Trusting God’s Providence:
The Importance of the Collects
in the Book of Common Prayer
By Elliot Rossiter
(This essay won the first prize in a competition organized by the PBSC Ottawa Branch in 2012 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Canadian BCP and the 350th anniversary of the 1662 English BCP. It was published in the Lent 2013 issue of the PBSC Newsletter.)
Vision 2019, the Anglican Church of Canada’s Strategic Plan, began a few years ago with a two-part questionnaire. Canadian Anglicans were asked two simple questions: where is your church now, and where do you want the Anglican Church of Canada to be in 2019? One does not have to read through very many of the published responses to discover a strong sense of anxiety about the state of the church and its decline in numbers over the past years.1 Attendance in the Anglican Church of Canada peaked in the 1960s – 1,358,000 members in 1961 – and has since been in steadily accelerating decline – there were 532,000 members in 2008. And with a decline in membership comes a decline in revenue. Indeed, many dioceses are now at risk of becoming insolvent and plans are being proposed to merge dioceses in an effort to reduce overhead expenses.
Vision 2019 represents the church asking itself existential questions in the midst of decreasing membership and revenue. In addition to a sense of anxiety, the responses published in the Vision 2019 documents also convey feelings of frustration and fatigue. Many respondents, lamenting the absence of younger people in the pews, believe that the church is simply irrelevant to today’s culture. Some cite liturgical practices as the reason why this is the case, while for others it is divisive issues like same-sex blessings which are causing growth problems. But a common theme is that churchgoers need to get out of their buildings and reach out to members in the community. And so, it is unsurprising that the central thesis of the Vision 2019 Strategic Plan is that renewed growth in the Church will come from increased missional activity.2 The report highlights the importance of focusing on the Five Marks of Mission: (1) to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom; (2) to teach, baptize, and nurture new believers; (3) to respond to human need by loving service; (4) to seek to transform unjust structures of society; and (5) to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.
These mission priorities, used widely in the Anglican Communion, are commendable. But we must remember that this mission is not primarily our own: it belongs, first and foremost, to God. In this paper, I argue that it is very important for the Church to recover and maintain this sense of divine providence as it focuses on mission and strategic planning in the midst of its current decline. For if the Church loses this sense, then it risks losing its identity as the people of God. It will become an institution, just like any other, striving to preserve itself. The Church must not give in to ‘practical atheism’ – that is, acting apart from a sense of divine providence and thinking that growth in the Church comes from our own ability to make ourselves relevant to the broader culture. I further argue that this sense of providence is very well maintained in the tradition of Anglican common prayer, especially in the collects of Thomas Cranmer. The central thrust of my argument, then, is that we in the Anglican Church of Canada would do well to reincorporate the collects of the Book of Common Prayer, with all the wonderful ways they remind us of God’s providence, into our liturgical practice. While I think that the Prayer Book as a whole should be our liturgical standard, I principally focus on the value of the collects in relation to recovering an appreciation of the doctrine of divine providence.
I: The Doctrine of Providence
A Christian doctrine of providence is … a representation of how the Father’s plan for the fullness of time is set forth in Christ and made actual by the Holy Spirit among the children of Adam.3
According to John Webster, the doctrine of providence is primarily about God’s purposes in the world and our response, as Christians, to the vocation God has given us. And this is evident in the writings of St Thomas Aquinas, that great mediaeval theologian. While the doctrine of providence involves the goodness of created being in its very substance, St Thomas thinks that it is especially concerned with God’s ordering of creation towards its end, this end being the divine goodness.4 Simply put, God governs the world according to his plan, which is the communication of his goodness to the created order. Our great purpose, then, is to participate in God’s goodness – and this we discover in the Bible. Indeed, Webster holds that the doctrine of providence is primarily an exercise in biblical reasoning.5 This means that the doctrine of providence is not primarily a philosophical account of divine action in the world, but rather a theological exploration of God’s covenant love for us, which we discover in the words of scripture.
Now, it is important to see that God’s purposes pre-exist us. Appreciating the doctrine of providence, then, means realizing that it is not up to us create our own purposes, nor to govern our own affairs. Both the modern and post-modern intellectual traditions celebrate autonomy: liberalism enshrines individual political and economic liberties; and post-structuralism denies that there is any discoverable purpose beyond ourselves which could constrain the radical freedom we have to make and re-make ourselves as we see fit. But the Christian’s engagement with these traditions, and their attendant cultural realizations, must be moderated by a commitment to the doctrine of divine providence.6 If the Church loses this commitment, it will inevitably be subsumed into some amalgam of these cultural movements. What makes the Church distinct from other social organizations is its trust in divine providence. Indeed, we seek the Father’s purposes for the world, which are set forth in Christ, and realized by the Holy Spirit’s work among us. Accordingly, we do not embrace autonomy in the same way that the secular world does. But this does not mean that we forfeit our dignity. In fact, the situation is quite the contrary.
