In short, the characteristic of early Christianity seems to have been the existence of loving groups in which sex distinctions were forgotten, in which members greeted each other with the kiss of peace, and whose “raison d’être” was a genuine religious experience, a religion which has been termed Charitism. If so, then the—Cathars, the Beghards, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, and those other mediaeval sects which treated women as the equals of men and tried to maintain a chaste relationship between them, must be seen as continuing the earliest Christian tradition.
The transformation of this charitic religion into the very different sort of religion which we have seen at work in the mediaeval period seems to have been carried out chiefly in the third and fourth centuries after Christ. The most important move was obviously to abolish the Agape. So radical a move had to be carried out in stages. (143) The first step was to introduce the Eucharist into the Agape, as part of the proceedings. The next was to ordain that no Agape should be held without the presence of a bishop, who was to bless the food. Then it was ordered that the bishop should remain standing through out— thus leaving him somewhat apart from those taking part, and above them. Then the kiss of peace was modified by ordering that instead of kissing each other, the brethren should only kiss the priest; later this was modified to saying that the brethren should kiss a piece of wood which was passed round and was handed to the priest. Finally, the kiss of peace was abolished altogether. The Eucharist became definitely established as the major Christian ritual in 363 when the Council of Laodicaea ruled that Agape should not be held in churches, which had the effect of separating it from the Eucharist. For a while it was customary to hold it outside the church door immediately after the service, but, towards the close of the century, the bishops, urged on by Augustine, prohibited it altogether. In the Eastern Church, and in Roman Africa, the Agape persisted much longer: in 692 the Trullan Council found it necessary to reissue the canon of Laodicaea against it, and to make excommunication the penalty. Excluded from the church, these love-feasts became a feature of funerals and marriages, and Theodoret says they often replaced the festivals of Dionysos. So when we drink the nuptial champagne or the obituary port, we may enjoy the melancholy satisfaction of knowing that we are commemorating the last vestige of the Christian religion!
Recognition that there was this deliberate substitution of a symbolic for a real meal enables one to understand some otherwise confusing incidents: for instance, the Artoqritae were declared heretical for putting cheese on the Eucharistic bread— that is, for attempting to preserve the character of the ceremony as a real meal. (124)
When the charitic and theoleptic character of Christianity had finally been destroyed, the Early Church was able to assert that those who had formerly met in theoleptic groups had been heretics, and to treat them as part of the considerable tradition of theoleptic religious experience under the general heading of gnosticism. The word “gnosis” from which such groups received their name, means knowledge, but in the sense not of intellectual knowledge but of knowledge of God through a divine experience. (Cf. the exclamation of the dancers: “Ye who dance not, know not what we are knowing!”)