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Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology

By Gordon W. Lathrop

Augsburg Fortress. 1999. 236 pp. Pb. $29. ISBN 0800631331

Reviewed by Deborah A. McKinley


Gordon Lathrop's book, Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology, voices fresh thoughts in the sometimes cacophonous conversations about contemporary ecclesiology. Holy People is a reflection on the meaning of "church," working from the conviction that the church's identity arises from the One the church worships -- the Triune God.

The book is divided into three parts: “A People: Church in Liturgical Perspective”; “One People: Liturgy and Church Unity”; and “Holy People: Liturgical Assemblies Amid Earth’s People.”

Lathrop begins at the table, using the characteristics of the Eucharist as the necessary characteristic of a liturgical assembly. One such characteristic is humility. “Just as we are beggars at the supper, hands out for the gift of Christ, so also we cannot even begin to be church except by participation in God’s gift . . . . Gathered in this assembly and in its eucharistic economy, we are formed in the very unity of the Holy Spirit which is the unity of the holiness of God. God makes this assembly to be church” (pp. 16-17).

Lathrop builds this liturgical ecclesiology using the assembly as the most basic component of Christian worship. And then he adds the essential building blocks: Scripture/proclamation and sacraments being central, with prayers, creeds and hymns also included. He focuses most clearly on the central actions of the assembly: Scripture/proclamation, Baptism and Eucharist. As in his book Holy Things (Augsburg Fortress, 1993), Lathrop contends that it is a juxtaposition which enables the depth of meaning to surface.

After moving through very helpful insights into “assembly,” Lathrop delves into church unity. His concern is not unity within denominations, but the unity of the whole Christian church. Lathrop defines unity as “the common participation in Christ of a richly diverse body” (p. 121). This unity lives itself out in mutual recognition and mutual admonition among the diverse parts of the body.

This section on church unity is refreshing in that it approaches unity from what disparate parts of the church hold in common, rather than from what divides them. When we are able to discover and live in the unity we already share, perhaps we will be better able to live fully in the unity which is ours in Jesus Christ. Lathrop helps the church get there.

The third section is very compelling. Lathrop challenges the church to open itself to the culture in which it finds itself, but only to adapt that culture for holy use after careful examination and adaptation. He has a very helpful list of “five critical principles for welcoming cultural symbolization” (p. 203).

The book, along with Holy Things, is helpful on another front. It provides a solid theological foundation for conversations regarding what could be the next divisive issue in the church: worship style. When all sides of the “contemporary vs. traditional worship” conversation come together, these two volumes should be mandatory reading. They will help us all move beyond secondary issues to focus on primary ones.

If you are looking for a quick-fix, how-to book for revitalizing the congregation, this is not it. However, if you are looking for guidance and prodding in your own theological reflection on the revitalization of the church, this is the book for you.

Holy People adds a critical and foundational voice to the ecclesial discussion surrounding who the church is and who the church ought to be. And Lathrop means for the book to be part of a conversation — not a solution or the final say. I commend it to the church with prayer that all who read it may find themselves reflecting theologically on what happens each Sunday morning as the assembly gathers to worship and give praise to the Triune God.