On the Collects

This chapter will round out the section on the Calendar before I move on to the Office.


The Collects: An Integral Link of Prayer Book Practice

The Liturgical Manifestations of the Church Year

The Church Year establishes fundamental organizing principles that direct our common liturgical life. The Daily Office and the Eucharist both exist within and are guided by it. When we look back to the liturgies of the medieval period, there was quite a lot of material that was used to mark the liturgical year and its passage. Remember, before the mid-20th century and the reforms of Vatican II, there was no three-year cycle; there was only a one-year cycle which repeated in an invariable fashion. In the medieval books—taking those of 10th century England as an example—each Sunday Eucharist had its own particular set of liturgically proper materials:  four prayers (the opening collect, a prayer over the gifts at the offertory, a proper preface, and a post-communion prayer), two readings (an Epistle and a Gospel), and four or five minor propers (usually one or two-line biblical texts sung by the choir at the entrance, after the Epistle, before the Gospel, during the offertory, and during the communion).

That’s a lot of stuff. And it doesn’t stop there either!

Turning to the Daily Office, parts of the Eucharistic propers—especially the biblical readings—would be interwoven among the various elements. The Gospel in full would be read in the Sunday Night Office and a line from it would usually appear as an antiphon on the Song of Mary at the Evening Office. The Epistle too might appear in gospel canticle antiphons through the week and was frequently found tucked into the suffrages of the mid-day Offices. Of course, the opening collect of the Eucharist would reappear as the closing collect of each Office.

In Archbishop Cranmer’s simplification of the liturgy and in his construction of the first Book of Common Prayer, he swept away most of these proper elements. In his 1549 book he retained only four of the Eucharistic propers: the opening collect, the Epistle, the Gospel, and the psalm sung at the entrance. In the even more radical revision of 1552 the psalm at the entrance was dropped as well. With the stripping of the gospel canticle antiphons, psalm antiphons, and variable Suffrages from the reformed Daily Offices, Cranmer eliminated even the possibility of retaining the delicate tissue of interactions between the Sunday Eucharist and the Office through the following week.

The only unifying element from the Church Year cycle that held together the liturgical experience of the Eucharist and the Office was the collect.

Cranmer could easily have done away with this too—but he didn’t. Instead, he worked his way through the Sarum Missal, translating and retaining many of its collects where they were in accord with his understanding of the Faith, crafting new collects when they were not. The English-speaking church owes him a great debt of gratitude for this, because his work of translation and adaptation was masterfully done. Through him, we have access to ancient prayers that have sustained the Church over centuries, drawn into luminous, gem-like models of prayer and praise.

Since Cranmer’s day, prayer book people the world over have embraced the collect. Hundreds of collects have been translated, adapted, and composed to fill our prayer books and resources. Collects are not unique to Anglican churches, but they are a definitive aspect of our spiritual heritage.

While our last few prayer books have begun recovering seasonal elements in the Eucharist and the Office, the collect remains the single point of calendrical continuity that has the potential to unite the two liturgical services. Particularly as the notion of a one-year cycle has been shattered with the moves to a two-year Office lectionary and the three-year Eucharistic lectionary, the collect remains the sole consistent element. The consistent practice of Anglican prayer books up to the present is the use of the Sunday (or prior festal) collect at the end of Morning and Evening Prayer. However, our current prayer book has made the use of the Collect of the Day optional. Let me say in the strongest possible terms that I believe this is a mistake! The use and repetition of the Eucharistic collect within the Daily Office is the last common element that connects these two liturgical movements together under the overarching aegis of the Church Year. Without this element, they become disconnected; we will have lost the last intrinsic link and they can be seen as two entirely different and unrelated devotions rather than the complementary pair that they were designed to be.

I’d like to explore the collects from two different directions. First, we’ll examine what a collect is. Second, we’ll look at how the collects function within the liturgical year and serve as key unifying units.

What is a Collect?

