Worshiping with the Church Fathers is one of a series of four books by Christopher A. Hall that bring the church fathers to us in a very manageable form. Hall’s other “with the Church Fathers” books are Reading Scripture, Learning Theology, and Living Ethically. The last book is not yet published. I have not read the first two books, but I might well do so since I found Worshiping with the Church Fathers so worthwhile.
The book is divided into three sections on sacraments, prayer, and discipline. I was surprised to see sacraments at the forefront since sacraments receive a mixed reception in the Protestant world. Hall narrows his exploration to the two sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist as he presents the theological views and practices of the early church through the eyes of the church fathers. Hall, who worships at an “evangelical Episcopal” church goes beyond a mere recital of information to push his audience to consider that there might well be much more to the sacraments than many denominations have considered. Toward the end of this section, Hall comments, “I have learned to see the world through a sacramental lens. The church fathers have helped me to understand and embrace a sacramental worldview, as have other worthies such as Aquinas, Luther and Calvin”(p 78).
The second section on prayer was far more fascinating than I expected. I especially appreciated Hall’s treatment of the “challenge of unceasing prayer” and the Lord’s Prayer. I love his analogy of learning to pray without ceasing to learning handwriting and how we reach a point where we can write while thinking about other things. The idea is that we can develop our prayer life to the point where it can function in the background. Even while we do other things we can be mindful of God. Referring to one early source, he quotes: “prayer is not just an activity of mind; it is a state of mind…” (p 127).
The third section on discipline focuses heavily on those like St. Antony who withdrew into the isolation of the desert to develop spiritual discipline. I’ve never related to this concept and thought I would likely skim this last part of the book. Instead, I found myself thoroughly absorbed. I developed a much more accurate picture of the desert fathers and the purpose of their withdrawal, and I was inspired by their example.
Worshiping with the Church Fathers is one of those wonderful books that both teaches and inspires. Each section touched me in an entirely different and vital way. Over the past two decades, I have watched the Protestant (both low and high church), Orthodox, and Catholic churches drawing closer, with many thoughtful and intelligent members of each finding a tremendous amount of common ground. I’ve also witnessed the explosion of interest in the church fathers in the Protestant world which has led many to reexamine many Protestant assumptions that exclude liturgy, sacraments, memorized prayers, veneration of saints, and other things embraced by Catholics, Orthodox, and some high church Protestants. The more that the various Christian denominations understand one another and the historical underpinnings of their practices, the less energy will be wasted on baseless accusations, and perhaps we can all begin learning from one another. Hall certainly makes a valuable contribution to this effort by helping us become familiar with the church fathers.