Monthly Archives: July 2018

PC: The Psalms and the Wisdom Literature

Following on the heels of the previous post that introduces the idea that reading more Bible helps you interpret better, here’s an exploration of how reading the wisdom literature in the Bible can help you pray the psalms better.

Wisdom literature is an ancient genre, older than the biblical writings. We possess Egyptian and Babylonian wisdom texts from the third millennium BC—some two thousand years before King Solomon and his scribes. Originating in early scribal circles at royal courts, wisdom literature offers advice on how to live life best including how to survive the complexities of court intrigue. Often a mix of ethical instruction and sound moral philosophy, its authors traced its source back to two related sources. The first was, of course, the wisdom of the gods, but the second was the order and patterns perceived in the natural world: revelation of the gods’ divine ordering of things. To be a successful sage, then, was to observe the natural world and to draw from it lessons for how the gods intended humans to behave. Wise living and righteous living went hand in hand. When wisdom arrived in Israel—initially brought by the scribes Solomon attracted to himself—it came from these international sources; the section entitled “Sayings of the wise” in Proverbs 22:17-24:22 appear to be a Hebrew translation of the Egyptian “Instructions of Amenemope” written during the times of the Ramsesside pharaohs (roughly 1300-1075 BC). In the early Solomon collections, Proverbs 10-22:16, we see the same themes appearing as in the Egyptian and Babylonian sources. As it matured, the wisdom tradition adapted to the Israelite religious environment and took on some new themes relating to God of Israel.

Stylistically, it’s worth noting how the proverbs were written. The early maxims appear in a very familiar format—a two-line thought where the second line either restates the first, states the contrary of the first, or continues the thought of the first.

Restating (Proverbs 19:8) Contrary (Proverbs 15:1) Continuation (Proverbs 16:4)
“To get wisdom is to love oneself;
To keep understanding is to prosper.”
“A soft answer turns away wrath,
But a harsh word stirs up anger.”
“The Lord has made everything for its purpose,
Even the wicked for the day of trouble.”

If this looks familiar, it should! This is the exact same kind of poetic structure and parallelism that appears in the psalms.

The two-line form means that there is no room for gray area in the contrary statements: “A wise child makes a glad father, but the foolish despise their mothers” (Prov 15:20); “Folly is a joy to one who has no sense, but a person of understanding walks straight ahead” (Prov 15:21); “The righteous are delivered from trouble, and the wicked get into it instead” (Prov 11:8); With their mouth the godless destroy their neighbors, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered” (Prov 11:9). The result is that wisdom literature features a lot of rhetorical binaries: the righteous/the wicked; the righteous/the godless; the wise/the foolish. The terse structure gives no opportunity for nuance. There are no “wise but misguided” or “people making hard choices” or “basically good people who made a few dumb mistakes” in these two-line maxims: you’re either wise or foolish, righteous or wicked. The psalms are going to share this characteristic—remember it, it’s going to be important later on.

Another feature of these maxims is a clear but simple moral code: do what is righteous and things will go well for you; do what is wicked and you will face the consequences: “The righteousness of the blameless keeps their ways straight,/but the wicked fall by their own wickedness./The righteousness of the upright saves them,/but the treacherous are taken captive by their schemes” (Prov 11:5-6). “The perverse get what their ways deserve,/and the good, what their deeds deserve” (Prov 14:14). In one sense, this is common sense borne out of observation of human nature playing itself out in societies with a healthy belief in retribution. If you kill or defraud someone, his family is going to come looking for you and things won’t end well for you! This retributive justice doesn’t necessarily come from a divine source—it’s just the natural course of things playing themselves out. However, the principle is also expressed theologically: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place,/ keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Prov 15:3). “The Lord is far from the wicked,/ but he hears the prayers of the righteous” (Prov 15:29).

From these brief couplets it is not hard to extract a pair of simple principles: 1) the righteous will receive a reward for how they act; 2) God rewards the good. The fusion of these two gets expressed in a number of proverbs: “Misfortune pursues sinners;/ but prosperity rewards the righteous” (Prov 13:21). “The righteous have enough to satisfy their appetite,/ but the belly of the wicked is empty” (Prov 13:25). “In the house of the righteous there is much treasure,/ but trouble befalls the income of the wicked” (Prov 15:6). “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord/ is riches and honor and life” (Prov 22:4). On one hand this makes a lot of sense: keep your nose clean, work hard, and you will earn the rewards of your labors. Act like an idiot, be lazy, cheat and defraud people, and you’ll get what’s coming both in retribution and from shirking honest labor. On the other hand, this can set up a theologically treacherous premise based on simplistic logic: if you are righteous, God will reward you with wealth; if you are wealthy you must therefore be righteous. Or, if you do good, good things will happen to you; if bad things happen to you, you must have done something wrong.

It’s worth noting that there’s push-back against this notion in Proverbs itself, recognizing that wealth isn’t always the fruit of righteousness and holds its own dangers: “Better is a little with righteousness/ than large income with injustice” (Prov 16:8). “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath,/ but righteousness delivers from death” (Prov 11:4). “Those who trust in their riches will wither,/ but the righteous will flourish like green leaves” (Prov 11:28). “The rich and poor have this in common:/ the Lord is the maker of them all” (Prov 22:2)  “Better to be poor and walk in integrity / than to be crooked in one’s ways even though rich” (Prov 28:6).  These maxims qualify and question an easy equation between righteousness and wealth.

This notion presented by the maxims that God rewards the righteous with riches and ease and punishes the wicked with poverty and problems has been labeled “wisdom orthodoxy” by modern scholarship. Not all wisdom literature is packaged in these two-line maxims, though. There are also hymnic structures present in the wisdom literature. The opening chapters of Proverbs (Proverbs 1-9) are in poetic hymn form. While the two-line thought structures still show up in some of the hymnody, the longer format allows for more nuanced theological thought. That’s what leads to a direct challenge to this wisdom orthodoxy.

The book of Job is a wisdom book that tackles the simplistic wisdom orthodoxy, challenging it by constructing a hypothetical situation. A folk-tale like frame introduces us to Job, the prototypical righteous man. He is rich, he is righteous, he does all the right things and has all of the material benefits that wisdom orthodoxy promises. He is a cartoon figure of “the good guy.” But then, through no fault of his own, everything is taken away from him: his wealth, his family, and his heath. His three remaining friends come to console him. After sitting in silence together for seven days and seven nights, the cartoony introduction comes to an abrupt end as Job breaks out in a stylistically and theologically complex wisdom hymn describing his woe and proclaiming his innocence. His friends respond by insisting that he had to have done something wrong for so much ill to befall him. They go back and forth until finally God steps in with some poetic splendor of his own. God reveals that the problem is their paradigm; both Job and his friends are stuck in the same narrow, wrong-headed framework. Returning to the wisdom theme of observing the principles of creation, God directs Job to observe the presence of chaos within the creation, both in the natural world as well as in human affairs. If chaos is created into the fabric of things, no easy or trite formulations—like a simplistic wisdom orthodoxy—will ever be able to account for the complexities of real life. A final return to the cartoonish frame almost blunts the power of the poetry by having God restore all of Job’s riches.

