Prayers withstand the test of time

By on June 1, 1999

Ronouring the 450th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer presents in its original form and order the basis for the “prayed theology” in which Anglican identity is rooted. The collect is the special prayer for the day: short, single-focused, somehow related to the Scripture readings and usually, like a sonnet or a Japanese haiku poem, shaped in a classical form. Collects have been part of the worship of the Western church – though not in the east – for about 1,500 years. Until the three-year Common Lectionary appeared about 25 years ago, the collect, epistle and gospel had continued virtually unchanged from pre-Reformation times in mainstream churches, whether Catholic or Protestant. As this book explains, very few of these are actually “collects of Thomas Cranmer” in the sense that he wrote them new in 1549 for the first Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer was a superb translator and stylist, casting the ancient Latin prayers into powerful, living English “understanded of the people.” In the process, he edited them to put a Reformed spin on their theology, reflecting the influence of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. When an old collect would not serve, Cranmer wrote one, masterpieces in their own right, like those for Advent Sunday, Ash Wednesday, and Advent II, all of which appear in the Book of Alternative Services. The Collects of Thomas Cranmeredited by C. Frederick Barbee and Paul F.M. Zahl$27.50 (hardcover)Eerdmans0-8028-3845-6This, however, is more than disinterment of an historical curiosity or an exercise in Anglican nostalgia. The longe-vity of the Cranmerian collects suggests that in the main, he got it right – though revisers over the next 400 years couldn’t resist making their own attempts to improve them, not always successfully. These are the words that shaped the believing, the praying and the vocabulary of generations of Anglicans. This present book is designed to place historical interest within a devotional framework. Each collect is followed by a succinct commentary on its historical context and a short meditation with the contemporary Christian in mind. There is an excellent foreword which outlines the idea of the collect and analyzes the classical form – which could profitably be studied by anyone trying to write prayers today – and a short historical and biographical introduction. This would make a good dipping resource for summer spiritual reading – not too heavy while still offering substantial food for thought. The book could also be commended as a source book to the ecumenical task force now working to develop collects related to the readings for years B and C of the Revised Common Lectionary. Of the collects – mostly Cranmer’s work – in the 1962 Book of Common Prayer, by my count only 13 survived in the Book of Alternative Services. Surely there is more still-relevant material than that in this millennium-and-a-half of Christian experience. Even though contemporary English may not have quite the ring of the original 16th-century expression, it should be possible to translate these ancient prayers in ways that reflect our present spiritual needs – really little different from those of the people who first prayed these collects. And who knows? Maybe among the members of that collect-producing group is another Cranmer, with the gift of translating eternal themes into simple, pithy and powerful expressions of Christian piety. William Portman is book review editor for the Anglican Journal.

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