Collect Interruptions

I’ve become interested lately in the syntax and word order of the Collect (=Opening Prayer =Prayer of the Day). I claim no special competence in the subject, so my remarks here are intended as a stimulus for others to advance the conversation. I will limit myself to offering a few tentative hunches and raising a few questions at the end of this post.

My inelegant term for the topic at hand is “collect interruption.” (Does someone know the proper technical term?) By this I mean an interruption in the flow of a sentence such as this:

Grant, [O Lord,] [we beseech you,] grace…

I’m calling both elements in square brackets an interruption, coming as they do between the primary grammatical elements of on either side of the brackets, in this case an imperative verb and its object: “Grant grace.”

It’s a subjective call, but my ear doesn’t hear it as an interruption when the opening vocative is merely renamed:

O God, Father of your people, hear…

On the other hand, I think it is an interruption when the vocative is followed by “who” and a verb:

O God, [who have come to save your people,] …

I no longer hear an interruption when a construction such as the above is reworded as “you have…”:

O God, you have come to save your people; …

This rewording has become rather standard in recent English liturgies of the various churches.

I’ve selected four sources, none of them Roman Catholic, for my little conversation starter: the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the 1979 US Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, the 1993 Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, and 2006 Evangelical Lutheran Worship of the ELCA. In each case I’ve selected the collects from Ash Wednesday through Palm Sunday. For convenience I’ve standardized the terms for the liturgical days. Here is what I found.

The Book of Common Prayer of 1662 has the most interruptions. (It is found on the web here. A good study of historical changes is Martin R. Dudley, The Collect in Anglican Liturgy, Liturgical Press, 1994.)

1-2.  Almighty and everlasting God, [who hatest nothing that thou hast made,] [and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent;] Create…
3-4.  …Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we [worthily lamenting our sins,] [and acknowledging our wretchedness] may obtain… (Ash Wed)
5.  …may obtain of thee, [the God of all mercy,] perfect remission… (Ash Wed)
6.  …Give us grace to use such abstinence, that [our flesh being subdued to the Spirit,] we may ever obey… (I Lent)
7-8. Grant, [we beseech thee,] [almighty God,] that we… (IV Lent)
9.  …that we, [who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished]..may mercifully be relieved… (IV Lent)
10.  …that we… [by the comfort of thy grace] may mercifully be relieved… (IV Lent)
11.  We beseech thee, [Almighty God,] mercifully to look…  (V Lent)
12.  …that [by thy great goodness] they may be governed…  (V Lent)
13.  Almighty and everlasting God, who [of thy tender love towards mankind,] has sent…

By the time of the 1979 US Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, things have changed  quite a bit. I will quote from the 1979 “contemporary” collections; the “traditional” collects have pretty much the same structure and word order, but leave words such as “thee” and “thou” unaltered. (The 1979 BCP is found online at here.)

1-5.  The venerable Collect for Ash Wed is retained, which means that interruptions 3-5 from 1662 are still found. Interruptions 1-2 are found in the “traditional” collect of 1979, but the 1979 “contemporary” collect rewords the opening phrase as “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing…” In my interpretation, this is not an interruption.
6.  …and, [as you know the weakness of each of us,] let each one… (I Lent)
7.  …that, [among the swift and varied changes of the world,] our hearts… (V Lent)
Following the usual pattern, an additional interruption is found in the opening phrase of the “traditional” collect for V Lent: “O almighty God, [who alone canst order the unruly wills…:] Grant…”  In the “contemporary” version this is recast as “Almighty God, you alone can bring…”
Apart from the ancient Ash Wed collect, there are only two interruptions in the 1979 “contemporary” collects.

With the 1993 Presbyterian Book of Common Worship the situation is a bit different because three collect options are found for each liturgy. When surveying the numerous interruptions below, it should be kept in mind that they are found in a collect pool nearly three times as large. (No liturgy for Ash Wed is included; two collects are given for PalmS.)

1.  …that [as you know our weakness, so] we may know…  (I Lent 1)
2.  …So guide us that, [following our Savior,] we may walk…  (I Lent 2)
3.  …so [in the saving flood of Baptism] we are washed clean…  (I Lent 3)
4.  …that [in every way] we may prove to be…  (II Lent 1)
5.  …in Jesus Christ, [lifted up on the cross,] you opened for us…  (II Lent 2)
6.  …Grant that we, [being born again of water and the Spirit,] may joyfully serve…  (II Lent 2)
7.  …and [in the renewal of our lives] may make known…  (III Lent 1)
8.  …that, [with all your children,] they may feast…  (IV Lent 3)
9.  …that, [dying and rising with him,] we may enter…  (PalmS 1)
10.  …that [united with Christ and all the faithful] we may one day enter…  PalmS 2)

Evangelical Lutheran Worship of 2006, like the 1993 Presbyterian book, has three collects for each day, although here they are assigned to years A, B, and C of the lectionary.