God loves the creature in his work of governance. Creaturely self-government is destructive and enslaving, because it exchanges the divine necessity for some other self-imposed necessity, less wise and loving than that appointed by God, and leading not to our happiness but to decay. In his providence, God overrules this; he so orders creaturely history that – without our knowledge or consent – we are set free for our inheritance. This inheritance is not received apart from the saving missions of the Son and the Spirit. But these works, by which God’s kingdom is established, are anticipated by his providential government, which also accompanies and furthers the benefits which flow from them until in the fullness of time all things are united in God.7
The point here, which Webster is right to stress, is that we are bad at governing ourselves. While the Age of the Enlightenment has brought with it progress in areas like suffrage and modern medical care, it would be unwise to put our faith in some humanistic vision of overall progress. Indeed, the Age of the Enlightenment has also brought with it Hiroshima and the Holocaust. Winston Churchill famously called the twentieth-century ‘the century of the common man’ because in it the common man has suffered most. Self-governance does not ultimately lead to progress but rather to decay. But by God’s grace, in the saving mission of the Son and Spirit, we are set free to receive the inheritance that God the Father has providentially prepared in his plan for creation. The doctrine of providence disabuses us of the notion that we can bring about our own good; but it also wonderfully shows us that there exists a God who loves us, cares for us, and who will bring about his good purposes in the world. Recovering a robust sense of God’s provision, in our common life as God’s people, involves being both taught about divine providence, and living in a way that reflects trust in that providence. And this is excellently facilitated in the Anglican tradition of common prayer.
II: The Prayer Book and Providence
O God, whose never-failing providence ordereth all things both in heaven and earth; We humbly beseech thee to put away from us all hurtful things, and to give us those things which be profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
– The Collect for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity
Lord God, which seest that we put not our trust in any thing that we do; Mercifully grant that by thy power we may be defended against all adversity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
– The Collect for the Sunday called Sexagesima
If there were a prayer for those engaged in strategic planning in the section of the BCP entitled ‘Prayers and Thanksgivings Upon Several Occasions’, it seems likely that these collects would make up part of it. For they remind us that we ought not to put our trust in our own abilities, and that it is God’s power which defends us against adversity. And the Anglican Church of Canada is certainly facing adversity: this is evident in the sense of despair and frustration found in many of the responses in the Vision 2019 report. But the doctrine of providence reminds us that our circumstances are ultimately in God’s control. When we engage in strategic planning, focused on the renewal of a Church in decline, we must remember that God the Father’s ‘strategic plan’ for the redemption of the world has already been carried out in Christ, and is being effected by the work of the Spirit. This ‘plan’ is not something that we determine, according to our best lights, but rather is a vocation into which we enter as God’s people, a people called to follow him and participate in bringing about his kingdom here on Earth. Our vocation is to be like Christ and to follow God with humility and trust. And this is something we are regularly reminded of in the collects of the Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God, who hast given thine only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit, and also daily endeavour ourselves to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
– The Collect for the Second Sunday after Easter
In their reflections on this collect, C. Frederick Barbee and Paul F.M. Zahl understand this prayer as a deterrent to the vice of ‘practical Pelagianism’.8 According to them, this vice involves ‘any way of living by which responsibility for the willing and doing of the right things is yours’.9 Of course, Pelagianism, the heresy named after the fifth-century British monk Pelagius, is the idea that human beings have it in them to earn their own salvation according to their works. Practical Pelagianism, on the other hand, involves some kind of perfunctory assent to the necessity of God’s grace but emphasizes that the real business of decision making and planning in the Church, and in our lives as Christians, belongs to us and is ultimately dependent on our best wisdom. The problem with practical Pelagianism is that it really just amounts to practical atheism – living in a way that does not acknowledge the reality and necessity of divine providence in our lives as God’s people. And to live this way is to reject our call to imitate Christ in following God with humility and trust in his providence. Our primary call, as Christians, is not to be relevant to the culture surrounding us, by following its trends and seeking to imitate it, but rather to follow Christ in the midst of that culture, and surrender ourselves entirely to God’s providential plan for the world. The work of the Church is not primarily the savvy use of social media or the perpetual production of fresh expressions, but rather the enduring work of the Holy Spirit, who builds the kingdom of God and brings it to its completion.
This fact is both humbling and liberating. It is humbling because it is neither our power nor our wisdom which is valuable in God’s sight, but rather our trust in his wisdom and power. Yet it is also liberating, because it is God’s wisdom and power which give us life and sustain us as his people. The beauty of the collects in the BCP is not primarily their poetic expression, but rather their constant reminder of God’s providence. It is a reminder that both constrains us and enlivens us. We are apt to trust in our own providence, and so we need to be regularly reminded in our liturgical life that the doing and willing of the right thing is not ultimately up to us. But free from an undue sense of our own importance, we can begin to appreciate the life-giving and nourishing work of God’s Spirit in our midst. And our choice of liturgy is very important in keeping a sense of God’s providence.
