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
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. )
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 )
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.