Along with Job, Ecclesiastes likewise challenges wisdom orthodoxy by casting doubt on its easy equations. More skeptical and pessimistic in outlook, Ecclesiastes warns against any attempts to correlate actions too neatly with results. At the end of the day it advocates an appreciation of the simple joys of life accompanied by virtue—not because of any divine benefits thereof, but because virtue is the better path. Taken together, Job and Ecclesiastes represent a stance of “wisdom in revolt” that offers a canonical alternative to wisdom orthodoxy potentially extracted from Proverbs.There’s further development to the wisdom tradition that is important for its connection with the Psalms.

The Apocrypha—those books related to the Old Testament known to the early church in Greek and not Hebrew—contains two later wisdom texts, the Wisdom of Solomon and The Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach (also referred to as Sirach or Ecclesiasticus). If you remember, the earliest wisdom literature identified the initial source of wisdom as the gods or God and its secondary source as the observation of creation. These later books, composed by Jewish believers around 180 BC (Sirach) and between 100 BC and AD 50 (Wisdom of Solomon), identify that initial source of divine wisdom with the Old Testament generally and the Torah specifically. If you want to know what “righteousness” ought to look like, study the Torah and its legal and ethical demands. Study the prophets and the histories, and see how the wise leaders of the past acted in accordance with God’s will.

Reading through the wisdom literature will help you pray the psalms better for several reasons. First, there is a deep relationship between the wisdom hymns and the psalms. Indeed, some psalms are best understood as free-floating wisdom hymns. Consider the start of Psalm 49:

Hear this, all you peoples;
give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
both low and high,
rich and poor together.
My mouth shall speak wisdom;
the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
I will incline my ear to a proverb;
I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp.

Why should I fear in times of trouble,
when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
those who trust in their wealth
And boast of the abundance of their riches?
Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life,
there is no price one can give to God for it. (Psalm 49:1-7)

This is clearly rooted in the wisdom tradition. It uses the technical terminology of wisdom found in such writings: “wisdom,” “meditation,” “understanding,” “proverb,” and “riddle”. It also addresses familiar themes, the rich and the poor, the righteous and the wicked, putting one’s trust in God rather than wealth. Another wisdom psalm starts like this:

Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb.

Trust in the LORD, and do good;
so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
and the justice of your cause like the noonday. (Psalm 37:1-6)

Do you notice the difference between them just from the few verses of each that I have cited here? The second, Psalm 37, appears to represents a wisdom orthodoxy perspective in line with the general stance of Proverbs. As you continue through the psalm you will find this initial suspicion confirmed by verses like these:

Our steps are made firm by the LORD,
when he delights in our way;
though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong,
for the LORD holds us by the hand.

I have been young, and now am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or their children begging bread.
They are ever giving liberally and lending,
and their children become a blessing. (Psalm 37:23-26).

I live in urban Baltimore. Every morning when I drive my daughter to school we pass through at least four intersections where I know there will be homeless people on each corner, walking the lines of traffic, begging bread. I could assume that they are “the wicked,” that their condition is their fault because of laziness, addiction, or unrighteous life choices. While those assumptions might hold true in some cases, another alternative is to see this psalm borrowing the simplistic aphorisms of wisdom orthodoxy. Wisdom orthodoxy is not wrong to state that the way of righteousness—living life in accordance with wisdom, virtue, and God’s will—is a better path than competing alternatives. But we can also recognize that the promises of divine assistance for the righteous are part of a rhetorical strategy designed to make this way look more attractive rather than a value-judgment upon the poor and afflicted.

Psalm 37 is rightly read against the context not only of the wisdom orthodoxy of Proverbs, but also the wisdom in revolt tradition of Job, Ecclesiastes—and its canonical cousin Psalm 49. The riddle that Psalm 49 promises to address in verse 4 is precisely the question of wealth. Echoing themes from Ecclesiastes, it observes the fleeting nature of riches and all human possessions:

When we look at the wise, they die;
fool and dolt perish together
and leave their wealth to others.
Their graves are their homes forever,
their dwelling places to all generations,
though they named lands their own.
Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
they are like the animals that perish. (Psalm 49:10-12)

The fact of mortality renders wealth existentially irrelevant. Fidelity to God, on the contrary, is of enduring value.

Reading the breadth of the wisdom literature helps us pray the psalms better because it helps us recognize some important things about language and rhetoric.  First, binary language in the psalms—good/bad, righteous/wicked, rich/poor—is the rhetorical heritage of the wisdom literature. It is inherently simplistic and reductive. We need to acknowledge that just because binaries are required by a scheme of two-line parallels does not mean that either our thinking or theology need to be similarly simplistic. Second, assertions based in wisdom orthodoxy (“The righteous shall be kept safe forever,/ but the children of the wicked shall be cut off” Psalm 37:28b) should be read for what they are: hyperbole intended to encourage us to lives of godly virtue. They are not, however, the only biblical perspective. The wisdom in revolt tradition both in and outside the Psalter is a biblical witness that stands against this problematic notion that seeks to intertwine faithfulness and wealth.

PC: The Psalms and the Old Testament

One of the big arguments I’m making in Psalming Christ about how the Church Fathers prayed the psalms and what we can learn from them is the basic concept that the single best way to get better at reading Scripture is to read more Scripture. Since I’m also approaching this from the standpoint of modern biblical scholarship and how and why it reinforces the patristic wisdom, I’m spending some time talking about the relationship between the Psalms at the Old Testament in order to build the case that you be able to pray the Psalms better the better you know the Old Testament. In service of that, here’s a discussion of the relationship between the Psalms and the Old Testament as we know it.

I realize that I’m covering a lot of ground fairly quickly in this section. What are parts that don’t make sense or connections that don’t click?

When I learned the faith as I was growing up, I inherited a fairly simple model of understanding how the Bible came together. As it’s laid out, it moves in roughly chronological order: Genesis talks about the beginning of things, Revelation talks about the ending of things and everything more or less falls in line from there. The main historical thread moves through the first seven books (the Heptateuch) which gets the Israelites into the Promised Land and up to the point of having kings, then the books of Samuel & Kings take up the thread until the Exile in 587 BC, then Ezra and Nehemiah take over with the apocryphal Maccabees as the bridge between the Old Testament and New.

My general unconscious assumption was that the order that was followed was more or less the order that things were written in.

I didn’t worry much about the question of authorship. I had been told that Moses wrote the Torah—the first five books—on the strength of Deuteronomy (“When Moses had finished writing down in a book the words of this law to the very end…” Deut 31:24). I assumed that the prophets had written their prophetic books, and that was that.

As I got older, though, a thought occurred to me. I knew that the Israelites were a group of nomadic herdsmen; I couldn’t see them carrying libraries of books lashed onto the backs of donkeys as they moved from one pasture ground to another. As I started exploring and learned more about cultures, technologies, and the development of the Bible, I realized that my simplistic model need to be revisited and revised.

In the Ancient Near East (and most other places too!) the technology of writing is tied to two other technologies: agriculture and the monarchy. It makes perfect sense if you think about it—herdsmen can count their cattle just fine, but once you start having crops that are stored and a governmental structure that requires formal taxation, you need to be able to keep written records. Once you start using writing to keep track of who owes what when, it makes sense to start writing down other things too, gathering the collective wisdom of what works and what doesn’t so you are not constantly reinventing the wheel (whether metaphorically or literally!).