1-2. These are essentially interruptions 3 and 5 from 1662 and 1979, slightly reworded: “…so that, [truly repenting of our sins,] we may receive…” and “…from you, [the God of all mercy,] full pardon…”
3. …so that, [following your Son,] we may walk…  (I Lent C)
4.  …that [by your Spirit] we may lift up…  (II Lent A)
5.  …that [through life and death] we may live…  (V Lent B)
6.  …in the joyful procession of those who [with their tongues] confess…  (PalmS ABC, 2)

I have a hunch that 1662 has the most interruptions because educated men still thought in Latin in the seventeenth century and quite naturally brought Latin constructions over into their English. I suspect that, in succeeding eras, the “vernacularization” is more thoroughgoing, and sentence structure is driven more explicitly by the conventions of the vernacular language. And despite the Anglican reformers’ obvious commitment to comprehension on the part of lay worshipers, I wonder whether they weren’t influenced by the highly stratified structure of their society, and hence their attentiveness to the perceptions of commoners was rather limited.

I have not attempted to weight the relative difficulties posed by these various interruptions. I observe that the interruptions in the later sources seem to be the least difficult. There are several interruptions in the 1993 Presbyterian source, but most of them are brief and only interrupt the flow minimally.

It is interesting to sketch out, at least initially and provisionally, some elements of a theory of rhetorically successful and unsuccessful interruption. It seems that, in our day, interruptions should be rather brief. It is probably less disorienting for the listener if there is enough content to hang on to before the interruption while one waits out the interruption, so to speak, for the completion of the thought.

I find it fascinating that the prayer packed with the most interruptions in the 1979 BCP and the 2006 ELW is the Ash Wed collect inherited from 1662. This makes me wonder whether complexity is more readily accepted when there is psychological attachment to an inherited, familiar prayer, but such complexity is avoided when prayers are newly drafted. Familiarity helps the listener cope with the interruption.

For orientation the listener probably needs clear antecedents which are placed close to the interruption. In interruption 9 in the 1662  Book of Common Prayer, for example, though it is a lengthy interruption, it is quite clear that “who” refers to “we.”

But this topic is rather new to me. Anyone out there who knows more about this? What do you all think??



  1. To qualify my response, I know less about this than probably anyone who will comment, but this is my little theory… I think when the wording becomes streamlined (such as the example “O God, you have come to save your people;”) it can become too easy to proclaim, and too easy to listen to (ie, goes in one ear, out the other). The one proclaiming the prayer can get away with not preparing. A few of these “interruptions” might force the speaker to slow down and think about emphasis, etc., ahead of time.

    From the listener’s perspective, I think it’s valuable that the language sound different from ordinary conversation. Not quite in the style of 1662 perhaps, but something more timeless, a product of the past and present combined, rather than a purely contemporary construct. Personally I feel more actively engaged in the prayer when confronted with something that forces me to think, especially about the relationships between clauses. Probably plenty of folks who feel differently though.

    1. Jeff, I think I agree with you to a large extent. I find the 1979 BCP “contemporary” prayers, including their interruptions, quite a bit more beautiful and compelling than our current RC prayers. There is an art in how to interrupt, and they know how to do it. Done poorly, it’s quite ugly, clumsy, and not compelling at all.

  2. Anthony, what you are referring to here is a form of nestling clauses. It seems that when the invocation is followed by an amplification (whether a relative clause or in apposition) it is not problematic for you. The one that you say interrupts more is when the prayer begins with a petition and in the middle of the petition clause is inserted the invocation Deus and the parenthetical petition quaesumus. Latin as an inflected language has greater elasticity for separating words that relate together to an extent that English does not. My question is where did you find the direct object ‘you’ in the word quaesumus’? Daniel McCarthy

    1. Hi Dan – I welcome all your comments on this post, since you’re an expert in this area (I’m not). If I understand your question, I quoted the 1662 BCP “we beseech thee” which I assume translated ‘quaesumus.’ I grant that, literally, ‘quaesumus’ means just “we beseech,” but that’s not what the BCP adds. I think this addition is appropriate, it sounds better in English with it. Or am I missing your question?

      1. Anthony, I was referring to the beginning of your third paragraph “Grant, [O Lord,] [we beseech you,] grace…”. The citation appeared to me as a ‘typical’ example for discussion purposes, rather than the text of a specific prayer. I assumed simply that here “we beseech you” is an English rendering of ‘quaesumus’. You may be right about how the English sounds. My comment is really off the point of your thread, which was more concerned with the sound of interruptions in English, whereas my concern was simply an accurate representation of the Latin text. Perhaps it is not helpful to conflate two quite distinct conversations.

