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??