The historically plausible way to understand the composition of the Bible takes the social and technological factors into account and connects them with clues in the biblical account itself. King Solomon’s reputation for wisdom makes a lot more sense when you recognize that the biblical account itself identifies him as responsible for a wave of technological, engineering, and social innovations learned from Israel’s neighbors. Modern scholarship suggests that a scribal school established at Solomon’s court was likely the beginning of formal record-keeping and literacy in ancient Israel. Hence, the wisdom literature like the book of Proverbs may be some of the earliest biblical material committed to writing. Once the Temple was constructed—under Solomon—material regarding temple policies and sacrificial practices were likely written down as well. We know that historical records were kept from this point too: there are scattered references to some texts that were incorporated into the Samuel-Kings accounts like “the book of the Acts of Solomon” (1 Kings 11:41) and, once the kingdom split into two after the death of Solomon, “the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah” (1 Kings 14:19) and “the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel” (1 Kings 14:29).

Thus, the beginning of the writing of what would become our modern Bible likely started in the reign of Solomon (960-930 BC?) with some of the wisdom literature, some of what would become legal material, and the start of the histories. What makes this even more complicated is that we know there was a significant amount of oral tradition being handed down as well in parallel. After all, that’s how nomadic herdsmen actually do carry their collective memory around—through stories and songs, not bookshelves perched on donkeys! The stories of the patriarchs and the judges would have been told and memorized around campfires. Legal practices and community norms would likewise have been handed down verbally. Last but certainly not least for our purposes, songs would have been composed and transmitted that combined many of these different things together. It’s no accident that the lost books that describe historical events before the reign of Solomon—the Book of the Wars of the Lord (Numbers 21:14) and the Book of Jashar (Joshua 10:13)—are poetic; every time they are cited, they give a snippet of a song.

By the time of the prophets (the 8th through the 6th centuries BC), some of the legal material was written, but some of it was still oral. When they reflected on the “law of God” and on God’s covenant, it was likely this mix they were referring to. That’s the irony here—some of the prophetic reflection on the Law likely pre-dates certain portions of it actually being written down! We know that these traditions were documented more fully as time went on; Proverbs refers to “the officials of King Hezekiah” (Prov 25:1) which reflects some active scribal work during his rule (715-687 BC), and the “Book of the Law” found in the temple at the time of Josiah (640-609 BC) strongly parallels sections of Deuteronomy.

Most scholars see the Exile in Babylon (597-538 BC) as an incredibly formative time for the written Old Testament as we know it. This is likely when the oral traditions were captured and written down lest they be forgotten forever, and the scattered written accounts were collected and edited into something more like the books we have today. We get a sense of everything coming together in the Book of Nehemiah. After the return from Exile and the rebuilding of the Temple, Ezra gathers the people together and reads to the whole populace the “book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel” (Neh 8:1-8). We then get a prayer to seal the renewed covenant from Ezra that summarizes the contents of the book in Nehemiah 9:6-38. The narrative begins with creation and continues through the prophets and the Exile down to their present day (444 BC). At this point we can say that most of the Old Testament was in the form that we know it.

Ok—so what does all of this have to do with the Psalms and how we pray them? A couple of points.

First, the psalms are poems. Poetry is capable of being passed down a long time before it is committed to writing. When a poem or psalm was composed and when it was written down may be two very different dates.

Second, David is thoroughly connected with poetry, singing and the psalms, both in the text of the Psalter in its final edited form and in the historical books which refer to him as musician (1 Samuel 16:14-23) and a divinely-inspired poet (2 Sam 23:1-2). We know that some compositions attributed to him were preserved in the lost Book of Jashar (2 Samuel 1:18). This suggests that a collection of his songs were likely written down in Solomon’s time in that first flourishing of Hebrew literacy. (This is probably the source of the “Songs of David” collection that form the core of the first parts of the Psalter.)

Third, many of the psalms are connected to the Temple in some way. Because the Levites were in charge of singing psalms during the sacrifices there had to be a body of material for them to sing. Furthermore, other psalms were composed in or for the Temple: some are probably the written accounts of vows of thanksgiving promised to God if he would get their author out of a tight spot; this seems to be the impetus for Psalms 66 and 116, telling of God’s deeds that accompanied a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

Fourth, it’s entirely possible that some of the psalms reflect religious oral traditions that were captured first
in their psalm form before they found written expression in the Law or the histories or other places. The prophets—many of whom were both priests and poets (like Isaiah and Ezekiel)—may have been more influenced by the psalms which they had and knew rather than the form of the Law and Histories as we know them which were written after their time.

The bottom line is this: the Psalms are a collection of religious poetry that contains all of the same genres to the Old Testament does—legal material, wisdom material, prophetic material, historical material. We should think of the psalms as being composed in a dynamic relationship with the emerging books of the Old Testament. Some of the later psalms are riffing off of written material; some of the earlier psalms pre-date the finished books that we know. (This is obviously the case with Psalm 18 which is incorporated completely in 2 Samuel 2-51!) The psalms contain unsystematic crystallizations of bits of the religious tradition that stretch from the beginning of the Temple and written Hebrew culture in the days of Solomon down to the return from Exile and the building of the new Temple a span of roughly 600 years. Just as there are both relationships and tensions between certain biblical genres (sometimes the prophets enforce the Law; sometimes they appear to critique it) so the psalms contain some of these relationships and tensions between one another and with the larger biblical material.

PC: Theological Challenges in the Psalms 1

I’ve been furiously writing since I’m coming up on a deadline for Psalming Christ. I put up a section on Patreon yesterday for those who support me, but I thought I’d put this up here too, because I need some feedback. I’m tackling a touchy issue—how to address some of the theological challenges that modern Christians are bound to encounter in the psalms. Here, at the risk of offending many, I tackle what may be a favorite psalm, discuss my problems with it, then how I come to terms with praying it.

Please—let me know what you think.  Does it bother you? Does it offend you? Or, conversely, does it help you? Let me know!

(The next Liturgical Look Forward will follow later today…)

After years of negotiation, Psalm 91 and I have finally come to an arrangement. I promise to pray it faithfully when it comes around in the psalm cycle; it—in turn—has agreed to be about feelings.

The reason why this accord was necessary is because I find Psalm 91 to be one of the hard psalms in the psalter to pray. I realize that this may well be an unusual psalm to have problems with; there are no babies getting their heads bashed in (Ps 137), no calls to slay the wicked or a desire to hate with a perfect hatred (Ps 139), nor even a wish to bathe my feet in the blood of my enemies (Ps 68). No—my issue is the picture it paints of the divinely-charmed life. Consider the first several verses:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked. (Ps 91:1-8)

The picture it paints is of the blissful protection of the faithful by God, whatever may come.

I have dutifully read this psalm for years. It is one of the standard psalms for the Compline office (Night prayer) which means that I sometimes pray it several times each week. Now, I’m certain that there are people who love this psalm deeply—and I’m not trying to take that away from anyone. It is beautiful; it is comforting. Perhaps it’s due to my own issues and temperament, my own lack of absolute trust, but I take exception to the literal sense of the text: trust in God, and you will be protected from all harm. That faith in God will act as some kind of magic charm that will save you from all adversity.

