May 26, 2013

More Thoughts on the Collect for Trinity Sunday

My last post, “Trinity Sunday Comma Problem,” was written rather hurriedly. A comment on Facebook, however, caused me to look more closely at the collect for Trinity Sunday. In doing so, I can only conclude that the prose is tortured, the theology murky, and the punctuation unhelpful.

That said, I should point out that the present collect is, in many respects, quite similar to Thomas Cranmer’s version in the first English prayer book of 1549:
Almightye and everlastyng God, whiche haste geven unto us thy servauntes grace by the confession of a true fayth to acknowlege the glorye of the eternall trinitie, and in the power of the divyne majestie to wurshippe the unitie: we beseche thee, that through the stedfastnes of thys fayth, me may evermore be defended from all adversitie, whiche liveste and reignest, one God, worlde without end.
The petition was changed in the 1662 English prayer book, and that formulation was retained in the American prayer book through the 1928 edition:
Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity; We beseech thee that thou wouldest keep us stedfast in this faith, and evermore defend us from all adversities, who livest and reignest, one God, world without end. Amen.
Compare this to the collect in the 1979 prayer book:
Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The present version has acquired a more appropriate Trinitarian ending and has again altered the petition.

Neither the sentence structure nor the punctuation of the current collect is very transparent. In an attempt at a clearer version, we might rearrange the text as follows:
Almighty and everlasting God, by the confession of a true faith, you have given to us, your servants, grace to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and to worship the Unity in the power of your divine Majesty; keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father, who, with the Son and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Even here, I cannot say precisely what this means. Exactly what to worship the Unity in the power of your divine Majesty means is particularly unclear, especially because Unity is capitalized. Is Unity a concept or a synonym for Trinity? Who knows?

Anyway, if one insists on retaining the word order in the present collect, I would punctuate it as follows:
Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us, your servants, grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and, in the power of your divine Majesty, to worship the Unity; keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father, who, with the Son and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I won’t try to justify every change in punctuation here; I leave that as an exercise. Notice however, that I have changed live and reign to lives and reigns, which I think is correct, even without my additional commas.

In fact, this collect is a mess, and one I hope we will clean up some day.

3 comments:

  1. Hi Lionel,

    I think there is much work to be done on the collects. Adopting the RCL without new collects leaves a fair number talking about things not read.

    In the case of this one, a deacon at our church once observed, in a sermon, that the priests do not like to talk about Trinitarian doctrine. He then noted that he .s preaching his 7th straight!" That may be a record.

    Any road, if I were a new person wandering into a church and hearing that collect, I should have no idea what the celebrant was talking about. The standing committee on liturgy and worship has other fish to fry at the moment, including new marriage and blessing of civil union liturgies, and a badly needed revision of the prayerbook.

    Alas!!

    FWIW
    jimB

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  2. Sorry, Lionel, but your extra commas make the flow of the words choppy, and your rearrangement does so even more. The collects are written first and foremost to be spoken. Were I writing a technical work I would punctuate the way you suggest, but this collect is more poetry than it is a design specification for the Holy Trinity. On the other hand, I don't really have any trouble understanding the syntax of the collect as it is (or as it is in Rite I either, as the case may be for some of us), but then that may be because I have heard it once a year since I was a child.

    Cheers

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    Replies
    1. If you are delivering a collect in church, of course, you have all the time in the world to figure out the syntax, and you will read it with the proper structure in mind. Commas can be used to indicate pauses, but their more important function is to disambiguate sentence structure, a fact that many people overlook.

      In the end, I am more upset by the obscurity of the meaning than I am by the unhelpful punctuation of the collect. What does “in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity” mean? What unity? For that matter, what does “in the power of your divine Majesty” mean? Normal people don’t talk that way. Perhaps they did in the 16th century, and maybe Cranmer know what he was saying. I certainly don’t.

      Delete

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