Liturgy should say what it means, and …

The chiasmus that is so often quoted about liturgy these days is that liturgical writing should say what it means and mean what it says. By and large, I agree with that, though we do have to allow space for the times when we cannot grasp or explain all that God is.

However, I have a wee problem brewing at the moment. The truth is, I don’t understand all the collects that I get presented with for Evensong. Take the one for this Sunday:

ALMIGHTY and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service: Grant, we beseech thee, that we may so faithfully serve thee in this life, that we fail not finally to attain thy heavenly promises; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Now, what exactly does that mean? And even supposing that we understand what it means, do we believe what it says? I know the members of the Prayer Book Society will be hopping up and down on one leg by this time. Brothers and sisters of the PBS, now is your moment. Tell me, should we really keep saying and singing things that we don’t understand? Was that really what Cranmer would have wanted?

You see, I have to sing this stuff. How can you sing a text you just can’t understand the meaning of? I’m baffled.

I’m baffled and I’m going to sing a different collect on Sunday night.

So bite me.

[Talking of chiasmi, I saw a good one today when I was out shopping in Frasers – “better to be looked over than to be overlooked.” Excellent. The stuff that good preaching is made on. It was Mae West, of course].


  1. Hmmm. Looks like a confusion of grace permitting faith in the first clause[0], followed by a rather too close interplay of salvation and works shortly afterwards. Sounds like the language of 1662 before progressiveness was invented!

    [0] is there a proper term for sections of these things?

  2. I think the only hope of sense is in singing it. Or at least in reading it aloud. (tripplet of tripple stresses: on’ly gift’ it com’eth… faith’ful peo’ple do’… true’ & laud’able ser’vice)

    I’m sure Cranmer would not want us to be using it. But a modern collect would not give you nearly so much opportunity to shine.

    as an aside– Do you think we should start a ‘What would Cranmer do?’ campaign to rival WWJD?

  3. kelvin says

    Tim – I don’t know whether there is a special term for the first clause. It is from the SPB, but I’m not actually sure whether the same collect is in 1662. I presume so.

    As to Kimberly’s comment, it rather highlights the problem, in that I would have presumed that the second “triplet” actually ends with a stress on thee, not on do.

    But as I said earlier, what would I know.

    I like very much the idea of WWCD?

    As I always say when confronted with the WWJD? question, we know what Jesus did – he went to parties and hung out with all the wrong people.

  4. Roddy says

    Hmm. Don’t understand the first sentence of the collect but do understand the second.

    I’ve never really had a problem with Cranmer since I read the book “God’s Secretaries” on the production of the KJB. Albeit Cranmer predated Launcelot Andrewes et al the writing is still English at its purest, beautiful, and most expressive. Maybe we all need to sharpen our knowledge of the nuances of language from the 16th and 17th century.

    I’ve found a whole wealth and layer of meaning in reading the psalms and the prayer book in their early english forms. Subtlety of language is to be celebrated even though it may seem archaic.

    That being said I’m off to don my velvet smoking jacket and take some snuff. However, I leave you with this thought. The language of the Cranmer collects is poetical if difficult to understand. Modern translations of the collects are like the instruction manual for a photocopier. Exactly how many qualifying clauses does belief require..

  5. Triple negative, Kelvin. ‘Thee’ never gets stressed in a collect. The whole thing is addressed to God. Stressing ‘thee’ would either be winging or fawning.

    (and surely trippplet should have more p’s)

  6. oh dear. Not my day for spelling.

    whinging not winging.

  7. kelvin says

    Kimberly’s rather garrulous spelling goes some way to proving my original point. One p in triplet in this dispensation. You can argue that tripplet is the correct American spelling if you wish.

    You may all be thinking that baiting the Prayer Book Society is just something that priests do because it is good sport. However, I could not possibly comment.

    I disagree with Roddy but only by degree. I’d say that some of Cranmer is still English at its purest, beautiful, and most expressive. But not all. (And don’t get me started on parsing the sentences from the Scottish Communion Rite in the SPB).

    I think that the modern collects that we are currently using at St Mary’s are pretty good in comparison with some sets. The ones we use are not licensed by anything other that the faint nod of acquiescence from the episcopal nose.

    Whilst Roddy is snorting his snuff, I’ll throw in something that I remember Alan Bennett saying when addressing the Prayer Book Society that haunts me.

    “Cranmer was one of the architects of the Prayer Book. He was burnt at the stake; he did not die for English prose.”

  8. Despite being a fervent advocate of modern poetic* liturgy, I have to come out and say that I find this collect (a) perfectly clear and (b) very beautiful in its carefully judged balance – even if modern usage would quibble somewhat with the punctuation. (The colon and the semi-colon are a tad heavy-handed, but do assist in unravelling the syntax)
    *I don’t like giving God a 21st century shopping list, nor even a news bulletin.