In the Episcopal tradition, the psalms can be prayed through every month with set psalms assigned for morning and evening prayer of each day; Psalm 91 is appointed for use at Morning Prayer on the 18th of each month. On the night of July 17th, 2015, a White Supremacist hoping to spark a race war opened fire at a Bible study inside Mother Emanuel Baptist Church in Charlotte, murdering nine and wounding three others. The next morning, the lectionary forced me to pray Psalm 91.

I couldn’t.

Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation. (Ps 91:14-16)

While I respect the literal sense of the biblical text—the basic meaning of the words on the page—I do not know a way to pray this psalm in its literal sense and to believe it. Because, to take this psalm literally means one of two things: either God failed those nine people in his promise to protect them, or that they were not faithful enough, not good enough, not loving enough for God to honor that promise—and I simply refuse to believe that.

Psalm 91 is just one of a number of psalms that promise tangible, material benefits to the faithful. Some psalms promise physical safety and security to devotees who keep God’s covenants. Alternatively, other psalms request such aid and protection, often promising vows of sacrifices or praise of God in the midst of the assembly in return.

What do we do with these? How do we understand these promises and requests?

Part of the art of biblical interpretation, the work of hermeneutics, is figuring out how to hear these words for the up-building of our faith and those around us. Do we try to take these texts literally—at their word—and how do we understand the results when the hoped-for outcome does not happen?

One approach to hermeneutics uses the image of a three-legged stool: that Christian understanding of God’s ways is rooted in Scripture, tradition, and reason—and that all three are necessary. (A formulation attributed to Methodist founder John Wesley—the Wesleyan Quadrilateral—includes “experience” as a fourth part.) Sometimes this “three-legged stool” is invoked in order to discount the importance of Scripture, suggesting that if our experience doesn’t match what we read in the text, Scripture can and should be jettisoned and our own reason (or experience) should become our primary guide in the spiritual life. But that’s not what this phrase means, and is not how it was intended to be used. Rather, Scripture is always the foundation, and the other two (or three) help us as we wrestle with it: tradition (how the Church has read this text in the past) and reason (how we think through the text as informed by our own God-given mental faculties and assisted by the Holy Spirit) guiding our encounter with the Word of God.

When we read these psalms alongside the Church, we read them with and through the Christian experience of martyrdom. The nine faithful gunned down in Charlotte that dreadful night were neither the first nor the last to be killed for their faith or in its exercise. Every Christian sanctoral calendar recognizes the presence of martyrs through the centuries: those witnesses who would rather die than betray the faith. The formative years of the church in the first few centuries of its existence were scarred by persecution and death which did not hinder its growth but, paradoxically, accelerated it leading Tertullian to proclaim “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.[Paraphrase of Apology 50.13. Technically the line just says “the seed is the blood of Chistians” but the common expanded version conveys what Tertullian intended.]” Indeed, in those early days martyrdom was seen as a primary means of imitating Christ. Let’s not forget the very origins of our faith—the confession of a crucified Messiah by twelve apostles who, according to church tradition, all likewise suffered martyrdom with the exception of John who died in exile.

Speaking of Jesus himself, it’s not an accident that Psalm 91 plays a central role in the stories of his temptation as told by both Matthew and Luke (Matthew 4:1-11|Luke 4:1-13). The way I read these stories, not only is Jesus rejecting the temptations directly offered by Satan—sustenance, safety, and power—but also the literal meaning of the psalm itself. Jesus turns his back on a reading of the psalm that promises security and protection to those who align themselves with God’s will; instead he calls his followers to daily take up their cross and follow him. If Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God—and Christianity insists that he is—then we cannot read the psalms in a way contrary to the experience of Jesus, the righteous sufferer.

Since this is the grounding of the Christian tradition and experience, we have to be able to read the language of this psalm in more than literal ways. Be careful here: I’m not suggesting that we ignore the literal sense. I do believe that God helps and protects those who call on him. But I also acknowledge that that’s not always the way things work out, and that such a result should not be attributed to a lack of faith or integrity on the part of the fallen. It’s not our place to judge the fidelity of others. Rather, we need to be open to other ways to hear these texts, and understand God’s faithfulness towards us.

The way that I’ve made peace with Psalm 91 is to hear it as a description of how the experience of faith can make us feel—has made me feel. There are times in our religious experience where we feel so completely covered by the love of God that we feel as if nothing in the word can touch us, when we experience so directly Paul’s words that nothing can sever us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). I hear Psalm 91 not as a contract—believe in God and God will keep you safe—but as a description of the way that faith can make us feel—intoxicated with the love and presence of God.

GC Wrap-up: Prayer Book Revision

General Convention has concluded for another triennium. The sky has not fallen.

Lots of people with far more time on their hands than I have been and will continue to be commenting on a host of things. Rather than trying to do all things poorly, I shall focus exclusively on three resolutions and what changes they may (or may not) effect. I’ll do it a post at a time so as not to mix things up too much…

A068: Plan for the Revision of the Book of Common Prayer

For as long as the link endures (I’m told at least Labor Day?) the text of this resolution as passed can be found here. After that point this link will no longer work and there ought to be a new one from the Episcopal Archives folks.

This resolution:

  • Creates a new Task Force (a thing that exists in a different canonical space from the SCLM) on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision. The SCLM will still exist; this will also exist alongside it. Exactly how they will relate to one another is unclear at the present time.
  • The TFLPBR (pronounced Tiffle-Pibber) is supposed to report to GC80 (held in Baltimore!! Woohoo—church nerd party at my house!!). But—here’s the thing: the resolution doesn’t say what it is to report on… It is not tasked with “presenting a new prayer book” and there are no timelines for anything like that. General Convention has given the TFLPBR a very open-ended charge.
  • The emphasis is on a dynamic process of watching local organic revision that contains several broadly construed themes: fidelity to our historic rites, a continued emphasis on Eucharist and Baptism, loving reconciliation, creation care, the riches of our collective multi-dimensional diversity, inclusive and expansive language and imagery for humanity and divinity, and emerging technology.
    • Wow, that’s a lot of stuff… We’re casting the net broadly and not very specifically.
  • The intention of the resolution reads to me like we are not asking the the TFLPBR to be drafting things as much as we are asking them to watch the local level, identify good stuff/best practices, and to share those perhaps with an eye to coming up with things based on them at a later date.
  • The 1979 prayer book has been “memorialized” and the TFLPBR has been asked to draw up new constitutions and canons to provide legislative space for the identification and dissemination of liturgical creativity. So—the current books stay in the pews; more books are appear there—or maybe things will start appearing in your bulletins or in downloads on your smart devices.
  • The work of drafting and revising, then, is not actually in the hands of the TFLPBR—at least not at this point. Instead, it is supposed to happen at the local level. This could become chaos. In theory, the choke-point to prevent it from dissolving into a liturgical free-for-all in which each go their own way is the bishop: the bishop will engage the congregations and expansive, experimental efforts will be collected—and, one supposes, assessed?—at the local level for broader dissemination to the TFLPBR and the Church.


What the heck does all of this mean?

