Liturgy Institute London

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Ecumenical collaboration


From Benedictine Culture 4 (2011)

Ecumenical collaboration, differentiated practices

Bridget Nichols

This example of practical, ecumenical, co-operation recently resulted in a book of essays on the collect in the Churches of the Reformation (SCM, London 2010). To begin at the very beginning means returning to a lunch table in Palermo at the end of the 2007 conference of Societas Liturgica. Ecumenical configurations at mealtimes are the rule here rather than the exception. Over the buzz of several conversations one word suddenly caused all at the table to turn their attention to a group engaged in a discussion of collects. Methodists, Roman Catholics and an Anglican quickly found themselves part of one conversation, moving from Daniel McCarthy’s then current series in The Tablet, to the rival merits of Thomas Cranmer and modern writers as translators of collects, to whether we all used them every week.

From this conversation one of the Methodists and the Anglican were invited to contribute chapters on the collect as understood in their traditions to a volume that James Leachman and Daniel McCarthy were proposing. Further lively correspondence after the conference proved to all of us that including only two Churches directly or ancestrally of the Reformation risked giving an extremely unbalanced impression and crucially of omitting any mention of Luther or Calvin. A separate volume was clearly indicated. Atitle – The Collect in the Churches of the Reformation (SCM Press, London 2010)– soon emerged and invitations were sent out to nine other potential contributors.

The Lutheran strand in Reformation liturgical development is represented by scholars from the Church of Sweden and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Calvinist strand by a specialist from the Presbyterian Church (USA); the ‘English’ strand by two Church of England liturgists; the Methodist tradition by scholars from the Methodist Church in Britain and the United Methodist Church; and the Dissenting Free Church tradition by an expert from the British Baptist Church. Two Anglicans discuss the relationship of collects to lectionaries and the incorporation of independent collections of collects into mainstream practice. A Roman Catholic scholar provides a fascinating account of developments from the ICELcollects of 1973 to those proposed for the ICELtranslation of the 2002 Missale Romanum.

After some necessary historical scene-setting, the chapters representing particular Churches emphasize the contemporary use of the collect. The accounts of when collects were used, where they came from, and how they related to the proper readings exceeded the editor’s initial expectations. Whereas Anglicans and Lutherans have used collects as a matter of course, Methodists and Presbyterians, mindful of the importance of both form and freedom in worship, have not made the provision for their use compulsory. The Baptist heritage includes deep suspicion of fixed or composed prayer as a serious inhibition to the work of the Holy Spirit, and so resists prescribed words. Relatively recently, attitudes have changed and collections of liturgical material are now emerging.

Other differentiated practices concern how the position of the collect in the sequence of the liturgy is understood. While it is largely taken to be the closing part of the entrance rite, the strong connection in some circumstances between the proper collect and the readings effectively turns it into the opening act of the Liturgy of the Word. Calvinists have prefixed a collect to the readings as a prayer for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; while the form is always familiar, the minister is free to improvise the text. An intriguing alternative occurs when the collect introduces the sermon, implying that the Spirit is being invoked upon the preacher, not upon the whole assembly.

Some contributors commented on the choreography of collect usage. Is it said or sung? Is there silence beforehand? Is it introduced with the formula, ‘The Lord be with you… Let us pray’? Do the congregation stand or kneel (or, regrettably, sit)? Several recount how collects became familiar to worshippers from compulsory memorising at school, to a small repertoire that quickly becomes well known, to the association with particular times of the year.

The collect inhabits its culture especially in relation to the linguistic register used by composers and translators (the 1973 and 2010 ICELcollects make an eloquent contrast) and the growing determination to ensure that prayer is inclusive, notably in respect of women. Strategies for achieving this range from gently avoiding dominant masculine forms of address for God, to the evocative metaphors of composers such as Janet Morley and Steven Shakespeare.

The contributors were all highly educated liturgists, familiar with applying the standard theoretical principles in their work. This ecumenical co-operation owes a great deal to a common understanding about liturgical history and method and the interrelationship of the building blocks from which liturgical acts are constructed. Equally importantly, a dynamic interrelationship developed between the essays as the book was being compiled. There are cross-references of nationality, ancestry, the choice of lectionaries and the use of resources which transcend denominational boundaries. Janet Morley’s prayers are a shining example of this category. Perhaps the most encouraging discovery is that, as a consequence of the liturgical revision programmes that have actively occupied all major Churches since the 1960s, we no longer assume that our prayers are an internal matter. Every revision is eager to see what others have done and in some cases to adopt it. The love of good liturgy is a powerful force for ecumenical co-operation not only in the conference hall but in the way we mould and use the words and practices which increasingly make us more recognisable to each other.