The Assembly:
A Spirituality

On Wednesday evenings from 7 to 8 pm on Zoom our Better Together partner churches will gather to We will be discussing our Sunday common prayer (or “liturgy”) based on the book The Assembly: A Spirituality by Gordon Lathrop, a Lutheran scholar of worship (available in hardcover or as an ebook by clicking the link on the book title). (Kristin Saylor of St. Lawrence studied with Lathrop, and Bryan’s doctoral work relies on his writings.)

This book explores why and how the assembly—the gathering or meeting—is so important in Christianity. Lathrop intends the book to assist Christian congregations and their pastors or priests to recover vital, participatory, and life-giving in-person worship after the pandemic. He further intends that participants will see and treasure the importance of assembly as the primary form of “church” and as a vital source of Christian daily life.

Lathrop's book is meant to be an accessible introduction to praying our Sunday liturgy for everyone. But if you can't get to it, no worries! We will be exploring the Sunday liturgy we all celebrate together; that common prayer is the basic “text” we will be talking about. So come with your questions about our prayer and we can find new answers together. These gatherings continue through Wednesday, February 15. Click on the link for purchase information.  Dates for Study: Wednesdays, 1/18,1/25, 2/1, 2/8, 2/15. Link to attend on Zoom. 

Sections below provide some background for our conversation--some "CliffsNotes" if they are helpful. Don't feel limited by them! What interests you? What questions would you have for Gordon?

Wednesday, February 1: Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 (pages 55-88)


Chapter 3: What are the sacraments assembly events?

 

Lathrop offers a rich description of the preparation of the table for the Great Thanksgiving and communion (pp. 55-56). How does it compare with your experience of that practice in our churches? What surprised or intrigued you about his description?


Lathrop suggests at times that sacraments can become “religious commodities” (p. 57) directed to individual salvation. Yet he affirms a connection between personal and communal in their celebration. What for you is the connection between personal and communal in, for example, the celebration of baptism? Eucharist?


We often speak of the “meaning” of a sacrament, and Lathrop suggests at times we can get too focused on one meaning. For centuries, the “meaning” of baptism was the cleansing of a soul (no matter its age!) from “original sin” (p. 59). Lathrop counters that the Bible offers many “meanings” for baptism (pp. 59-60) and for eucharist (p. 65). What “meanings” resonate most for you? When you take part in baptism or eucharist, what do you “mean”?


Lathrop uses the word “communal” relentlessly: Sacraments are communal events that make most sense when in the assembly. He suggests that referring to the principal (ordained) minister as “celebrant” hides the fact that the whole assembly is the celebrant. If you agree with what Lathrop says about sacrament being communal events, what in our practice gets in the way? What might help make it clear that it is the whole assembly doing the liturgy? When have you experienced a sacrament as a communal event?


Chapter 4: How does the assembly form us for daily living?


The “sending” or dismissal is probably the part of the liturgy that gets the least attention; still it is a “hinge” or threshold that invites us to take into life what we have discovered in liturgy. Lathrop gives some examples of “sending words” from different traditions: What do they suggest to you about living our prayer? What words from our Episcopal tradition (“Go in peace”; “Go forth in the power of the Spirit”; “Thanks be to God”) resonate most with you? What are you being sent to do?


Lathrop argues that our common prayer in the assembly provides the pattern for our share in God’s work in the world (p. 77). How does hearing the scriptures prepare us for Christian living? The preaching?


The prayers of the people are one way the assembly names the needs of the world in broad categories (p. 79). What is the value of raising to God problems that seem to have no practical solution? This “beseeching” is followed by “thanksgiving” at the table (p. 79). How might praying in this way, both beseeching and giving thanks, shape our own personal prayer?


Lathrop quotes Martin Luther’s sermon on the body and blood of Christ, where Luther describes a “joyful exchange” that happens in us when we share in the bread and cup. What gifts do you receive in celebrating eucharist that you can offer to others? What might that look like in daily life? (See Lathrop’s list on page 83.)


Lathrop describes this post/receding pandemic time as an opportunity to prepare “for the next catastrophe” (p. 84). If you were preparing a spiritual lifeboat to sustain your own prayer and service when the next pandemic hits, what would you include?


The last church Lathrop describes, in Cameroon (p. 88), includes a table for eucharist that holds a chalkboard for literacy classes during the rest of the week. How might we imagine our buildings and sanctuaries and resources for our “sending”?

Wednesday, January 25: Follow up to Chapter 1  and Chapter 2 (pages 33-54)

Chapter 2: Why is the assembly important?