Honestly, there’s enough fluidity in the language and potential gaps in understanding that it still remains anyone’s guess. Check back with me in three years… However, this is the way that I am reading the situation right now:

The center of gravity for revision under this resolution is not with national bodies. Specifically, it does not reside within the SCLM. Neither the SCLM nor the TFLPBR will be drafting liturgies for imposition on the church. (At least, not at this point nor under these directions.)

The center of gravity is at the local and diocesan levels. We are the ones who are supposed to be doing the work which will then be sifted and assessed. If there are gate-keepers in the process, the gate-keepers will be operating at the diocesan level: the diocesan liturgical commission that will “collect, reflect [upon? one hopes?], teach and share these resources with the TFLPBR.”

If you are interested in classically grounded, theologically astute, inclusive, truly Anglican liturgies coming out of this process, then it seems to me your two best moves are these: 1) talk to your bishop what experimentation will look like in your diocese, and 2) volunteer to be part of the liturgical commission.

The regnant assumption is that all experimentation will be tilted in a free-form, free-church-ish, breezy kind of direction. And perhaps it will be—if people who think otherwise don’t step up! That’s exactly why I drafted this liturgy when permissions to use Rite III were passed by the previous General Convention: to remind you that all revision doesn’t have to be like that. Don’t let yourself be locked into these mental frameworks! Instead, consider what it means to do inclusive/expansive revision that truly is grounded in the historical liturgies around our sacraments.

For what it’s worth, I am planning to speak to my bishop, seeking permission for the St. Bede’s Breviary to engage in some experimentation on the Daily Office. I will retain the prayer book forms as options, of course, but will also seek to do some (modest) experimentation on the Offices that I believe will improve the rites while connecting them into the history and theology of the Office in the West. Don’t expect these changes anytime soon, though—I have a bunch of other things on my plate to complete first. (Including the Anglican Breviary. Work on that continues…)

Brief Notes on GC & Prayer Book Revision

  • Prayer Book Revision was passed by the House of Deputies.
  • As of this writing, it has not been passed by the House of Bishops which is required for it to become actual passed legislation. [Update 7/9/2018, 12:53 PM EST—The bishops are at work on it; according to the version in the virtual binder, they have taken off the table any changes to Rite I, the Historical Documents, and the Lord’s Prayer.]
  • If Because the bishops make made changes to the resolution and then passed it, it will have to be re-debated and re-passed without amendment in the House of Deputies. Because if they do amend it, it will then have to be re-passed in the House of Bishops… And if any approval in either place does not occur before convention ends, the thing as a whole is dead.
  • The Project, Budget, & Finance committee has not yet released a budget. What work gets done depends on what funding is given and with which strings.

Ok—say it passes. What next?

  • The resolution as currently written directs the SCLM to follow the plan proposed in the Blue Book. which includes both qualitative and quantitative listening. This is where my “big data” Bulletin Collection Project is laid out.
  • Does this mean that the Bulletin Collection Project will happen? It’s likely—it depends on the funding and the degree to which the funding is designated. If it has a line-item or is directed towards the Episcopal Archives (who would be the ones directing it), it will almost certainly happen. If the money is given in a big bucket to the SCLM to decide how they want to parcel it out, then it will depend entirely on the next iteration of the SCLM and to what degree they follow the directions given to them.
  • (If you don’t know what I mean by “Bulletin Collection Project,” the Blue Book has a garbled form of it, but the big picture for it is laid out in this post written after last GC which lists the two other things that I still think we need 1) big-data bulletin collection, 2) transparent input from the church, and 3) transparent drafting mechanisms.)
  • What “next iteration of the SCLM”? Remember that appointment for clergy and laity to the SCLM is only for two triennia; bishops serve only one. Each triennium, half of the membership turns over for the clergy and laity—and all the bishops do. Thus, several of my friends and colleagues will be rolling off and we do not know who will be put on it. And you can bet that if you thought trying to get on the SCLM was difficult and contentious before, it will only be moreso now with revision in the air!
    • (I’ve seen a few comments online wishing I hadn’t resigned. It wouldn’t have made a bit of difference, because my term would have been up now anyway and I accomplished what I could do while I was there.)

That’s enough for now—time to get some actual work done…

Expansive Language Rite II

Friend of the blog Mother Laurie Brock has posted a resolution for General Convention that would offer an immediate trial use first reading of an expanded language version of the Rite II Eucharist. The resolution with liturgy is here, the liturgy alone is here.

As readers should know, I’m not a fan of revision and I’m usually wary of expansive language. Imprecise or incorrect theology is always the number one concern when liturgy gets tinkered with. But, poetics are a major concern of mine as well.  All too often expansive language comes from a well-intentioned place but produces bad liturgy. Effusive wordiness creating overly imaginative metaphors causes clunky sentences. Liturgy is not just poetry, it’s poetry that occurs out loud. Liturgy is inherently spoken. As it result, it must have the right rhythms for speaking it aloud and at volume.

Laurie took the Rite II services that we currently have and went through them, making gentle modifications to tone down both the male language and the dominion (kingdom/Lord) language that many in the church are finding problematic.

Here are my initial thoughts on a read through of the liturgy…

  • I don’t love the initial acclamation: “Blessed be God: holy, glorious, and undivided Trinity./And blessed be God’s reign, now and for ever. Amen.” I was initially unsure about “holy, glorious” thinking that it might be a little out of character from the styling of the rest of the service but was reassured when I realized it was riffing on “O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, one God,” from the Litany. The response is more the issue. I get that we have a shift from “kingdom” to “reign” but I’m not a fan of the homophone especially in the first line of the service (rain=water from the sky? rein=God’s kidney? rein=part of a bridle?). I don’t know what would be a better replacement, though.
  • I like that the option is given to use either “God” or “Lord” in the collect dialogue.
  • I like the three options for responses to the reading, and that the “The Word of the Lord” remains the top one. This is a theological affirmation of the content that grounds the others. Just the “Spirit” options on their own makes me wonder if the Spirit is only in the act of hearing and not in the source material itself. The Spirit can speak to me from the NY Times; retaining “Word of the Lord” liturgically affirms that the text is God’s revelation even if one of the other responses is chosen.
  • That both Gospel acclamations have “Lord Christ” is great. In other places, the “Lord” language is de-emphasized but I agree that this is a key spot where we ought to retain it. That’s key–knowing when to be expansive and where the traditional language really is essential.
  • I like the treatment of the Creed.
    • It retains the language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These are non-negotiables for Christian liturgy. Get beyond them in the creed and you’re doing something else.
    • “became truly human” is a good change. Yes, the incarnate body of Jesus was a man—it had a penis. However, the creed’s statement on this account is not about the personal plumbing of Our Lord but his humanity which this change accomplishes.
    • The use of relative clauses beginning “who” regarding the Holy Spirit is a good strategic move. It removes the unnecessary “he”s and forestalls revisionist “she”s that I frequently hear around the church.
    • [Update: I’m not a fan of the removal of the filioque, so I’m not thrilled about that. I’m well aware it’s not in the ecumenical version, but the West has used it for centuries and too many Episcopalians have Arian tendencies already…]
  • In the opening dialogue for the Eucharist, while the initial “Lord” is optional, its use later is not. I think that is a good move. Again, there’s a difference between expanding and expunging. Too often the former becomes the latter. I’m less concerned than some about the shift to “our” in the last response because the priest’s line makes it clear that our thanks and praise are, in fact, directed to “the Lord our God.”
  • Prayer A
    • “Son” language makes appearances while “maker and preserver” tones down the male language.
  • The Lord’s Prayer is untouched with both traditional and contemporary options retained.
  • The rhythm is off in the dropping of “Son” from the second line of the first post-communion prayer. What about “of our Source and Savior Jesus Christ?” It expands while retaining both the alliteration and the rhythm.
  • The second post-communion prayer retains a “Son” and “kingdom” but I’m not sure about “we are living members of the Body of your Child.” My own (likely idiosyncratic) mental image is that I will become the arm of a baby or toddler. Sorry—that’s just my mental word association with “Body of your Child”…
  • I like that a blessing is called for in the rubrics but nothing is directly stated. I think that’s a wise move because it permits a classic “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” blessing if so desired, and does not legislate, recommend, or encourage a modalist option.
  • Prayer B
    • There’s something about the flow of “In Christ’s sacrifice, unite us that we may be acceptable…” that feels off to me. Not sure what it is exactly… (It maybe the pile-up of sibilants at the start.)
  • Prayer C
    • “your only Child, born of Mary” is a good change. Of course, to my way of thinking, more Mary in our prayers is always a good change!
    • “God of Abraham and Sarah” is the choice taken to deal with one of the infamous hiccups in this prayer. This is a good option, but not my favorite option. Abraham and Sarah were the parents of Isaac, the child of promise who both indirectly begets and typologically represents Christ. So—there’s nothing wrong with this and it doesn’t raise the question of why Hagar isn’t named. I still prefer to the retention of the ancient title for God, “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” but want to see it balanced with “, the God of Miriam, Deborah, and Ruth” or something like that which includes women but doesn’t get into elaborating wives/concubines/sex partners of the patriarchs which gets messy really quickly.
  • Prayer D
    • There was a pretty light touch on D which is wise given that one of our reasons for including it is ecumenical.