The original meaning of the term itself is lost in the mists of liturgical prehistory. The earliest Roman books refer to these prayers simply as “oratio” or “orationes;” the Gallican books produced in Gaul (modern France) in the 7th and 8th centuries used the term “collecta.” The Latin word is closely related to the English word it sounds like—something has been collected—but what? There seem to be three main answers with no good away to adjudicate between them. One suggestion is that the term refers to the prayer that should be prayed after all of the people have collected together. Another is that the collect brings together in one succinct statement the principal themes of the service being celebrated. The third is that, after a bit of silent prayer at the beginning of the service, the celebrant prays this prayer as a means of collecting together all of the prayers that have been prayed silently and individually. This last certainly seems to reflect the practice of bidding prayers which is of great antiquity. I favor the last, but we’ll probably never know for sure. One thing we do know is that the practice of the whole congregation reading it together aloud is a modern anomaly!

One modern liturgist, Fr. Bosco Peters, emphasizes the third option in his description of the four parts of a proper collect when it appears as the opening prayer of the Eucharist:

    • The bidding: The presider invites the community to prayer – “Let us pray”. Or in a more extended way, something like: “Let us pray in silence that God will make us one in mind and heart”.
    • The silence: This is the heart of the collect. This deep silent praying of the community is what the collect is collecting. No silent prayer and it is not a collect, there is nothing to collect. Without this silence the “collect” is reduced to merely another little prayer cluttering the vestibule at the start of our service.
    • The collect: After sufficient silent prayer the presider proclaims the collect, gathering the prayers of the community, and articulating the prayer of the church – the body of Christ. As Christ’s body the collect is addressed in Christ’s name, on Christ’s behalf, to God the Source of all Being, in the power and unity of the Holy Spirit.
    • Amen: The community makes the collect its own by a strong “Amen” – “so be it”. (Peters, “Collect – four parts”)

His subversion of the notion of a four-part scheme refocuses the collect as a summation of the whole community at prayer.

As for what a collect is and the nature of its essential character, Anglican writers have fallen over themselves for years singing its praises in very extravagant ways. I find that one of the clearest and most helpful introductions to the collect comes from the radical of the English Sarum Revival at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, Percy Dearmer. In his usual acerbic tone Dearmer writes:

The collect is a definite literary form, a prose form with something of the character that a sonnet has in verse, but with a far more loosely defined structure; so that, though it is easier to make a poor collect than a poor sonnet, it is perhaps more difficult to make a good one. A collect is not merely a short prayer: many prayers are short—some, like the Kyrie eleison, extremely short—but they are not collects; on the other hand, it would not be difficult, though the result would be unpleasing, to write a prayer of some length that kept strictly to the collect form.

Unity is the essential characteristic of the collect. To be good, it must have colour, rhythm, finality, a certain conciseness as well as vigour of thought; but it must be a unified petition, or it becomes something else than a collect. We might indeed say that it must be one complete sentence, an epigram softened by feeling; it must be compact, expressing one thought, and enriching that thought so delicately that a word misplaced may destroy its whole beauty. We cannot safeguard this balance, which is so easily upset, by setting down any definite rules, such as that a collect must consist of four parts. There is a real danger of a notion like that obtaining currency, and of everyone who tries to write a collect fitting his material into a Procrustean bed, and finding fault with every example that does not conform to his imaginary rule. As a matter of fact, many if not most of the finest collects do not consist of those four divisions. (Dearmer, The Art of Public Worship, 149-50)

True to his usual style, after airily dismissing the four-part structure of the collect, Dearmer goes on to explain it (but doesn’t number the final element giving him four where we will speak of five)… Dearmer makes some excellent points here; in particular, I’d like to take up two in the form of comparisons. One is obvious and explicit; the other is less so, but I one that I think Dearmer would approve of. First, the collect is like a sonnet; second, the collect is like a haiku.

Dearmer’s comparison of the collect to the sonnet is quite apt. Sonnets are poems defined by a certain structure, rhythm, rhyme scheme, and topic. Certain poets have defined these parameters through particularly notable examples of the genre—notable Petrarch and Shakespeare—and their work shapes the convention. Skilled poets are able to work within the form and experience the rules and structures as canvasses to define an area of play rather than rigid guidelines. Truly remarkable poets are able to bend or break the rules, subverting the form and their readers’ expectations in order to achieve something sublime. And yet, this subversion works because they have grasped a deeper structure to which they are adhering beyond the more basic guidelines.

