference between the ethics of Christianity--well, there may be a few--but the ethics of Christianity, of Judaism, the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity. So the scriptures of Judaism and part of the scriptures of Christianity. So there is a sense of the covenant of what God is doing to form a people of God. There's so much commonality that a Jew could simply say, "I believe that Jesus is indeed the Messiah who's come," and they could be baptized immediately. A God-fearer also--Cornelius is one of those.

But when you get in the second century where basically all the Jews who are going to become Christians have become Christian--that is, the wave of them in the first century--you now have people who are true pagans. They know nothing about Judaism. They have various worship practices in the home, usually with several gods. So a well-established Roman home had a corner where you had all the gods of the family, which might mean grandmother's from Egypt . . . because it was a highly cosmopolitan society, and the Roman gods from the city, and whatever else. So you had many gods, and the church had to be clear that a person who said "I would like to become a Christian" isn't planning to add Jesus to the gods they already are worshiping.

And so it's going to be two years, at least. And it's going to stress: what are the ethics of Christianity that differ enormously from the ethics of the Roman Empire? Faithfulness in marriage--that is a big issue, but that's not one in the Roman society, where having a mistress was fairly common. And you expected to do that until you found a proper bride. Even after that, you probably could keep both. It's going to take the church really figuring out how to teach these people and be sure that they understand and that their way of life changes before they are baptized. Not that they say, "I understand all this and I promise to live by it." They have got to show that they can live by it before they are baptized.

Maria Eugenia Cornou: 

I love this holistic approach that is being a Christian is not about just knowing which is good, but it's about the transformation of values and Christian practice. You describe in your book preaching practices also. What is the main lesson or the most important lesson about preaching from the early church for today?

Catherine Gunsalus González: 

I think preaching obviously was related to a text and applying it to the life of the community at the present time. And that is an essential thing to do. I think the biggest question--for me, the critical question is how does a pastor choose a text? Because many pastors assume that because they are ordained, they have been empowered to find a text that is necessary. And once they very often have the idea of what they want to preach and then find the text, and then the text will say what they want to say. They rarely have the experience of saying, okay, you've got to preach on this text. And they say, Oh, my heavens, what on earth does that say? I mean, I don't think you preach on it if you can't figure out what it would say to the congregation at the moment, but the thought that you start from knowing what it is you want to say and then you choose a text, rather than having a text given to you.

It was true in the early church, not only with the lectionary, but if you went through the books so that you were doing--before Christmas in North Africa, they always did Jonah. So you had to preach from Jonah, and you went straight through the book of Jonah. That means you have to deal with texts that you have not chosen. I think that's a critical question. And then to say, okay, well, this really deals with something I haven't talked about to this congregation. I don't know that they want to hear it, but you have to figure out how to say it so that they can hear it. But I think that's a critical issue. I think it's a very critical issue.

Maria Eugenia Cornou: 

While you were studying in depth all this period of the church and the worship practices in these first centuries, did you find anything that surprised you, strike you, something that you had not anticipated to find?

Catherine Gunsalus González: 

Yes, but that was long before I wrote the book. . . . I think the thing that surprised me the most was the fact that the prayers of the people, the intercessions of the people, were put after all the unbaptized were dismissed. And it was part of the lead-in to the communion service. And that this was the priestly function of the people of God, and that the prayers included prayers for those in authority, even if they were persecuting the church, because it is better to live under good governments. So you need to pray that they'll be good. It's a matter of praying not only for Christians, but for the world at large. And that sense-- which comes from Judaism--that sense that the church as the people of God are really created partly to be able to intercede with God on behalf of the world--and especially with that part of the world that cannot pray for itself because they do not know God.

Maria Eugenia Cornou: 

My last question is for our readers. What opportunities or challenges might resources from the ancient church present for worshiping communities today?

Catherine Gunsalus González: 

I think the question of the prayers, what I just said, I think that is a critical issue because in many of our churches, the prayers of the people amount to prayers for the people we know who are sick, but not for the wider world unless there is some big disaster. So there's a limited view of what is the role of the church as far as being the priestly people. I think that is a critical thing to rediscover.

Maria Eugenia Cornou: 

Thank you very much, Catherine. This conversation has been so rich, and it is my hope that our listeners, the listeners of this podcast not only have learned a little bit more from this conversation, but I also encourage them to read your book.

Catherine Gunsalus González: 

Thank you. Thank you very much.

Host: 

Thanks for listening. We invite you to visit our website at worship.calvin.edu to learn more about the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, an interdisciplinary study and ministry center dedicated to the scholarly study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond.

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