Early Christian Worship in the West and East

Church History, Unit 1

When Constantine legalized Christianity, the centuries of being hunted, punished, and killed for their faith ended for Christians. At last they could openly proclaim their faith.

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The Christian community no longer had to secretly gather for worship in private homes. Christians could gather publicly.

Christians began to move their worship services out of their homes by building Roman-style basilicas, modeled after the government buildings of the empire.

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When Constantine became emperor, he moved the seat of government from Rome to Constantinople, which is now called Istanbul, in modern-day Turkey.

The empire then had two major centers of power—the East and the West. Because of the geographic distance, obstacles to easy communication, and differences in culture, the Church developed different styles of worship in each of the major centers.

The Church in the Eastern Empire and the Western Empire developed different ways to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy and the other Sacraments, as well as different styles of church architecture.

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Worship in the Church of the East
• The worship space was covered by a large dome representing the heavens. • The liturgy focused on God’s Kingdom at the end of time. • Participation by the assembly was not encouraged. • Consecration took place behind a screen, hidden from the assembly’s sight.
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Worship in the Church of the West
• Church buildings were long, with a semicircular space called a chancel surrounding the altar at the front of the sanctuary. • The Eucharistic liturgy focused on Christ’s sacrifice. • The altar was a focal point during the liturgy. • Worshippers were able to see the priest’s actions.
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Despite differences in architectural styles, the church buildings in the East and the West were designed to help worshippers feel the transcendence of God, expressed through the buildings’ grandeur. The prayers and rituals of the liturgy may differ between early times and today, and between the Eastern Rite and Roman Rite, but the essential elements of the liturgy do not change.

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