I have some anxieties about piecemeal revision of the prayer book. I don’t know if that’s a road we want to go down, and it worries me about the precedent it would set.

However, if General Convention is bound and determined to do something right now to make things more inclusive, this is something that I can get behind. I have yet to see anything in Laurie’s revision that is problematic. Yeah, a few minor term and rhythm things I’d do differently, but those are quibbles. This is way better than EOW, and miles beyond what could be foisted upon us!

It gets an up-vote from my side. That having been said, I’m a straight white guy: I don’t get triggered by male or dominion language. I imagine some who do might say that this is too conservative and has not gone far enough. For my perspective, though, Laurie has done a wonderful job with this and I hope it receives proper consideration.

Collecting the Saints: 2018 Edition

I know that there is great back and forth among those with strong opinions on the matter regarding the proposed Lesser Feasts & Fasts up for debate at General Convention. I had the opportunity to write a guest blog post for the Center for Liturgy & Music at Virginia Theological Seminary on a brief history of the Episcopal sanctoral calendar. In brief, I identified some major trends in how the calendar has been conceived and how it has or has not been representative of the church in the roughly fifty years that we have had a calendar. Too, I mentioned some ways that the proposed book is in continuity with some of the broad trends and how even some of the things that appear as novelties do have some antecedents.

I made a comment in that piece that I wasn’t going to talk about collects and readings because that topic was a complex one that deserved its own post. Well—this is that post…

I don’t plan for this to be deep and exhaustive, but merely to point out some key trends with the readings and collects. At the conclusion, I think you’ll agree that whatever you may think of the decisions around specific individuals in LFF 2018, you’ll see that it is superior to previous volumes in its poetry, literary artistry, and theological grounding.

There are three broad movements when it comes to a philosophy of sanctoral collects in the Episcopal Calendar: 1) Common(ish) Collects, 2) The Return of the Biographical Collect, and 3) The Theological Turn.

1) Common(ish) Collects

Prayer Book Studies XII

Let’s start at the beginning, which for this topic means Prayer Book Studies XII: The Propers for the Minor Holy Days, published in 1958. The table of contents for this volume breaks down like this:

  • The Collects
  • The Epistles and Gospels
  • Movable Octaves and Seasons
  • The Proposed Propers
  • Indices

Let me be clear on this… The first 35 pages of this work talk about the complex and important work of finding suitable collects for celebrating the black-letter days. The heading entitled “The Problem of Suitable Collects” includes some very quotable lines like these:

The writing of Collects for liturgical use is a most exacting discipline. One is tempted to say that it is an art possible only to a literary genius, who at the same time has a profound knowledge of theology and a rich experience of prayer. In any case, the best Collects are generally the work of individuals; they are rarely effective when produced by a committee. (PBS XII, 6-7).

Two members of the group—unnamed, but I’d bet cash money that it was Bayard Jones and Massey Shepherd—got together, worked on possible collects “for a number of years”, and sent them out for testing. The results of their test are worth citing in full:

The aim of our subcommittee was to provide Collects of a biographical character, comparable to those of the Apostles and Evangelists in the [American 1928] Prayer Book. A complete schedule of Collects was finally prepared and sent to a number of persons skilled in these matters for criticism; and the results of these endeavors was used experimentally in a few of our seminaries and in certain private chapels. The ensuing comments after this trial use were not encouraging. Too many of these Collects gave the effect of being overly contrived and erudite. To place them in the Prayer Book would demand an annotated commentary for the benefit of those lay people who did not have an extensive knowledge of Church History and were therefore unable to appreciate the subtle allusions in these Collects. However admirable most of these Collects might be for personal, devotional use, they lacked that quality of universal application that is needed in a formulary for corporate, liturgical use. (PBS XII, 9)

In short, the biographical collect, although seen as desirable, was deemed a failure by the best liturgical minds of the time.

Instead, they decided to go with a set of Common(ish) collects. That is, having Commons for readily identifiable groups of similar saints was seen as a good idea. However, a certain variety was still necessary and helpful to avoid monotony:

For…the ninety-two Black Letter commemorations, we are offering a total of thirty-six collects, of which seventeen are appointed for one occasion only, the others for two or more occasions. But none of them are listed for more than six commemorations; and of these, an effort has been made to avoid using the same Collect twice over within the space of one month. However, there are one or two exceptions to this latter usage. By such a distribution, it is hoped that tedium may be lessened, and thus the devout attention of worshippers encouraged.  (PBS XII, 10)

The way that this worked out in practice is that certain key people had unique collects (Gregory the Great, Francis of Assisi, Irenaeus, the BVM and Mary Magdalene [remember, these last two were still black letter days at this point, not Holy Days]). Then—for instance—the 12 commemorations of martyrs were grouped into four categories by affinity and four collects were used, one for each group. Hence, the “early women martyrs”  (Agnes, Perpetua & Felicitas, and the Martyrs of Lyon) shared a collect, “early male martyrs” (Ignatius, Alban, and Laurence) shared a collect, “early church leader martyrs” (Polycarp, Justin, and Cyprian [Ignatius could have been in this group but wasn’t]) shared a collect, and “missionary martyrs” (Boniface, Patteson, and Hannington”) shared a collect. The Just-missionaries-not-martyrs-or-teachers group of 12 names was simply divided into two groups, each group sharing a collect. Thus:

