The Joyce Hill Column
The church’s new year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, which in 2020 falls on 29 November. The previous Sunday, the last in the old year, is consequently 22 November, and it is on this day that we say the most famous of our collects: ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen’. Common Worship uses modernised language, but here I’ve chosen its original sixteenth century form as it was created for use in what was then the Church of England’s new Book of Common Prayer. Even in its more modern form, however, it begins with ‘Stir up…’ and it is this which in recent centuries has made it part of our common culture: the day became known as Stir Up Sunday, when the Christmas pudding mixture was stirred up and wishes were made. So it has prompted me to write about Collects this month.
The liturgical term ‘collect’ for a short prayer has the same etymology as the verb ‘to collect’, although we pronounce them differently. Both come from Latin ‘a gathering together’, and ‘to gather together’. The collect, known for centuries in the Latin liturgy as a collecta, is a short prayer which brings together an invocation, a petition, and a conclusion which calls upon Christ or ascribes glory to God. I always think of it as a rather efficient form of prayer! You can see the elements of it in the ‘Stir up’ collect above. However, as is often the case in the Church of England’s traditional collects, the invocation (the address to God) only comes after the no-nonsense opening words of the petition, ‘Stir up’. Another well-known example of doing things this way is the Evensong collect, ‘Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from the perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ, Amen.’
In the medieval liturgy there were elaborate rules about which collects were said when in the church’s year, and since the number of days between Epiphany and Easter and between Pentecost and Advent varies from year to year according to the date of Easter, it was convenient to have the collects in a separate book so that they could be drawn upon as and when required. This special book of collects was known as a Collectar (Latin Collectarium). So, when Archbishop Cranmer was putting together the prayer book for the newly created Church of England, he was able to draw upon a rich tradition. Latin texts lie behind most of the BCP’s collects, but some are original compositions, as far as we can tell, and each one, whether following the sense of its Latin source, or being completely independent, is sharpened and shaped very skilfully for the rhythms of English speech. In total, Cranmer’s 1549 service book has eighty-four collects which cater for the cycle of the church’s year, including fixed feast-days for those saints that the new church continued to honour, and a dozen or so collects embedded within services, which remained fixed — for example, ‘Lighten our darkness…’, said at every Evensong. They have been called ‘jewelled miniatures’, ‘one of the chief glories of the Anglican liturgical tradition’. But it will be a task for another occasion to take a closer look at Cranmer’s skill in creating them.