Tension between public and private worship

Bowes, Kim. Private worship, public values, and religious change in late antiquity.

New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008 (2011).

Review by Jordan Zarembo, PhD student, Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University.  [1]

Fifty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, divergent viewpoints continue to shape post-conciliar liturgical discourse. The rapidly approaching introduction of a new English translation for Mass based on the third typical edition of the Missale Romanum, as well as recent decisions by two American bishops to restrict the administration of the Eucharistic cup to the laity [2] underscores differences between Catholics supportive of liturgical renewal and Catholics critical of post-conciliar liturgical developments.  Today’s liturgical contentions resemble at times the relationship between the public and private spheres in late antique institutional Christianity.

Kim Bowes’s investigation of fourth and early fifth century Roman Christianity [3] places today’s contentions in perspective.  Roman Christians in the fourth century CE encountered both an ascendant hierarchy bolstered by Constantinian wealth and an already established network of home devotions and liturgies supported by private benefactors. [4]  While Constantine’s peace of 312 returned property held in common by Roman Christian communities to the episcopate, [5] the Liber Pontificalis implies that confiscated private property frequently filled episcopal coffers at the expense of rightful owners. [6] Established domestic churches, diverse pre-Nicene Roman Christian communities, and private Christian beneficence frustrated a newly-wealthy episcopate’s domination of Roman Christian life. [7]

Fourth century Roman Christians continued their pre-Nicene focus on home devotion. [8]  The still-heeded exhortations of the early theologians Cyprian, Origen, and Tertullian, as well as church orders such as the Apostolic Tradition, all recommended daily private prayer and home Eucharist. [9]  Even so, cramped living conditions, the possibility of “profane” activities such as sexual acts, the presence of a pagan spouse, unworthy reception of the Eucharist by a non-baptized person, [10] or the contamination of the home Eucharist with pagan temple bread, [11] greatly complicated Origen and Tertullian’s exhortations.  [12]

Bowes notes in her conclusion to fourth-century Roman liturgy that “to build a domestic church or to partake of the reserved Eucharist in Rome during [the late fourth century] was to jump into a whirlpool.” [13] Bowes notes that towards the end of the fourth century, enhanced hierarchical power uneasily coexisted with the existing private donor networks which the episcopate and clergy still relied on for building capital. [14] The compact between private beneficence and hierarchical administration of titular churches [15] created an uneasy bargain. The titular agreement pitted the donors’ desire to place churches within longstanding Christian neighborhood communities [16] against episcopal desires to control the clergy of titular churches beholden to private donors. [17] Pope Damasus’s (366 – 384) pandering to wealthy women donors, as well as his determination to limit clerical control over titular finances, resulted in episcopal regulation of diaconal charity to counter clergy paid out of private donation.[18]  Bowes concludes that the fermentum rite, in which titular churches shared a portion of episcopally consecrated Eucharistic bread as a gesture of unity, attempted to solidify hierarchical control over “privately funded communities”.[19]  Perhaps one might also understand the fermentum as an episcopal attempt at the hierarchicalization of Eucharistic celebration and the suppression of home reservation of the Eucharist.

As Fr. Anthony Ruff, editor of the blog Pray Tell, has noted, “in late antiquity, episcopal power truly was in the ascendancy. Now it isn’t. Bishops’ efforts to pretend otherwise only diminishes their real power even more.”[20] Nearly 1700 years and multiple reinventions of the episcopate separate Damasus’ episcopacy and the role of bishops in the post-Vatican II Church. Even so, the complications of the intersection of liturgy and power still complicate relationships between bishops, clergy, and the laity.  Bowes’s investigation of the public and private tension in late fourth century Rome suggests that both the late antique Church and Catholicism of the 21th century have encountered the trying complexities of competing ideologies and visions.

NB: The preceding book review relies on the 2011 paperback edition.


[1]  I have submitted similar but longer and more detailed review of this same book to ARC: The Journal of the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University.  This longer review is being considered for the 2011 edition of the journal.