We have attempted not to be arbitrary in the use of Collects for more than one worthy, and to find what might be termed obvious or natural groupings. The three monarchs: Louis, Alfred, and Margaret, share the same Collect as do five early Fathers who gave great contributions to the shaping of the dogma of the Incarnation–Hilary, Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, and Leo. It was readily evident that modern leaders in Christian humanitarianism such as Maurice and Wilberforce could be classed under the same Collect, but their predecessors of earlier times, such as Nicholas and Elizabeth of Hungary, were better served by other memorials. (PBS XII, 13-4)

Now let me give you an example of the actual collects and the discussion around them. Let’s follow two commemorations, Perpetua & Felicitas and Dominic, and see what we’ve got for their collects…

Agnes (January 21)
Perpetua and her Companions (March 7)
The Martyrs of Lyon (June 2)

Almighty and everlasting God, with whom thy meek ones go forth as the mighty: Grant us so to cherish the memory of thy blessed martyr(s) ——-, that we may share her pure and steadfast faith in thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Collect was based upon one for St. Agnes’ feast in the Gregorian Sacramentary. But in place of the original clause “who dost choose the weak things of the world to confound the the things which are mighty,” the Commission has drawn from a phrase used by William Bright in his Collect “For all who do the Work of the Church” (Ancient Collects, p. 237): “with whom thy little ones go forth as the mighty.” Both phrases are well-suited to describe the heroines who are the chief subjects of these commemorations. However, the Pauline expression, “weak things of the world” might not convey to the modern congregation the exact notion that is desired, hence the change of the word “weak” to “meek.” (PBS XII, 25)

And now Dominic:

Thomas Ken (March 20).
William Law (April 6).
Benedict (July 11).
Dominic (August 4).
Sergius (September 25).
Hilda (November 17).

Almighty and everlasting God, we give thee thanks for the purity and strength with which thou didst endow thy servant ——; and we pray that by thy grace we may have a like power to hallow and conform our souls and bodies to the purpose of thy most holy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The basis for this Collect was taken by the Commission from the Reverend E. A. L. Clarke’s The People’s Missal, where it appears for the Common of a Virgin-Martyr. It seems to be admirably suited to the varied “ascetical” gifts of the group of worthies here listed from all periods of the Church’s history. (PBS XII, 33)

I want you to notice a couple of key things here… First, collects are shared amongst similar kinds of saints—sorry, “worthies”—who are put together in relatively loose and arbitrary although reasonable groupings. Second, all of these collects have sources! Not only that, alterations were also made with reference to other collects as well as Scripture. There was not just thought but history and continuity behind what was being done here.

For selecting Scriptural readings, they didn’t start from scratch either, but looked at the old Roman Catholic Commons for the various categories of saints. Hence, Perpetua & Companions got the Epistle and Gospel from one of the 12 Commons of Marytrs—but not the one assigned to her day by Rome, rather from Salus autem: Hebrews 10:32-39 and Matthew 24:9-14a. Dominic doesn’t actually get a Scripture reading; in the two-tiered system of this book, Dominic is on tier 2 and hence only gets a collect, no Scripture.

Prayer Book Studies XVI/Lesser Feasts & Fasts (1st Ed.)

The material in Prayer Book Studies IX and XII were reworked to become Prayer Book Studies XVI which was itself adapted slightly to become the first edition of Lesser Feasts & Fasts. There was more change in the formatting than in the texts. Now the collects and Scriptural readings are grouped together. However, the brief biographies are still located in a separate part of the resource.

There is no change in the texts of either the collects or the Scripture for the two saints we’re following. However, there are signs of a shift on the horizon… At the end of the book are included one common each for the major categories of saints: martyrs, missionaries, monastics, etc.

Lesser Feasts & Fasts (Revised Ed. [1973])

Prayer Book Studies 19: The Church Year (1970) made some major forward strides in terms of thinking about a new way of doing the Calendar for a new prayer book that was now on the horizon. In particular, it re-aligned thinking on the Calendar in light of what Rome did with Vatican II. Nevertheless, this resource doesn’t address the Lesser Feasts. The Revised edition of Lesser Feasts & Fasts wouldn’t come out until 1973. What we see here is a Calendar very much under the sway of the coming ’79 Book of Common Prayer. The short Preface notes some changes that have taken place:

1. The Collects of the earlier edition have been carefully revised, and several new ones have been included. They are provided in both traditional and contemporary language, as in Services for Trial Use.

3. Commemorations which hitherto had only a Collect are now assigned Psalms and Lessons, either individually or by reference to the Common of Saints. (LFF 1973, vii, viii)

In this work we start seeing propers being conformed to the Commons that have been established for the forthcoming ’79 BCP. This shows up in both collects and in the appointed Scripture readings. Thus there is a certain work of norming the calendar and solidifying the previously rather fluid groups that had existed before. There is also a leveling of occasions and a move away from the original two-tiered system.

There is no change to the collect or lessons for Perpetua and her Companions except for getting the longer ending of the collect “…who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, on God, in glory everlasting. Amen.” There is now a contemporary Rite II collect as well. This same collect is used but for a change of names for Agnes, but the Martyrs of Lyon now have a new collect that highlights Blandina and focuses less on meekness and more on the endurance of suffering. (I really need to do a post on JBob’s fascination with Blandina…)

Dominic’s collect is different and he now has lessons assigned to him (going forward, I’ll just provide the Rite II texts):

Almighty God, whose will it is to be glorified in your saints, and who raised up your servant Dominic to be a light in the world: Shine, we, pray, in our hearts, that we also in our generation may show forth your praises, who have called us out of darkness into your marvelous light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever. Amen.

This is a new template which will become the second Common for Missionaries. Here Dominic’s grouping has been rethought from “ascetic” to “missionary” and a new common assigned accordingly. If we look back  at Dominic’s original group, we’ll find that they have been dispersed into other Commons and assigned those collects; the only exception is Benedict who keeps the original collect with a minor change—“purity” becomes “humility” in recognition of the importance of that concept in the Rule.

Scripture-wise, Dominic will share 1 Corinthians 2 with Basil the Great, but Dominic alone gets the Romans 10 option and the Gospel, John 7:16-18. Glancing through the Scripture index, there is occasional overlap between the Scripture lessons that shows that a diversity of readings is the goal, but that they are falling back on Commons where it seems to make sense.

Broadly speaking, this era of Common(ish) Collects relied heavily on quality collects from the past. The authors mined the collect collections found in Bright, Frere, Souter, and a variety of Anglican missals as well as the Gregorian/Hadrianum material of the ancient Western sacramentaries. These were then adapted to serve for several people who fell into a coherent category, categories that became more formalized as we moved towards the ’79 BCP with its set classes of saints.

Because of the generalities needed (and the theological proclivities of its authors), these collects focused on the saints as exemplars in that their lives showed certain theological gifts or virtues—“witness through meekness,” “purity and strength,” “spread God’s light.” There were not usually specific details given because of the generalities of the Commons. However, some saints did get individualized collects and some Commons did get tailored at points (like the change to “humility” in Benedict’s).

2) The Return of the Biographical Collect

After being tried and rejected in the original tests for the Calendar, the biographical collect returned with a vengeance in 1980. There is a certain irony here. The ’79 BCP provided two or three collects for each Commons of the saints. The Revised Edition of LFF in ’73 utilized these commons for the Calendar. And yet, the edition of LFF released to accompany the New Prayer Book (you know, at the time when it actually was new…)  went in a completely different direction.