The Book of Common Prayer is not conceived (as are its current alternatives) as a kind of resource-book for worship, from which one may choose elements according to one’s tastes or inclinations, or have them chosen for one by the clergy or by some “worship and spirituality” committee, more or less ad hoc. The Prayer Book is, rather, a spiritual system, biblical, traditional, and logical, which includes, but at the same time transcends and corrects, the subjective inclinations of the worshipper or the spirituality committee.10
The problem with some contemporary forms of liturgy, according to the late Rev’d Dr Robert Crouse, is that they are based on the subjective preferences of the worshipping community. And these ‘pick-and-choose’ liturgies fail to transcend and correct our subjective inclinations. But why should this be a bad thing? Indeed, it makes good business sense to craft a product that will be appealing to the preferences of consumers. To do otherwise is to risk going out of business. Shouldn’t the same logic apply to the Church? The Church is in decline and so we must repackage and rebrand our liturgy in order to meet the needs of the culture around us. And this is what Bishop Michael Ingham suggests:
Against the background of growing secularity and changing cosmology, those at the leading edge of liturgical design (i.e. our parish clergy and local worship committees) have felt a powerful pressure to develop radically new rites and liturgies to address the spiritual needs of today’s generations. The BAS, in other words, has become to this era what the BCP had been to the one before: a standard and norm from which to move on.11
The BAS, argues Ingham, like the BCP, had both its time and place, but now the spiritual needs of contemporary society have rendered the BAS irrelevant: indeed, those on the ‘leading edge’ have moved beyond it. The problem, as Ingham sees it, is that people today want spirituality, but they don’t want religion (i.e. the institutional Church). And so, the Church must make itself less religious and more spiritual. This involves the development of radically new liturgies, customized to suit the needs of today’s generations. But our preferences are often in need of correction, for it is a perennial temptation to put our faith in our own abilities and not in God’s provision for us as his people. And so our liturgy cannot simply reflect our preferences. Rather, it must transcend and transform those preferences into a trust and longing for God’s providence.
The Church is not in the business of selling itself to the broader culture. Its calling is much greater. The mission of the Church is to transform the world, in line with the coming reign of the kingdom of God – a victory won in Christ’s redemption, in the providence of the Father, effected by the Spirit. The liturgy of the Church must transcend the culture in which we live. The collects of the Prayer Book continually remind us that we are not our own. We belong to God, and he will achieve his good purposes in the world. And a liturgy like this is not irrelevant. It is decidedly fresh. But what is fresh about it is not its association with the leading trends in our society, but its focus on drawing us as God’s people into a deep trust in his providence, mindful of his ever-present love for us. That is the refreshment we need in the midst of our current adversity and anxieties. That is the refreshment we have always needed and will continue to need. May we in the Anglican Church pray the wonderful collects of our tradition, and be ever reminded of God’s providential care for us.
About the author: Born and raised in Toronto, Elliot Rossiter completed a one-year diploma at Augustine College, Ottawa, and a B.A. in Philosophy at the University of Ottawa. Elliot moved to London, Ontario, in 2009 to pursue graduate studies in Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario. It was there that he met his wife, Sarah; they were married according to the rite of the Book of Common Prayer in their home parish of St. George’s Anglican Church, London, in 2011. Now in his 3rd year of doctoral studies, Elliot is completing a dissertation, entitled “Covenant and Natural Law: John Locke on God’s Legislative Power”. He is currently spending a semester abroad in England as a visiting student in the Department of Philosophy at King’s College, London.
Aquinas, St Thomas. Summa theologiae. Blackfriars edn, 60 vols. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode.
Barbee, C. Frederick and Paul F.M. Zahl. The Collects of Thomas Cranmer. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999.
Book of Common Prayer. Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1962.
Crouse, Robert. “Anglican Spirituality and the Book of Common Prayer”. Accessed at: http://www.stpeter.org/crouse/writings/spirituality_and_bcp.htm
Ingham, Michael. “An Imperative for Change Once More”. Accessed at: http://www.anglican.ca/faith/ files/2010/10/ingham.pdf
Smith, James K.A. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.
Vision 2019 Final Report (Prepared for the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, June 2010). Accessed at: http://archive.anglican.ca/gs2010/wp-content/uploads/019-GS2010-Vision-2019Report-and-Appendices.pdf
Webster, John. “On the Theology of Providence”, The Providence of God. Eds. Francesca Aran Murphy and Philip G. Ziegler. London, UK: T&T Clark, 2009.
1 See Appendix D of the Vision 2019 Final Report.
2 Appendix C, Ibid.
3 “On the Theology of Providence”, p.162.
4 Summa theologiae, Prima Pars, q.22, a.1.
5 “On the Theology of Providence”, p.161.
6 I think that it is possible to take a redemptive view of these movements. See, for example, the work of James K.A. Smith, especially his book Who’s Afraid of Post-Modernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, Baker Academic, 2006.
7 Webster, “On the Theology of Providence”, p.172.
8 The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, p.55.
10 Crouse, “Anglican Spirituality and the Book of Common Prayer”.
11 Ingham, “An Imperative for Change Once More”. This essay was composed in 2010 for the 25th anniversary of the BAS.