The believers devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. This is the description given of the life of devotion led by the first Christians in the Jerusalem church in the Acts of the Apostles [2.42]. As an account of the life of the Church at its source, it is one that is of enduring value to both Catholic and Evangelical Christians. It is a description which includes doctrine (‘apostles’ teaching’), sacrament (‘breaking of bread’) and the hallowing of time by regular prayer.
Doctrine, sacrament and regular prayer are the staple diet of Christian disciple-ship, and they can be discovered in some form in parish churches up and down the land. ‘Fellowship’, on the other hand, is something which has been relatively neglected in the traditional practices of the Church. The agape or ‘love feast’ did not survive the first Christian centuries as a regular part of the life of the Church. The high ideals of a persecuted community consciously led by the Holy Spirit fell into disrepute in a society in which Christianity was expected of everybody. Perhaps for this reason, Christian fellowship has flourished in voluntary groups, lay associations and religious orders more than in the parish congregation.
But fellowship has never been entirely absent. From before the days of Chaucer, pilgrimage provided a forum for fellowship which was only superficially profane. How many pilgrims to Walsingham, for example, have found spiritual as well as liquid refreshment in the pub? The bars and restaurants on the road through northern Spain to Santiago (as often as not graced with a statue of the child martyr San Pancracio) have been the setting for encounters with God through the fellowship of fellow pilgrims, complementing the chapels and shrines along the way. The very human contact of fellowship is indispensable for an integrated life of devotion.
Fellowship has also been a strong feature of evangelical devotional practice. Perhaps this goes back to the high church ‘Holy Club’ which nurtured the Wesleys. There is, of course, a place for reserve in the devotional life. But the practice of meeting together for encouragement and support – as well as prayer and study – is a valuable spiritual discipline. Evangelicals call it a house group; Catholics call it a confraternity. Whatever we call it, it is one of the building blocks of the Church. In an increasingly secularized world, the parish will find it hard to transmit the Gospel to future generations without smaller, committed groups with their own identity – the ‘lay association’ and the Christian family.
We should not, however, despair of finding fellowship even in the parish church. Refreshments after Sung Eucharist are not to be despised. They are an opportunity for newcomers to meet the existing congregation, and so contribute to evangelization. But they can also be an opportunity for true fellowship, too. Perhaps our expectations are not very high – we have had too much experience of weak tea in green cups. But the après-liturgy can be a time of encounter with God, and a building up of the body of Christ, if we take care over it and use the time well.