A collect ('kä-likt or 'kä-lekt) is a form of prayer unique to the Western Church (liturgically speaking, the Latin Rite and its offshoots). Here is an example that dates back to Leo the Great (A.D. 483):
Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve; Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy; forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord. Amen.*
Now that you have some idea of what collects look like, let’s take a closer look at their historical origins, their place in the liturgy, and their form. (This will lay the groundwork for a subsequent post examining the use of collects among the Reformation churches.)
Much about the origin of the collect remains uncertain, but its early appearance can be inferred from its ubiquity in that it is common to every known liturgy in the West (at least prior to the Reformation!). Moreover, the form can be found as early as the third century in private manuals of devotion.
The term “collect” is traceable to the word in Gallican sacramentaries collecta, and even earlier to the Latin word collectio. Some have suggested that the term reflects the function of the prayer it described, namely that of gathering the people together for worship. In the Roman Use, the collecta is called the oratio. The Roman Use appears to be the source of the collect, as its style is Roman in its conciseness and clarity.
The earliest collects apparently functioned as a concluding prayer that the officiating minister would say at the beginning of the mass after having invited the assembled congregation to pray with the direction, “Oremus.” The minister would then wait for a period of silent prayer and then sum up the prayers of the faithful with the collect. In this way, the silent prayers of the faithful are bound together and connected to the liturgical feast of the day (which the language of the collect typically reflects). The people would then ratify the minister’s conclusion with the corporate Amen.
Collects are appointed in the Tridentine and older missals not only for Sundays but for feast days as well. In fact, a close examination of such a missal will reveal that certain collects, as part of the propers for the days for which they were appointed, took precedent over others when feast days and/or Sundays coincided. Among the traditional collects found in the Latin rite, some were written by Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, and Pope Gelasius. Some of the collects found today in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer were written by Thomas Cranmer or by bishops upon the restoration of Charles II to the throne in the 1660’s, and the collect appointed for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity is apparently adapted from tenth century Anglo-Saxon use. More recently, the Roman Catholic Church heavily revised many of the ancient collects and simply replaced others with entirely new collects as part of its post-conciliar revision of the mass in the 1960’s. In addition, collects have been written for daily prayer (see the Book of Common Prayer‘s morning and evening prayer) and for use with the psalter (in French Reformed and Scottish Presbyterian use).
As the example collect quoted at the beginning of this post illustrates, collects can usually be divided into five parts:
(1) an address to God;
(2) a relative or participle clause referring to some attribute of God, or to one of his saving acts;
(3) the petition;
(4) the reason for which we ask;
(5) the conclusion.
Sometimes, these parts are interchanged or one or more are omitted. The example quoted above would be divided accordingly as follows:
(1) Almighty and everlasting God,
(2) who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve;
(3) Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy; forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things
(4) which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of
(5) Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord. Amen.
Note also that in the example quoted above only the “Amen” is italicized. This reflects the traditional practice of the priest alone speaking the words of the collect, at the end of which the congregation joined him in saying, “Amen.” Coming as it does at the beginning of the service, there has been some debate among liturgiologists as to whether the collect should attempt to “echo” the readings appointed for the day, and, if so, whether it should therefore be recited after the readings rather than before them.
The address to God at the beginning of a collect was in earlier times always addressed to God the Father. Accordingly, the universal ending was Per Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum Filium tuum (“Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord” (Cranmer’s translation)). Eventually the opening address was sometimes made to the Son or to all three persons of the Godhead, and other endings were appended. Thus, depending on how the address is worded, one of only a few traditional concluding phrases will appear at the end of a given collect. These include:
“… through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever.” (addressed initially to God (the Father))
“… who livest and reigneth with the Father and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end.” (addressed to Jesus)
“… who livest and reignest, one God, world without end.” (addressed simply to God — e.g., Trinity Sunday collect in BCP)
“… through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
“… to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost be honor and glory, world without end.” (addressed to God the Father but mentions Jesus just before the conclusion)
A few prayers in the Bible and in the Apocrypha have the same structure as the collect. The best biblical example is probably Acts 1:24-25, when the Apostles prayed before the election of Matthias:
“You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” (ESV)
Although this prayer lacks the conclusion, it more or less contains the first four common structural elements of the collect. (While it would be revisionist to suggest that this prayer was a collect and irresponsible to suggest that the structure of the collect was derived from this prayer, the similarity is nevertheless striking and significant.) Structurally similar prayers in the Apocrypha can be found at 2 Maccabees 1:24-29 and 1 Maccabees 4:30-33.
*The example collect quoted above was taken from the the Book of Common Prayer (PECUSA 1928) in which it is appointed for Twelfth Sunday after Trinity. Similar translations of the same ancienct prayer are used the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost in the Tridentine Missal and the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity according to the one-year lectionary in Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s Lutheran Service Book (2006). Some examples of Presbyterian liturgies incorporating traditional collects can be found on the website Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church (PCA) in St. Louis.
William D. Maxwell, An Outline of Christian Worship: Its Development and Forms (1936).
Martin R. Dudley, The Collect in Anglican Liturgy: Texts and Sources 1549-1989 (1994).
Charles W. Shields, Book of Common Prayer, and Administration of the Sacraments, and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church, as Amended by the Westminster Divines in the Royal Commission of 1661, and in Agreement with the Directory for Public Worship of The Presbyterian Church in the United States (Philadelphia: William S. & Alfred Martien, 1864).