The same is true of collects; there are rules and guidelines. The rules guide the process of understanding and crafting the collect. A collect generally consist of a single sentence. It may be a quite long sentence with several relative clauses thrown in, but is a single sentence. As a result of being a single sentence, it has one main point—the “unified petition” that Dearmer speaks of. Then there are five components that are usual:

  1. The Invocation—this is the naming of the Person of the Trinity to whom the prayer is addressed.
  2. The Relative Clause/Acknowledgement—this clause often begins with a “who” and usually says something about the identity of God that will relate to the rest of the prayer; it often ends with a colon.
  3. The Petition—this is what is being asked for. Sometimes there may be a second petition that is related to the first. Classically this may start with “Grant” or even “Grant, we pray…”
  4. The Statement of Purpose/Result—this clause explains why we’re asking for what we’re asking for or describes what we hope will be the result of the request. This often starts with “that.”
  5. The Ending/Doxology—we end by bringing in the rest of the Trinity (or, at the very least, Jesus).

Here’s an example of how these five parts break down on a common and well-known text, the Collect for Purity that appears in the early part of the Eucharist:

The Invocation Almighty God,
The Relative Clause/Acknowledgement To you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid:
The Petition Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
The Statement of Purpose/Result That we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name;
The Ending/Doxology Through Christ our Lord.

The unifying concept here is that we are requesting the God who knows our secret thoughts to cleanse them for the proper worship of him.

Another example is the collect for the Fifth Sunday of Easter:

The Invocation Almighty God,
The Relative Clause/Acknowledgement Whom truly to know is everlasting life:
The Petition Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life,
The Statement of Purpose/Result That we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life;
The Ending/Doxology Through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The unifying concept here is a riff off John 14:6 asking that we might know the truth in order to follow that way to share in life.

Dearmer throws in an example of a short prayer that is not a collect but which could be confused with one if someone were not paying attention. It was composed and distributed in England during World War I:

O Lord God Almighty, look down with pity upon those who are suffering the miseries of war. Have compassion on the wounded and dying; comfort the broken-hearted; make wars to cease; and give peace in our time; for the sake of him who is the Prince of Peace, even thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Now, this is a perfectly fine prayer—it’s just not a collect; there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s simply another sort of prayer following different guidelines that should be mistaken for a collect simply because it might appear on the service to share some characteristics.

Let’s take a look at why it’s not a collect. It looks “collect-shaped” because it’s short, it starts with an invocation, and ends with a standard collect ending. However, what follows the Invocation isn’t a Relative clause or an Acknowledgement—it’s a petition. And four more petitions follow on after that. Consider—after the first sentence and where each semicolon falls you could easily insert “Lord, in your mercy,/Hear our prayer” without any problem. This is a brief, private intercession rather than being a collect. Its unity is difficult to assess; generally speaking, the prayer is about the miseries of war, but the content of the petitions is more wide-ranging than what we would expect to find in a collect.

The five-fold form (it depends on whether you count the Ending or not—I would) is another example of how the prayer book teaches us to pray. When you’ve spent a sufficient amount of time with collects and you’ve memorized the structure listed above, it isn’t too hard to produce an extemporaneous prayer that follows these guidelines.

However, as Dearmer mentions, there is more to it than simply following the rules. Some collects don’t follow this structure like the collect for Proper 3:

The Petition Grant,
The Invocation O Lord,
The Petition, cont. That the course of this world may be peaceably governed by your providence
Secondary petition And that your Church may joyfully serve you in confidence and serenity
The Ending/Doxology Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Now, this one comes close to edging the line that the prayer above falls over. Like that one it only contains an Invocation, Ending, and petitions. The difference is that we have fewer petitions (two instead of five) and that the thought is more unified.

Another differing structure is that of the collect for Monday in Easter Week:

The Petition Grant, we pray,
The Invocation Almighty God,
The Petition, cont. That we who celebrate with awe the Paschal feast may be found worthy to attain to everlasting joys
The Ending/Doxology Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

This is probably the shortest a collect can be in terms of components and still be considered a collect.

The point here is that the not every collect of the prayer book fits the rules—nor needs to fit the rules—but they all share in the same fundamental concept and approach. The five part structure is normal and typical, but it’s not uncommon to see some variations in the wild. As we gain facility with it as an extemporaneous prayer form, it’s good to stick to the rules, but they need not be considered straight-jackets either.