Lathrop opens this section with the second part of the liturgy, the breaking open of the word of God (pp. 33-35). He suggests that this is a time when we explore “meanings” found there—in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, in the letters of the New Testament and gospel reading, in the preaching. What “meaning” is being explored? Or is it “meanings”—plural?  What is the purpose of listening to the Bible together?  

Lathrop returns to the importance of shared symbols—we do none of this alone! He suggests that our symbols can even “work” outside our Christian assemblies (p. 36). What symbols that we use in our worship also mean something outside it? Later he says those symbols create “bridges” across our differences (pp. 42-43). When have you experienced that?

Lathrop writes about some of the “focal symbols” of our prayer: Book, Meal, Bath (pp. 39-41). What are the connections between these central symbols and our daily lives? How might we find ways to take them home with us? 

As we well know, the pandemic suspended the gatherings of many assemblies, and prayer shifted online. Lathrop has generally not been a fan of these developments. He provides a long, bulleted list of how “online worship” fails as a substitute for the “real thing” (pp. 49-50). What do you make of his criticisms? How does your own experience of online prayer and the return to in-person or onsite worship reflect (or not) his position?

Lathrop ends this chapter with a vivid memory of serving as an acolyte as a child—before he even received communion (pp. 53-54). What memories from your experience of the assembly still fuel your faith? What made those early experiences possible?

Wednesday, January 18: Preface, Introduction and Chapter 1 (pages ix-32)

Preface: Lathrop begins by asserting the most important thing about Sunday worship is the group: “the assembly” gathered together. He finds that assertion in the scriptures, in witnesses from the history of the church, from his Lutheran heritage. For him that means in person, not ‘virtual’; in fact he has been quite critical of attempts at “online worship.” (More on that later.)

If you were defining “church,” what would be the heart of it? What makes “church” for you? How has pandemic and “virtual church” affected that definition? What strengths or weaknesses have you found in “virtual church”?

Introduction: Lathrop uses a word we often use in church: “symbol.” He describes all those objects that we use in church: a book from which stories are read; common language said and sung; fire, water, oil blessed and used; bread and wine blessed and shared. None of these are symbols on their own; they are made symbols by their use in the “primary symbol,” the assembly (pp. 1-2). What are the most important symbols of our prayer for you?Lathrop says the assembly is a symbol of Christ: “Christ existing as assembly” (p. 3).  How is the gathering itself a symbol?  What does that mean to you? What do you make of Lathrop saying our symbols are always “broken” (p. 4)?

Lathrop speaks of a “liturgical spirituality” that is primarily communal rather than personal (pp. 5-8). What for you is the relationship between the personal and communal in our common prayer? What are the “pieces” of our communal spirituality?

Lathrop makes some strong claims about what an assembly ought to be: with a strong center of faith but always open to welcome the stranger. If you were new to a church on Sunday, how would you know that you were welcome? Lathrop talks about the presider or pastor and their role (p.7). How do you see your role in creating that kind of “assembly”?

Chapter 1: What is the assembly?

Lathrop finds "assembly" deep in our tradition—all the way back to the beginning! He finds it in the writings of Paul to different churches—Rome, Galatia, Corinth—and in the gospels, each prepared for a particular community (pp. 20-22). The ancient churches were like other associations in the Greco-Roman world, but with a twist: For Paul, Christian associations had a unique purpose, to be “God’s assembly.” What organizations are there in our society that are ”like” churches? How are churches meant to be different?

When Paul was writing to churches, it was usually because something had gone wrong; they needed reform (pp. 22-23). What might Paul write to us? Those letters also were circulated among churches—that’s how they eventually became part of what we now call the Bible. How does our Sunday gathering connect us to other churches? What are the “instruments of communion” (pp. 23-24) that connect Episcopalians to each other? To other Christians? (Lathrop has a list on page 26.)

Lathrop is a big believer in what he elsewhere calls “the ecumenical consensus,” a basic agreement among the churches about the most basic elements of common prayer (pp. 26-28). What has been your experience of other Christian assemblies? What similarities and differences have you noticed? What is the value of all these different kinds of assemblies (Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Evangelical, etc.)?

Lathrop begins and ends his chapter with a description of the assembly: an imagined gathering of all different sorts of people (p. 17) and a (lovely) story of a girl who joined him in presiding (pp. 31-32). What story or memory captures “the assembly” for you? 

Wednesday, February 8: Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 (pages 91-117)

Wednesday, February 15: Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 (pages 119-149)