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House Church

29 December 2007

I occasionally hear discussions of the idea of house churches, and thought I would write down some of my own experience of house churches to try to organise my own thinking about them, and perhaps provoke some responses that might show me aspects of house churches that I had not heard of before. There are some web sites that deal with house churches, but the Wikipedia article on the topic is pretty weak, with few dates being given, not even for the books cited, so perhaps this could even contribute to the historical understanding of the idea.

My first real encounter with house churches was at a mission held in St Alphege’s Anglican parish in Pietermaritzburg in October 1963, led by the Revd John Davies, who was then the Anglican chaplain at Wits University.

John Davies had been an assistant priest in the parish of Halton, Leeds, in England. There, under the vicar Ernie Southcott, house churches had flourished in the early 1950s, and the Bishop of Johannesburg, Ambrose Reeves, had brought John Davies to South Africa to plant that particular seed.

At that time the ideas of having the Eucharist in houses was quite a radical one. One “went to church” for that. In rural communities where there was no church building it was OK, but in an urban or suburban parish like St Alphege.s many people thought it was unnecessary. But still, people were curious and wanted to know what this house church thing was all about.

And John Davies poured cold water on it at the start of the mission, when he said that the house church movement was just one aspect of a far wider parish renewal. What was far more important was the parish meeting. And in the middle of the mission we had a Eucharist in a Presbyterian hall with people gathered round a table (the church had fixed pews, which made such a thing difficult). Afterwards supper was served, using the same table, and that was followed by a parish meeting. John Davies began by pointing out that this was the church, the people who had gathered for the Eucharist. There was a need for the church to talk and think about its misison, and that was what the parish meeting was for. It was for everyone, young and old, a little boy of 8 and an old man in his 80s, young and old, male and female, black and white, of many different occupations, some rich, some poor. The only qualification was baptism. He asked people to think of what the difference was between a bus driver and a baptised bus driver.

The parish meeting is different from meetings of church organisations, like the women’s guild or the youth group. In such bodies, there is a qualification in addition to baptism. For the former, one must be, in some recognisable sense, a woman. For the latter one must be in some recognisable sense, young. So those meetings are not meetings of the church. They are meetings for a group within the church. But the parish meeting is for all the baptised. Only if the church meets can the church become a mission station.

A couple of days after that we had house churches. John Davies explained that the essence of the house church was that it was geographical and local. It was the church in our street, down our lane. If the only church in the parish is the parish church then there are large areas of the parish untouched by the church. But with house churches we keep the devil on the hop because he never knows where the church will pop up next.

The house church was essentially local and geographical because it was again based on baptism. It was not an eclectic group of like-minded people who wanted to meet with people they found congenial. It was the Christians in that neighbourhood, who might rub each other up the wrong way, but none the less had one thing in common — God’s call. In Halton parish, as described in Ernie Southcott’s book The parish comes alive (London. Mowbray, 1956), there were two kind of house church meeting — “us” and “us plus”. The “us” meetings were for regular members of the church. The “us plus” meetings were when neighbours were invited in, perhaps someone who had problems, such as being unemployed, or someone who wanted a baby baptised but was not a regular church member.

At St Alphege’s we saw all this by experiencing it, meeting in houses with people we may have seen in church on Sundays but had never got to know. I was a student at the university, which was in the parish, but apart from Sunday services “town” and “gown” did not really meet. In the house churches they did: the school teacher, the mechanic, the physics professor, the clerk, the theology student, the pensioner, the school girl.

In 1963 and 1964 St Alphege’s parish grew tremendously as a Christian community. It was, perhaps, what today would be called a “missional church”, though back then it would have described the aspiration as being to be a “missionary church”. Then in 1965 a new rector arrived, who did not hold with all this kind of thing, and sought to destroy it. He perhaps felt threatened by the kind of populist sense of parish community that had been engendered by parish meetings and house church meetings. Many suspected that he had been sent by the bishop to destroy it. The parish council rebuked him for holding “private” baptisms (those that the council did not know about beforehand). He in turn complained that people in the parish did not “work for the church”, by which he meant arranging flowers and such things. He did not seem to be aware that many members of the church saw their work in the secular world as “work for the church”, including such activities as feeding the hungry, political activism and the like.

Ten years later, in the mid-1970s, I was assistant priest at St Martin’s Anglican parish in Durban North, a similar suburban situation where, which the agreement of the rector, I tried to introduce parish meetings and house churches. It was not very easy. Durban North was an upper middle class suburban ghetto, squeezed between the sea and the ridge. On the other side of the ridge, out of sight, was the lower middle class and working class suburb of Greenwood Park. To the south was the Umgeni River and a buffer zone of golf courses. People drove everywhere, even two blocks to take their children to school. So some could not see why house churches needed to be geographical. They wanted to invite their congenial friends, not their uncongenial neighbours. They would rather be with people of their own choosing than with the ones God had chosen to put them with.