Just as a collect has rules regarding its form, elements, and content as a sonnet does, there’s something about its character that is also like a haiku. This classical Japanese poetic form also has rules around it, but the central experience of a haiku is that it is very short—only 18 on (which are roughly comparable to syllables)—unified, and has a seasonal reference. A good haiku evokes an effect. The use of language is intentional and particular. Because it is so short, every word matters; the placement of every word matters. While the seasonal reference is an important part, most Westerners miss them because there are specific words or turns of phrase that have seasonal resonance within Japanese culture; the use of the loaded phrase is important. The master Bashō ­­demonstrates these elements (in Higginson’s translation):

old pond . . .

a frog leaps in

water’s sound

It deftly creates a single experience, the translator’s first line setting a scene, the second providing a glimpse of action.  Rainy springtime is evoked by the frog—but the frog itself is part of what makes the poem what it is: classical poetry often uses this kind of frog for its haunting call; Bashō keeps it silent, but gives the water a voice instead!

A good collect should be like a haiku in that it gives a unified experience, communicating a single, self-contained thought. Furthermore, this thought may be allusive, using loaded language to point outside of itself to references that a cultural literate interpreter should pick up. Finally, a good collect should leave us with a feeling, an intention, or a resolve to enact that for which we have just prayed. Let’s return again to Cranmer’s collect for the First Sunday of Advent:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The unified concept here is about receiving the grace to turn from darkness to light and to live according to the light in the presence of Christ, teacher and judge. The language of light and dark connects to key Advent themes where the coming of Christ is often spoken of as the coming of light and the dawn (…a people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light…; …more than watchmen for the morning…; sleepers, awake!; …be watchful…; etc.). Furthermore, Cranmer is making a very specific biblical allusion. In the old one-year cycle that he knew, the Epistle for Eucharist on Advent 1 was invariably Romans 13:8-14 which includes these verses:

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day… (Rom 13:11-13a).

The collect’s phrase foreshadows the Epistle and, when the collect was repeated after hearing that Epistle, the connection should be remembered. (Of course, in our current three-year cycle, this Epistle only appears on Advent 1 in Year A.) The season, the Scripture, and the practice of the moral life are united in the collect.

Note, too, that the structure is altered a bit from the usual. There is no Acknowledgement following the Invocation, however there is a relative clause in the petition that could easily be one. This is what would happen if we attempted to “fix” the collect:

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

What gets lost here is the effect of the multiple comings of Advent. Cranmer’s collect creates a balanced structure by evoking an advent at the end of the petition clause with one in the result clause; they mirror each other. Moving the Acknowledgement to the Acknowledgement position obscures the parallelism and weakens the collect. By separating the coming of Christ “in great humility” by a greater space of words and phrases from the coming “in glorious majesty” the juxtaposition between the two and the sense of paradox is diminished. Where the words and phrases go matters in terms of the overall effect.

When we encounter collects, therefore, we want to be attentive to these factors. What is the theological and spiritual center of gravity of the collect? What is it inspiring in us and leading us towards? Is it leading us deeper into the season or a particular mystery of life-in-Christ by using allusions or references?

The final point that we should note about collects in general is that, just as particular poems take on a life of their own and shape the cultural vocabulary, the same is true of collects. The collects of the prayer book span an enormous amount of Christian history. When Cranmer prepared the first Book of Common Prayer, he took most of the collects directly from the Sarum Missal and Breviary. Many of these, in turn, went back to the Gregorian and Gallican liturgies that spread throughout the Christian West in the seventh and eighth centuries. Those that Cranmer found objectionable he either adapted or replaced entirely with compositions of his own. As time went on, more collects were added by significant figures in Anglican history like Bishop Cosin who was responsible for the 1662 English prayer book that lays behind so many of the colonial prayer books and is still England’s official text. As more collects have been added, we have gathered recent collects from around the world and as well as going back to the earliest Western sources in the Leonine sacramentary which scholars date to the sixth century.

Many of the collects that we read have been forming Christian theology and spirituality for well over a thousand years. It’s one thing to claim continuity with the Christian tradition of the ages; it’s another to demonstrate it—and our collects do. They are a direct connection into the oldest streams of the tradition enriched by fertilizations from later ages as well.

Collects and the Liturgical Year

Having taken some time to explore the collect form, let’s turn to how the collects function to give a more concrete sense of shape to the liturgical year.