[2]  Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, AZ and Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison, WI have both issued guidelines  that restrict the administration of the Eucharist under both species to the laity.  For a critical assessment of Bishop Olmsted’s decision to withhold the cup from the laity on most occasions, consider Zoe Ryan, “Phoenix diocese to restrict Communion wine”. National Catholic Reporter, October 10, 2011. http://ncronline.org/news/faith-parish/phoenix-diocese-restrict-communion-wine?page=1 Accessed November 18, 2001.  For a supportive assessment of Bishop Morlino’s decision to withold the cup from the laity, consider Kevin J. Jones, “Bishop Morlino Supports New Missal’s Communion Norms”, National Catholic Register, October 12, 2011.  http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/bishop-morlino-supports-new-missals-communion-norms/ Accessed November 18, 2011.

[3] Bowes, Private Worship, 16

[4] Bowes, Private Worship, 65

[5] Bowes, Private Worship, 64

[6] Bowes, Private Worship, 64 — 65

[7] Bowes, Private Worship, 63 — 65

[8] Bowes, Private Worship, 76

[9] Bowes, Private Worship, 53 citing Bowes, Private Worship, 243 note 217 and note 218 for primary citations and secondary resources for the authors and works listed.

[10] Bowes, Private Worship, 54

[11] For Zeno’s fear of pagan contamination of the Eucharist reserved at home, see Bowes, Private Worship, 83 citing Bowes, Private Worship 252, note 132

[12] Bowes, Private Worship, 54

[13] Bowes, Private Worship, 103.  The review author has substituted the bracketed text [the late fourth century] for Bowes’s “during those years”.

[14] Bowes, Private Worship, 64

[15] Bowes, Private Worship, 69

[16] Bowes, Private Worship, 69

[17] Bowes, Private Worship, 71

[18] Bowes, Private Worship, 71

[19] Bowes, Private Worship, 71

[20] Fr. Anthony Ruff, October 8, 2011, (8:37 am), comment on Paul Ford, “The Case in Phoenix,” PrayTell, October 7, 2011. http://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2011/10/07/the-case-in-phoenix/#comment-82315 Accessed 11 November 2011.


  1. It occurred to me the other day to wonder why so many of the Gospel exhortations are addressed to the clergy and those who would place strict rules on others. There are a lot of warnings about those who would scatter the sheep, the parable of the priest and the publican, etc. I’m thinking a lot of people wanted those stories kept alive. The more things change, the more they remain the same?

  2. A well-written and thought-provoking review. It sounds like an interesting book. Thank you, Jordan. I will get and read the book as soon as I am out from under some writing deadlines.

    What remains unclear to me from the review is how the postconciliar liturgical developments might be compared to “private” or home worship in this analogy. The conflict between episcopal fiat and parish administration seems to be the issue. Both are public, no? Be that as it may, the suggestion of private donor funding as a mechanism for increasing episcopal power adds an interesting dimension, which does sound very contemporary!

    1. re: Rita Ferrone on November 16, 2011 – 9:47 am

      Thank you Rita for your observations. You are quite right that I did not explain the relationship between the home Eucharist and post-conciliar hierarchical and liturgical divisions.

      Kim Bowes does not necessarily imply a direct correlation between a decline in home reservation of the Eucharist and the rise of episcopal power through the fermentum in late antiquity. Pre-Nicene concerns about profanation suggest that the fermentum and a shift of focus to titular liturgy responded to concerns about profanation. It is difficult to respect Bowes’s research and draw firm conclusions where few exist.

      Bishop Olmsted’s reversal of an earlier decision to deny the cup at most Masses, as well as the promulgation of the new translation, could be seen as modern day analogues to the late-antique struggle to maintain familiar and established customs within the Constantinian hierarchical ascendancy. While the parish has mostly supplanted the home as the locus of modern worship, the contemporary parish as a “family” or community can find itself at odds with episcopal or greater hierarchical decisions. Bowes’s opens a glimpse into the past to highlight, and perhaps solve, current divisions over liturgy.

  3. Thanks Jordan for bringing this book to my attention earlier and now reviewing it. I have had the opportunity to read it.

    Later today or tomorrow I’ll review my underlinings and put together some comments from a sociological perspective.