Nonetheless, a few of the house churches really took off. Some were held in the homes of children who were preparing for confirmation, whose parents rarely, if ever, went near the parish church. Suddenly there was the church, in their living room. When teenagers came wanting to be confirmed because their friends at school were, we invited them to a parish meeting, with 180 people, and different people spoke about what they did in the church want what their Christian faith meant to them, and we said to those who had come seeking confirmation “Do you really want to be associated with this lot?” And the following week this lot, or those that lived in their area, would be coming and gathering in their house.

Another ten years later, in the mid-1980s, I was at St Stephen’s Anglican Church in Lyttelton, and when I got there it already had flourishing house churches. They worked well on the pattern described by Ernie Southcott thirty years before, meeting regularly, where the parish priest was welcome but never indispensable. Some of the leaders of the house churches were ordained as priests or deacons, and served in the parish church on Sundays and in their house churches during the week.

The House Church had become a well-known and well-established idea, and was spreading among people who had little idea of its source, and it was popular among other denominations, including the Neopentecostals, who were even developing new ecclesiologies to take it into account. One had come up with a new terminology, and spoke of the Cell, the Congregation and the Celebration. That was their equivalent of what, among Anglicans, would the the House Church, the Parish Church and the Cathedral.

And the Roman Catholics, especially in South America, had come up with the idea of “Basic Christian Communities”, or “Christian communities of the base”, which were in many ways similar to the Anglican concept of House Churches.

The Roman Catholics, in South Africa at least, were very organised about it. Parishes, especially those in black townships, were divided into zones or blocks or wards, with zone leaders, and the Lumko Missiological Institute produced reams of study material for use by these house churches, on huge varieties of subjects. And perhaps because they were so organised, the Roman Catholic Church grew rapidly, overtaking the Anglicans, Methodists and Lutherans, and was rivalled only by the Zion Christian Church and the Dutch Reformed Church as the three biggest denominations in the country.

So I look back and see that I was fairly actively involved with
in the middle of three decades — the mid-60s, the mid-70s and the mid-80s. What happened in between?

From 1969-1971 I was in Namibia, and yes, I did have a lot of meetings in houses, in places like Gobabis, Ovitoto, Okahandja. But those were scattered communities who were up to 150 miles from the nearest church building. The meeting in a house, or a school classroom, was all the church they knew. It was not really what I thought of as “house church”.

And 10 years after that, in 1978-1982, I was at Melmoth in Zululand. Melmoth was a small village, and while there were house meetings for prayer and Bible study, they were not really house churches in the geographical sense.

Ten years after that, in 1987-1992, I had become a member of the Orthodox Church, and we were engaged in church planting, establishing the Church of St Nicholas of Japan, first meeting in borrowed premises at an Anglican hall in Fairmount, Johannesburg, then in a chapel at St Martins-in-the-Veld Anglican church in Dunkeld, and in the Russian church house in Yeoville, and finally, from November 1990, in its own building in Brixton. But the situation did not allow the “house church” model to make much sense. At that time St Nicholas was the only English-speaking Orthodox Church when all the other Orthodox parishes had strong ethnic/immigrant affiliations, Greek, Russian or Serbian. So St Nicholas was eclectic, attracting English-speaking Orthodox Christians from all over what later became Gauteng province, and beyond, with some people travelling from Petrus Steyn in the Free State, or from Venda in the Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo province).

And now, for the last five years or so, I have been back in a similar situation to the one I was in in Namibia in the early 1970s — meeting in houses or school classrooms with people who are unable to get to a parish church, except on major festivals. It’s not really the house church model.

But there is also a sense in which the Orthodox Church retains a very ancient house church model. Orthodox Christian homes traditionally have an ikon corner, where the family prays. In the marriage service, husband and wife are crowned, to show that they are king and queen to each other, that their home is to be a little kingdom that reflects the love and joy and peace of the kingdom of God.

Reflecting on this, it seems to me that the house church idea worked best in suburban or township situations where there was an established parish church. In rural areas, or in urban ones without a clear and manageable geographic parish, it seems less satisfactory. Perhaps that is because such communities do not have the necessary critical mass to take off and grow. And whenever it has seemed that one of these communities might reach critical mass, something has happened to dissipate it.

Did it, or does it, contribute to what is today called “the “? Yes, I think so, but it seems to flourish in some conditions better than in others.

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