  9. kelvin says

    Well don’t just tease us, Chris, explain the bit before the colon.

    I know what the second part means and don’t like the sentiment at all.

  10. kelvin says

    Oh, and whilst we are on the subject, just let me say that liturgy is one of the things that we did get some help with in TISEC.

    And, even more importantly for this discussion, on one glorious occasion, the person doing the teaching did in fact take snuff during the session.

    Roddy, you are in blessed company.

  11. Elizabeth says

    I understand ‘merciful God’, the rest confuses.

    And what’s all this about pure English? I thought the English language was anything but pure, hence its greatness.

    I feel that WWCD has great potential.

  12. ALMIGHTY and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service:
    I have a feeling that “only” may belong to “it cometh” rather than “gift” – in which case:
    “A & m God, whose people are only able to serve you adequately because you enable them so to do”

    If I’m wrong about “only” – and it’d be a matter of the way the sentence sounded rather than anything else – then I’d start asking you if the “only gift” could be the Incarnation, ‘cos that’s your comfort zone, not mine. 😉

  13. kelvin says

    “A & m God, whose people are only able to serve you adequately because you enable them so to do”

    Well, call me a Pelagian if you must, but I ask again, do we really believe this?

  14. AHHHH – belief. Well there’s a thing. That’s why poetry is so handy.

  15. Collects should be poetic.

    Collects are not poems.

    What about lex orandi, lex credendi?

  16. Moyra says

    I think I feel an urge to return to the Quakers…

  17. I’ll stick to listening for a bit, I think. And sing in Latin when necessary (a language I understand, BTW, but which doesn’t rub my nose in doctrine). And really, God doesn’t need told what God is like.

  18. I see what chris means with the interpretation – but it’s also possible that the “only” *may* instead go with “whose”: “only God invokes in us a response of service”, perhaps.

    Someone must have had a lot of time on their paws to convolute the poor language thus.

    Clarifying the second half by introducing a dreaded split infinitive would be the least of improvements, too. Serving here&now to not-avoid heaven? Er…

  19. Helen says

    I found this blog by a circuitous chain of links of Scottish Episcopalian bloggers (I’m at St Mark’s Portobello) and being a fan of Cranmer have to leap in belatedly to defend him. What he wrote was:

    ALMYGHTIE and mercyfull God, of whose onely gifte it cometh that thy faythfull people doe unto thee true and laudable service; graunte we beseche thee, that we may so runne to thy heavenly promises, that we faile not finally to attayne the same; through Jesus Christe our Lorde.

    The bit about ‘running to thy heavenly promises’ must have been smoothed out by someone a bit embarrassed at such enthusiasm in 1662 which is when your version first appears. This collect is a response to the Epistle designated in the 1549 Prayerbook, from Galatians 3 (“But the scripture concludeth all things under sin, that the promise by the faith of Jesus Christ should be given unto them that believe.”), the Gospel which is the parable of the Good Samaritan (which I presume inspired the bit about true and laudable service), and the Psalm which I think gives the running-towards-God attitude (109: ‘Lord, what love have I unto
    thy law : all the day long is my study in it. ‘).

    Further digging online reveals that most of this collect corresponds to the traditional Catholic liturgy: “Omnipotens et misericors Deus, de cujus munere venit, it tibi a fidelibus tuis digne et laudabiliter serviatur: tribue. quaesumus, nobis, it ad promissiones tuas sine offensione curramus.” Cranmer gives a literal translation of this, down to the last clause where he substitutes ‘that we faile not finally to attayne the same’ for ‘without offence’. The other change he introduces is the ‘only’ which has provoked comment above: I think that given C16th English grammar this could equally mean ‘from whom alone’ or ‘only by one particular gift’. Probably the ‘modern translation’ would be ‘it is only through your gift that…’

    I think both his changes make the collect more ‘protestant’ (by mid-C16th standards) than the original in theological terms, especially the second one.

    One thing I love about Cranmer’s collects is that they keep the principle of tying up with multiple elements of the readings/psalms for the day: if you change the lectionary, you get a bit lost sometimes.

    (I found the Latin collect here and this is a great website for finding Anglican service books through the ages

    As for What Would Cramner Do: conduct services “in suche a language and ordre, as is moste easy and plain for the understandyng, bothe of the readers and hearers.” (He’s also a big fan of doing away with the multitude of confusing books that people can’t find their way around as well.)

  20. Helen, what a splendid comment. You’ve managed to justify Cranmer, support modern language liturgies, and encourage a need to simple booklets all in one. A rare feat.

  21. agatha says

    And there was me thinking Helen was just showing off.

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