Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

O ALMIGHTY GOD, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men; grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The resonant phrases of this collect will probably be rooted in many people’s memories - though in my experience, as a former prep school boy once obliged to learn one ‘by heart’ every week, it’s all too easy to mismatch them with phrases from other collects! But it is worthwhile considering how the prayer as a whole is structured - how one phrase or clause leads to another, how the rhythm brings home the meaning, and how sense and spiritual perception are built together, stage by stage.

The prayer challenges our contemporary assumption that determination, thoroughness, good advice and scientific knowledge can solve all problems - including the emotional entanglements and mutually incompatible agendas which divide us inwardly, and bring us into conflict with others.

George Morley commented some time ago on the value of the relative clauses in Cranmer’s English (‘O God, who…’). We are given something to reflect on before we make our petition, which then controls and conditions the petition itself. God alone can order the unruly - in other words, that which resists all order: a category which includes the very core of our being, our minds, our bodies and the bonds between them. ‘The good that I would, that I do not; the evil that I would not, that I do’. ‘Wills’ and ‘affections’ (i.e. emotions, desires) aren’t quite the same thing; though St Augustine believes that will, i.e. choice and the objects chosen, determines emotion and its character, good or bad. He uses the term ‘love’ to denote the combination of emotion and will, intent upon their object. In The City of God he explains (as paraphrased by a modern scholar, Deborah Shuger) that ‘the emotions springing from a rightly directed will - love of God and neighbour, the desire for eternal life, penitential sorrow - are inseparable from holiness’.

This certainly makes sense of Cranmer’s prayer: as we are transformed from sinful humanity into God’s ‘people’, the touchstone of that transformation is to ‘love’ (both to will, and to rejoice in) what God commands, now - and the same applies to what we have to look forward to, the promised future. Further proof of this will be our stability in a changing world. ‘Sundry and manifold’ really rolls off the tongue; compare ‘many and various’ which means almost exactly the same but lacks the rhythmical sense of things coming at us from all directions. ‘Sundry’ suggests how things quite unconnected with each other go unpredictably wrong, day after day. The prayer ends as it should, theologically, emotionally, and liturgically.

Robert Cockcroft
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 6th May 2001