While the prayer book is filled with a variety of collects, the most influential are those appointed for Sundays and the Principal Feasts. This is because these get repeated so often in practice. A collect appointed for a regular Sunday can be prayed through at least fifteen times over the course of the week: in addition to the Sunday Eucharist, it could be repeated every day of the week at Morning and Evening Prayer. The repetition is both intentional and important. The Anglican Churches are not confessional in a technical sense; that is, our beliefs are not established by a confessional document in the same sense that the Lutheran and Reformed churches are. The center of our unity is the prayer book; the collects as bite-sized crystallizations of doctrine, interpretation, and practice are a primary source of our theology. Repeating them day after day, week after week, year after year, instills within the praying community a shared theological vocabulary.

As a result, maintaining the weekly repetition of collects is a significant part of how we acquire and recall our theological heritage. In recent years, there has been a tendency to multiply collects. With the introduction of a more complete sanctoral Calendar in the current prayer book and in subsequent expansions, more and more Days of Optional Observance are receiving their own proper collects. Too, collects have been provided for every day of Lent and many of the days of Easter. Incorporating these new collects alongside a commitment to the faithful use of the Sunday collects—particularly in the Daily Office—is a challenge. There are two main options: the first is to retain the Sunday collects to the exclusion of the supplementary material. The second is to use both: the supplementary Collect of the Day would be used first, the weekly collect would then follow.

Short yet meaty, the collects are ideal candidates for memorization. As each Sunday rolls around, I try to take a few minutes and memorize the collect. As I move through the week, I can stop and reflect on it, rolling its words around in my mind. Instead of passively receiving the piety and theology of the prayer book, I can actively engage it as it fits both into my life of prayer and my daily experiences.

The Seasonal Collects

There is another way that the collects used to reinforce the liturgical year. Starting with the English prayer book of 1662, several collects were appointed to serve as seasonal collects. A note after the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent designated that this collect should be read after the Collect of the Day throughout Advent:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, p. 211)

A similar note after the collect for Ash Wednesday requires that this collect be read after the Collect of the Day through Lent:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.  (BCP, p. 217).

The collect for Christmas wasn’t used throughout the season but it was given its own octave; it was appointed to be read every day after the Collect of the Day up until the Feast of the Circumcision:

 Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

This concept was greatly expanded in our American 1928 prayer book: the collects for Palm Sunday, Easter Sunday, the Ascension, Pentecost, and All Saints’ Day were all given octaves—for the whole week after they were read after any other appointed collect falling in this time. Thus, on the Sunday after All Saints’ (which would vary based on where Easter fell) the congregation would hear first the collect appointed for the Sunday, then the collect appointed for All Saints’ Day. This accomplished two things: first, it emphasized the importance of these feasts; second, as more collects were introduced—as in Holy Week—the repetition of the Octave Collect helped give a better defined shape to the period.

The current prayer book no longer requires these seasonal or octave collects, but they remain an effective practice for securing the intentions and purposes of the chief seasons and feasts in our minds.

6 thoughts on “On the Collects

  1. John-Julian, OJN

    A reminder: there is a valuable relationship between the wording of a Collect and the musical setting—some of the present Collects are almost unsingable by the traditional tones. “How would it be sung?” might be an important requisite question in evaluating a Collect

  2. Beth

    The singing comment above is excellent.

    I have often used composing a collect as a youth group exercise, and I think the collect form also models something about the context in which we pray – that we ground our prayers on previous things God has done or revealed. It strikes me as interesting that many modern prayers omit this grounding clause or make it very generic.

    Also love the point about silence being the heart of the collect. I will likely steal that very soon.

    And finally: I completely agree on the importance of including the collect of Sunday in the Office! There is a mobile version of MP that’s popular with some of my friends which does not do this (among other ways of not really getting the structure of the BCP office), making it a total non-starter for me.

  3. Barbara (bls)

    I too love repeating the Sunday collect for a week at the Office – it pulls everything together in a splendid way. Sundays seem actually become what they were meant to be in the first place: feasts in and of themselves, with an importance that resonates beyond the one day.

    What’s really interesting, actually, is how powerful this effect is! I hadn’t realized that the repetition of the collect was really the only thing tying the Sunday Eucharist and the Daily Office together – but just repeating these few words does this in a very definite and powerful way.

    Great post! I look forward to hearing the collect each week; it’s taken awhile, but I’ve come to recognize them all now, and how they fit in to the year; haven’t gotten around to the formal memorization yet, but I think I could repeat most of most of them, given the first few words!

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