    Rodney Stark, a prominent sociologist with a strong interest in the history of Christianity, emphasizes the important role of competition in the growth of religion, .e.g. that the USA is so religious in comparison to Europe because of religious monopolies in Europe. He quotes approving of Andrew Greeley who said “There could be no de-Christianization of Europe because there never was any Christianization in the first place. Christian Europe never existed.” Both Stark and Greeley have emphasized the thinness of the Christianization of Europe, and that today “secular” Europe is really an outlier in the world. That has a lot of implications for Pope Benedict’s agenda (and American bishops who follow his thinking) because it may be a misleading approach to the future of Christianity in most of the rest of the world, including the USA.

    Stark maintains that Christianity succeeded because there was religious competition in the Roman world even though pagan cults were not mutually exclusive. He maintains that Constantine needed a successful Christianity far more than Christianity needed Constantine. As with many people Stark makes Constantine a villain attributing to him the end of religious competition and the beginning of superficial Christianity.

    What Bowes (and others) are beginning to contribute is an understanding that competition did not cease with Constantine but became internalized within the Church. There was intense religious competition among Christians: bishops, wealthy Christians (emperors and aristocrats), and ascetics (monks and monk-bishop reformers) competed with each other in complex ways. The picture of how that competition affected the continued expansion of Christianity in both quantity and quality is an interesting but complex matter as Bowes book points out.

    1. Many sociologists hold that competition within and between denominations enhances the overall vitality of religion. While some have viewed Constantine as having established a religious monopoly, in fact there was considerable competition among bishops and ascetical movements.

      Bowes shows this competition was increased with the wave of very aristocratic households and their large resources that came into the church in the fourth and early fifth centuries .

      The ancient family and aristocratic families in particular were powerful social organisms whose hierarchies, geography and values were not so easily knit into the “family of Christ” p. 220
      Roman elites derived their status from different sources –patronage, family, and proximity to the imperial bureaucracy than did bishops whose authority, at least theoretically derived from apostolic succession, liturgical privileges moral qualities, and prerogatives over doctrinal matters. p. 219
      Aristocrats shaped their churches in the same way they structured their socio-political lives through friendship and patronage with a vigilant eye ever attuned to self interest. p. 219
      In other words the conversion of the aristocracy presented the institutional church with not only its greatest opportunities but also with one of its greatest challenges. p. 219

      Bowes shows how these aristocratic households greatly increased the internal competition by providing private churches, household ascetical locations, and locations for theological discussion in Rome, Constantinople and rural villas.

      As the presence and reach of the aristocracy was shrinking, the power of the episcopate was growing. By the later fifth and early sixth centuries, the western aristocracy was joining the episcopal ranks in even greater numbers and episcopal coffers began to rival the fortunes of the great families. Church building was finally in full swing, and most major cities could boast a number of fine new basilicas.

    2. While the bishops were in tension with these households on many fronts, the list of the influence and accomplishments of these households is extensive in content and space.


      Despite the extraordinary changes ushered in by Constantine the Christians of fourth-century Rome very likely lived out most of their Christian lives not in basilicas but in houses. p.74
      in elite homes two new forms of devotion first appeared, namely the cult of relics and asceticism. p. 75
      wealthy Roman widows and two of Jerome’s early patrons, were said to have employed a bevy of both priests and monks to minister to their large household. p.80
      One of the most important trends in late fourth century piety was a burgeoning cult of relics. p.84
      it was in their homes that the first evidence of relic cult appears in the city. p. 85
      Rome’s first generation ascetics shared a common context for their devotions: their homes. p.97
      In Rome’s homes, more than its churches, the great theological issues of the age were debated p.99


      private churches, martyr shrines and monasteries were major players in the episcopal scene, supporting or undermining the city’s succession of bishops, p. 103
      Constantinopolitan aristocrats built most of their churches to accommodate martyr cult, monastic enterprises, or a combination of both. p. 111
      Monasticism flourished in Constantinople under the same private ages as did martyr cult and day to day church ritual. p. 121


      the first rural monasteries in the West were also begun in villas as aristocrats transformed the classical ideal of contemplative otium into Christian asceticism. p. 126
      In the rural West, it was estates, not the parish, which provided the first point of entry for Christian building and ritual. p. 127
      the vast majority of rural churches identified as parishs through their large baptismal complexes, typically date to the later fifth through sixth centuries.
      (Aristocratic) projects preceded those of the institutional church by as much as a century; p.187.