Lesser Feasts & Fasts (Third edition [1980])

The preface states “The purpose of the revision of the Collects for the Lesser Feasts was to ensure that each Collect be distinctive of the person commemorated, or of that aspect of the Church’s life to which that person contributed most significantly” (LFF 1980, iv). It then identifies several changes where collects were personalized for several individuals. This occurred at the hands of the Rev. Canon Charles M. Guilbert, Custodian of the Book of Common Prayer with the assistance of the Rev. Eric Jackson and Mr. Patrick Russell. (I’d dearly love to know if they looked at or used any of the material that Jones & Shepherd had compiled in their first go-around…)

In other words, the biographical collect was back—and it would be back to stay for quite a while.

While the Scripture lessons remained the same, we got a new collect for Perpetua and her Companions:

O God the King of saints, you strengthened your servants Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions to make a good confession, staunchly resisting, for the cause of Christ, the claims of human affection, and encouraging one another in their time of trial: Grant that we who cherish their blessed memory may share their pure and steadfast faith, and win with them the palm of victory; through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

And a new one for Dominic too:

O God of the Prophets, you opened the eyes of your servant Dominic to perceive a famine of hearing the word of the Lord and moved him, and those he drew about him, to satisfy that hunger with sound preaching and fervent devotion: Make your Church, dear Lord, in this and every age attentive to the hungers of the world, and quick to respond in love to those who are perishing; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

So—quite different and tailored to the occasion. A collect is one long sentence; these strain to the point of being run-ons. Truthfully, there’s a biographical first sentence about the saints, then a second sentence about us. What was classically a relative clause that said something about God pertinent for the rest of the prayer has become an opportunity to talk about the person. In theory we are thanking God for a specific gift or set of gifts given, but that ends up too often coming off like a rhetorical ploy than a focus on gifts and charisms. It’s a one-sentence biography, then the abstraction of idea or concept from that biography to be applied to us/the current church.

Needless to say, there are no classical sources being drawn on here. No doubt that was seen as a bonus. What has developed here is a new kind of prayer modeled on the collect but different.

This model would continue to be the regnant model as new names were added to the Calendar by General Convention.

With the arrival of Holy Women, Holy Men this kind of collect was pushed almost to the point of parody—particularly in the new additions. I’ve ranted about this before and will spare you the speech now. However, there was some reworking of the older biographical collects as well. While there was no change in Perpetua & her Companions, there was a new version of the Dominic collect:

Almighty God, whose servant Dominic grew in knowledge of your truth and formed an order of preachers to proclaim the good news of Christ: Give to all your people a hunger for your Word and an urgent longing to share the Gospel, that the whole world may come to know you as you are revealed in your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

For all that I may not like the style,  this is a better prayer than the previous one. It is less allusive and more direct. It’s a better biography. Also, the request is more closely tied to the bio: “Dominic established an order of preachers: help us preach Jesus.”  This is better than “help us connect with hungers”—because Dominic was about preaching Jesus and doing it well!

The biographical collect stops being one sentence about God, who God is, and what we request of God based on who God is. Instead, it’s a sentence about a person—a human—and then a sentence about what we think we should ask as a result of that person. At it’s best it’s asking for a gift like what that person had; at it’s worst, it’s asking that we can do the same kind of job as that person. To my eyes, the focus is on humanity—an exemplary person and what we can learn from them—rather than on the God who has been in relationship with us and the gifts and charisms given by the Spirit that share in the virtues of Jesus Christ.

3) The Theological Turn

Great Cloud of Witnesses

HWHM was quite a thing to inherit—which I did when I became head of the Calendar Subcommittee in 2013. My initial attempt was to do what LFF 2018 is doing: move some names to more of a “remembrance list” and better balance the names that remains. This approach was rejected by the SCLM as it was composed then. Great Cloud was a compromise that attempted to maintain inclusivity, but address the theological issue of folks on the Calendars whom all could not receive as saints. You can read through all of the travails of that process in the back catalog here, so I won’t dwell on it.

Over all, GCW didn’t achieve what I had hoped that it would, and it was not accepted by the church.  Despite its shortcomings, I think the best work that went into it was the beginning of revision on the collects. As you can probably tell by now, I’m not a fan of the biographical collect. What I attempt to do was to think about how these collects are supposed to function and—in particular—to tie them into the concept of the Baptismal Covenant. How were these people living out the Covenant and what were the baptismal gifts and, graces, and charisms that they inhabit? Which of the virtues of Christ did they put most prominently on display?

Here’s a post where I discuss the specific revision of one collect (St Bede’s) along these lines. (And I see that I did a mini-version of the above post there too so it may be a teensy bit repetitive at points.) Here’s another that’s not as specific where I call out the relative clause problems in particular.

Looking back, I didn’t make any changes to either of these collects. They weren’t as bad as some others (Bede, Alcuin…) so I left them alone.

I must say, that was my biggest disappointment in the side-lining of GCW—the revised collects did not get much circulation.

Lesser Feasts & Fasts 2018

Now we get to the new proposal on the table. It starts with what had been done in GCW but goes further and does more, particularly in the trimming of unnecessary relative clauses. Let’s compare the one’s we’ve been looking at side by side:

Old Collect New Collect
O God the King of saints, you strengthened your servants Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions to make a good confession, staunchly resisting, for the cause of Christ, the claims of human affection, and encouraging one another in their time of trial: Grant that we who cherish their blessed memory may share their pure and steadfast faith, and win with them the palm of victory; through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. O God, the King of Saints, who strengthened your servants Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions to make a good confession and to encourage one another in the time of trial: Grant that we who cherish their blessed memory may share their pure and steadfast faith, and win with them the palm of victory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Almighty God, whose servant Dominic grew in knowledge of your truth and formed an order of preachers to proclaim the good news of Christ: Give to all your people a hunger for your Word and an urgent longing to share the Gospel, that the whole world may come to know you as you are revealed in your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. Almighty God, Grant unto all your people a hunger for your Word and an urgent longing to share your Gospel, that like your servant Dominic we might labor to bring the whole world to the knowledge and love of you as you are revealed in your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

To my eyes and tongue, the revisions here make objectively better prayers—prayers that can actually claim the name “collect” again! The content has not been completely overhauled, you can still see the bones that they’re working with, but the trimming of material has re-balanced the focus of the collect. The virtues, the charisms, the gifts are more in focus than before.

These two commemorations are just examples that I picked pretty much at random. As I flip through LLF 2018, I can see a host of improvements along these lines. Prayers are tightened up, the collect form is restored, some have been overhauled.

Is LFF 2018 a prefect document? No, of course not. But I see it as much improved step over what I did, certainly, and over what we have been working with over the past many years. We celebrate the saints because they show us what “the full stature of Christ” looks like in human form. They show us what the virtues of Christ look and act like in myriad different times and places and societies. They show us where a sacramental path of discipleship leads. They illustrate a Baptismal Covenant fully embraced. And the prayers with which we fete them ought to represent that truth too. This volume does that in ways we haven’t seen in a long time.

Please—let’s pass this one.