  3. Speaking of ‘interrupting clauses’, the second amendment to the US Constitution concerning the right to bear arms has a nominative absolute, its meaning a matter of interpretation. And people – their minds set in stone – think an English equivalent to the Latin ablative absolute irrelevant today, current events to the contrary. These things said, I’ll not comment on current events. Given these sentences, can you find six absolutes and do you think any of them work, the seventh perhaps found in your reply? Daniel McCarthy

  4. When I hear the “qui” clause in a prayer I feel engaged with God. It acts on me like a preface does, or the Creed when I’m paying close attention. Instead of addressing a vague deity (just “God”), a collect with an appositive qui expresses that this God has a history with me. I realize the sentence construction is like nothing in common use, but the activity of expressing the historic reasons for mutual trust is a part of communication in all relationships. It can be as simple as “thanks for your kind words” or as complex as “you have been my best friend for thirty years.” It’s a kind of appreciation.

    In a collect, the qui clause roots the petition of the prayer in the history of the relationship. To my ears, although it has a formal sound, it adds to the intimacy of the prayer because of its meaning.

    If the qui clause is divided from the petition (as usual in the 1973), although a reference is made to the history, the causal connection between the history and the hoped-for answer to the petition is weakened.

    Here is a lightly meant example of how a divided qui strikes my ear, and a contrasting, appositive qui:

    Dear Dad, you have always been supportive of my education. Please send money.


    Dear Dad, in light of your steadfast support of my education over the years, please send money.

    The second is a more complex sentence but I feel it expresses a more engaged relationship.

  5. Think of collect praying as a skill to be acquired rather than as a product to be consumed.

    That skill may be influenced by: only hearing the text, hearing the text with a written text in front of oneself, speaking the text, praying the text repeatedly (as in the LOH). Professionals experience all these; most people don’t.

    That skill may be influenced by the number of similar but different prayers that one has heard, read, prayed, studied. Again professionals get a lot of experience in this matter, most people don’t.

    The data from my prayer interviews suggests that when anyone encounters a prayer form, e.g. conversational prayer, there is a process that often begins with wariness, curiosity (and may stop there with “this is not for me”), then may develop into a certain amount of comfort with hearing other people pray, then into initial limited attempts on one’s own to come into mastery of this form of prayer, and finally in increasing comfort and skill in praying over a wide variety of situations.

    So we have to understand the effect of collect texts over a wide variety of skill levels, how text interacts with skill level, and what we can do to improve skill levels as well as texts.

    We have children’s Liturgy of the Word. Maybe we need a wide variety of options for different levels of skills. Some of the present efforts appear to be trying to impose a high skill level on people in the parish. Most catechesis is not skill building.

  6. In discussions about these prayers, it seems to be quite common that the thing least considered, but I would say most important, is the sonic/auditory aspect. I seem to recall that it was part of Anglican clergy formation for quite some time that public elocution was a requirement in the course of study. (I think perhaps I read that in Evelyn Underhill.) Though a couple folks have brought up the sonics, and the art of public praying, by and large we do get bogged down in the word order and syntax and so on – on the page – without realizing that ultimately these words have to sound. No matter what else one might feel about Bp. Trautman’s position on the collects, he was correct in his assessment about their frequent clumsiness or outright unsuitability for public proclamation. In most cases, the faithful will not have the text of the prayers in front of them, so a lot of these successive interrupting clauses can lead to a linguistic bridge that could collapse under its own weight. When the prayers are chanted, it is my experience that this becomes even worse. How well these words “excite the air” (a favorite phrase of a former acoustics professor of mine) should have been considered.

    1. Alan – excellent point, I agree. I think one seriously needs attention to how the text sounds, how it proclaims, how it sings, how it is experienced by the listener. FWIW, I made up the clumsy term “interruption” because I wanted to get at how the LISTENER experiences a prayer, what is experienced as acceptable interruption compared to unacceptable interruption. I hope my post didn’t sound like I’m doing mere grammar study – that’s why I didn’t want to use a conventional term like “subordinate clause.”

    1. That’s unfortunate that it was *much less important*. That’s an approach to translation that misses the music, the kind that would at best get a B rather than an A (though it might merely get a C, depending on whether the teacher is trying to get students to understand that translation is something more than mechanical equivalence of parts of speech), as it were.

  7. But communication, even artistic communication, is classically of three parts: the message, the messenger, and the recipient. If poets can produce sonnets within a very strict format, why can’t ICEL enhance all three aspects in a translation? Of what use is an “accurate” message if a priest can’t say it and the people can’t hear it? That’s just narcissism on the part of the authors. (And by authors, I don’t mean God.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *