Dr John Dickson

Australian writer, academic, and speaker — public advocate for the Christian Faith

The comprehensiveness of the 'collects' - a spectator's guide to prayer in the Anglican tradition - by Michael Jensen


Nearly everybody prays. 

Prayer is one of those human universals, like drinking water, and trying to find a good Wi-Fi signal. Even the person who claims not to believe in God surprisingly finds him or herself at prayer. The gestures of prayer seem to make so much sense: confessing our sins, giving thanks for what he have, asking for blessing, protesting against the way things are.

Plato recognized this quite some time ago, when he wrote: 

All men... who have any degree of right feeling, at the beginning of every enterprise, whether small or great, always call upon God.

In his momentous book The Varieties of Religious Experience, which is a vast study of religious traditions and experiences across time and cultures, William James concluded that prayer was the vital heart-beat of all religious consciousness.

And yet, we know from the Holy Scripture itself that prayer can be a futile, idolatrous activity. Prayer is not good in and of itself. The fervid and ultimately ridiculous dancing and self-harming of the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel is pathetic because their god does not actually exist – or, maybe, as Elijah goads them, he is on the toilet, or having a nanna nap. Jesus contrasts true Christian prayer with the prayers of the pagans, who hope that they will be heard because of their many and repetition words, and the hypocrites, who make a great display of their piety for all the world to see. The point of the parable of the unjust judge is that the true God is not like the judge: he does not finally give in to our requests because he gets tired of us nagging, and so the disciples should not give up because God actually desires to give us good things.

And so it was a tragedy when Christian prayer became itself what the Bible critiqued.

Prayer is all about the God to whom one prays: that is, it is shaped by the God one is addressing.

In medieval Christianity before the Reformation there had developed a veritable industry of prayer. We have already seen how, in the chantry houses of Europe, the monastic movement made the business of prayer their very own. The demands of a daily life of prayer were too onerous for the everyday Christian. The monks, friars, nuns and other religious functionaries took the burden on themselves on behalf of the rest of the social order. As a result, they lived apart, sequestered from the everyday concerns of family life, political life and economic life.

What was this prayer for? Those who prayed had a job to do to plead with God on behalf of society for its protection and its wellbeing. They prayed against the uncertainties of human life – against plague and pestilence, famine and misfortune. They prayed not simply to God but also sought the help of the host of saints, and of the Virgin Mary. And the prayers in a church service were in Latin, so that the unfailing impression given was that prayer was a matter of uttering mystical words like a spell.

It is worth asking: what image of God do you get from this practice of prayer? He is more unjust judge than the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, one of the saddest ironies is that the prayer that Jesus introduced in order to counter an essentially pagan practice of prayer became itself used as a mantra in a foreign language repeated in order to get God’s attention.

The Reformation of the sixteenth century was a revolution in prayer because it was a revolution in God. To put it in a nutshell: if we are justified by faith alone, then we pray to God not to impress him but to respond to him as our heavenly Father because of what Jesus has done for us. He is an Almighty, but also a most merciful God.

The new liturgy was to be called The Book of Common Prayer. To pray together is a significant reason that Christians gather. But they gather to pray to the God who has drawn them to himself in Christ, justifying them freely by his grace. 

They pray to God with no need for any other mediator than Christ himself, and as sinners but confident in Christ of meeting a gracious and merciful God in their hour of need.

And they are to pray in intelligible words – words that they understand. The prayer of the Christian as a creature of the word of God corresponds to that word by being something understood. There is no hint that prayer is a kind of mindless repetition of a formula of talismanic sounds. Though there is a place for the inarticulate groanings of the inner being in private prayer, this is not tantamount to a form of mystical prayer. Public prayer must edify the congregation; they can only truly say ‘Amen’, and thus only truly pray, if they hear and understand what is prayed. Furthermore, public prayer was designed to be truly congregational. It was certainly to be led by the Minister, but the congregation were invited to pray aloud, either alongside him or in response.

The collects that were to be prayed week by week during the church year were an added bonus. The collects are school for prayer, so called because they formed a kind of summary of the teaching of Scripture that was being read, and so were listed to accompany the readings listed for the different days of the year.

The collects of the Book of Common Prayer come from a variety of sources – not all were authored by Cranmer. Only a few were specially composed for use in post-Reformation services. They are distinguished by – and were heavily criticized by the Puritans for – their brevity.

They follow a similar pattern: opening with an Invocation of God according to his attributes and sometimes according to some piece of the narrative of redemption; then stating a Doctrine, which grounds the Petition that follows; The Petition itself; an “Aspiration”, or the desired result of the prayer; and the Termination, which usually points to the mediation of Jesus Christ.

Invocation, Doctrine, Petition, Aspiration, Termination. 

Thus, the collect for the second Sunday in Advent:

BLESSED Lord, (invocation) who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning (doctrine); Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them (Petition), that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. (Aspiration and Termination).

or the collect for the first day of Lent:

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

What these prayers do is that they shape our piety on the basis of grace. They do not coach us to nag God; they teach us about God. They direct us to him in response to his gracious character; they teach us about the narrative of salvation; they make us bold to ask for the things we need and desire; but they do not kid us about our worthiness to obtain them other than by the merits of Jesus Christ.

Of course, Anglican prayer can become what medieval prayer had become. We can make in the fine poetry of these prayers an idol. They can become as alienating in form as a prayer in Latin, vainly repeated in the hope that God hears sixteenth century English more readily than that of the twenty-first. But this would be to empty the collects of the BCP of everything they are trying to teach us about truly Christian prayer.

The Rev'd Dr. Michael Jensen is a theologian and writer, and is the Rector of St Mark's Darling Point