    3. Is there any lay resource in today’s world that could reshape Christianity and Catholicism as much as these elite households?

      Since 1960, large numbers of highly educated lay Christians in the developed world, especially in the USA have the talents, time and money to reshape Christianity and Catholicism.

      They have a great interest in spirituality and scare many clergy because: they are sometimes spiritual but not religious; they use religious resources across denominations and religions; and they pick and choose within their own denomination.

      All this suggests they could have a great influence on how religion evolves in this century.

      Perhaps it is this group of people who will decide the meaning and fate of Vatican II.

  4. If you are reading this Jordan, I wouldn’t mind your email (you can leave it on my blog) I’m applying to the MA program at McGill for the study of religion and could use some advice:

  5. For those of you interested in how a historian of liturgy might engage Kim Bowes’s work, particularly in relation to the developments of scared space and eucharistic practices, see my recent “Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical Tradition: Lifting a Veil on Liturgy’s Past” (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011).

  6. Liturgists interested in the Liturgy of the Hours should re-imagine what Bowes more aptly names Daily Prayer.

    “Daily Prayer in the Preconstantinian Church” is the title of chapter 2 in Taft’s book. Many of his insights shape her presentation of daily prayer for the later period that she covers. Taft says I would agree with Dugmore that they became Christian prayer times because they were universal points of reference, used as reminders that we must pray always, “morning, noon, and night” as we would say today. In fact we have no early text whatever that supports an initial pattern of only morning and evening prayer. The evidence from the first three Christian centuries though not disparate is diverse enough to exclude any facile attempt to harmonize it all and fit it into one system without doing violence to the facts. Was this “liturgical prayer” or “private prayer” or something in between. The very question is anachronistic in this early period. Christians prayed. Whether they did it alone or in company depended not on the nature of the prayer but on who happened to be around when the hour of prayer arrived.

    Bowes makes clear that the elite private churches were private in the sense that an elite Domina was in control as impresario. But they were public since they drew in friends, clients, and guests, and were meant for public display.

    Bowes makes clear that there was competition between the church “network” and the household “networks.” But this was less an either/or (except when there were charges of heresy) but a matter of relative importance.

    Modern notions of the individual private should not be projected back into this period. Christians likely prayed when they were alone as members both of household networks and the larger church network. They probably did not imagine a personal relationship existing only between God and themselves that was not also shared with their households and the larger Christian network.

  7. On this the feast of Saint Cecelia, “one of the most venerated martyrs of Christian antiquity” we find two antiphons

    Valerian found Cecilia praying in her chamber (cubiculum), * and with her the Angel
    I have asked the Lord for three days, * that I may consecrate my house (domum) as a Church

    which in many ways summarize the piety of the elite household churches.

    These are from the Martyrology of Jerome which as the Catholic Encyclopedia says “In this shape the whole story has no historical value; it is a pious romance, like so many others compiled in the fifth and sixth century.” However it may reflect much of the piety of preceding centuries. From Bowes:

    For Jerome, the city was the devil’s snare; the streets and the forum were traps that would drag down the virtuous. Even the city’s churches were dangerous…p. 97
    The home was the only safe haven, it had the purity of the temple itself, and the defensive qualities of a military bastion. p.97
    Within the home, it was the bedroom (cubiculum) that was the true tower of virtue. With language from the Song of Songs, Jerome paints the cubiculum as at once a remote tower and an earthly paradise, a bastion of individual purity and the nuptial chamber that would witness the ascetic’s consummation with her Christ bridegroom. p. 97
    The home or the cubiculum was also the imagined site of the ascetic’s daily ritual; here she should arise from her bed in the night to pray and sing the psalms; here too she should kneel for her day time prayers at the third, sixth and ninth hour and perform the lucernarium at nightful. p.98

    Even John Chrysostom both in Antioch and later in Constantinople, warned virgins to stay at home, counseling them to leave their homes only a few times per year, and thus presumably forgoing daily and even Sunday services in the public church. p. 207

    The virgin praying in her cubiculum was the foundation of domus of the church literally and figuratively.

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