We are now observing summer hours on Daily Episcopalian. Rather than six essays per week, we will be running five, with fresh essays appearing Sunday and then Tuesday through Friday.
By Derek Olsen
For American Episcopalians, the authorized Book of Common Prayer has always been the center of our common spiritual life. The prayer book not only presents us with common texts for worship but also with an implicitly liturgical “rule of life” marking the hinges of the day with prayer, the cycle of the week with Eucharist, the passage of years by the Temporal and Sanctoral cycles, and incorporating the turning points of life: birth, growth, love, penitence, and death. The prayer book doesn’t just show us how to worship or how to order our steps towards Christ, though—it also inculturates us into classical Anglican theology that is heir to both the teachings of the Historic Christian West and the Protestant Reformation. One of the best and most effective vehicles for this theology and spirituality are the short prayers called collects.
Collects have been an important prayer type in the Western Church; our earliest examples are contemporaneous with our earliest Western liturgical books (6th century). Originally referred to simply as orationes—literally “prayers”—they were the first prayers in the Eucharistic liturgy. The clergy would enter, the congregation would pray silently, then the celebrant would offer one of these brief prayers appointed for the day. Our word “collect” comes from the term collectio or collecta from the Gallican liturgical books as the liturgies morphed in what is modern-day France (from the sixth through the eighth centuries). Both the spare Roman collects and the verbose, effusive Gallican prayers were incorporated into the mainstream of the Western liturgy. At the Reformation, Archbishop Cranmer took many collects directly from the English Sarum Rite but also composed new prayers fitting the reforming theology of the English Church. Many new collects have been added in recent years, some of which harken back to the very oldest Roman books, others are thoroughly modern.
Following the ancient pattern, our prayer book appoints a collect for every Sunday and Holy Day—some even receive more than one. They open each Eucharist and are closing prayers for both Morning and Evening Prayer. Generally, the prayer appointed for the Sunday is used at Morning and Evening Prayer throughout the following week (Holy Day or collects for saints may interrupt this for a day based on local use). As a result, Episcopalians who follow the discipline of the Daily Office may pray a single collect as many as sixteen times in one week!
This is how theology gets in our bones—through repetition. Praying these collects over and over during a week, over and over through the yearly cycles forms us and shapes us in their patterns. And, studying them, many of them are gems of succinct theological thought. For instance, whenever the vexing question of the Atonement raises its head, I instinctively go to the collect for Proper 15 as a solid Anglican starting place:
Almighty God, who hast given thy only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin and also an example of godly life: Give us grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit, and also daily endeavor ourselves to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life; through the same Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Instead of an “either/or” choice, this prayer, dating from 1549, gives us a healthy “both/and” approach that encompasses substitutionary atonement, Christ as moral exemplar, and uses vocabulary that points us to the Eucharist. There’s a lot packed in here—especially if we take the time to notice.
The collects, short yet meaty, 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. I’ve found this an enriching way to not just pray but to grow deeper into the Anglican way of following Christ.
Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.