The Collect For Purity: A Rookie Anglican Guide

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The Collect for Purity is one of the gems of Anglican liturgy. It is a prayer both appealing at first glance and also one that invites a depth of reflection: on preparing the heart for worship, on the Trinity, and on the Catholic and Reformed aspects of Anglicanism. It is good we have so much to consider in a collect we say every Sunday!

The Collect for Purity

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen. (p.106 & 124, BCP 2019)

Preparing the Heart with Purity

The Collect for Purity is the first prayer in the Sunday Communion service, appearing immediately after the opening acclamation. Its function is to prepare the heart for the worship of God.

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Note the double reference to the heart. First, the collect acknowledges that the heart is “open” and fully “known” by God and that there can be no question of hiding any “secrets” from him. Second, the collect asks for a cleansing of the heart by the Holy Spirit. Marion Hatchett makes the connection between this second reference to the heart and Psalm 51:

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

I’d also propose a connection to the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In them, Jesus links purity of heart with God’s vision.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)

In the light of this Beatitude, we can see how the Collect for Purity is especially fitting for the beginning of the Communion service. It is in Communion, especially, that we see Christ by faith. Indeed, this opening reference to the heart comes full circle just before we receive Christ in Communion when we are instructed to “feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving” (BCP 120, 136).

The Trinity in the Collect for Purity

Did you see how the Collect for Purity references all three persons of the Holy Trinity?

The Father

The first is the opening address to “Almighty God.” Of course, the Son and Spirit are also God, but the use of the term Almighty is typically used of the Father, as in the Apostles Creed (“I believe in God the Father Almighty” BCP 20) and the Nicene Creed (“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty” BCP 127). Moreover, the attribution in this collect relates to omniscience, which is often discussed in relation to the Father.

The Holy Spirit

Second, the collect asks God (the Father) to cleanse the heart by the inspiration of his Holy Spirit. Here, we might connect this request to Jesus’ teaching that the Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask:

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:13)

The Son

Third, the collect is authorized “through Christ our Lord,” a reference to the incarnate Son Jesus Christ.

The collect also reflects the Trinitarian theology of Saint Augustine. In his book “On the Trinity,” Augustine argues that the Holy Spirit takes his name from what both the Father and the Son share in common. Both the Father and the Son are holy, and both the Father and the Son are spirit. It is, therefore, fitting that God, through Christ, would cleanse us by the Spirit who shares in divine holiness.

Moreover, Saint Augustine proposes that the Holy Spirit could also be appropriately named as Love, which makes sense of the aspiration: “that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name.” Cleansing by the Holy Spirit, in other words, is what we most fundamentally need to love God.

A Collect Both Catholic & Reformed

Catholic Roots

This collect has a long history in the Catholic era of the church, going back to the first millennium. Shepherd traces it to the 9th-century English scholar Alcuin, who led Charlemagne’s reform of the church. At first, it was associated with special services devoted to the Holy Spirit, and later, at Salisbury, incorporated as part of the priest’s preparatory prayers before the Holy Eucharist. The 14th-century mystical work, The Cloud of Unknowing, also used a version of the collect as its opening prayer.

At the English Reformation, Cranmer removed many of these preparatory prayers but retained the Collect for Purity, which he relocated to the beginning of the communion liturgy in the 1549 and 1552 Books of Common Prayer. Thus, he took one of the most beautiful prayers of the Catholic tradition, previously known only by the clergy and educated laypeople, and made it available to be heard by the whole congregation. The 2019 Book of Common Prayer also allows the entire congregation to say the Collect for Purity together.

Reformed Renewal

Moreover, Cranmer also made two subtle but important changes to the content of the Collect for Purity to align it with reformed theology. In its medieval (Latin) form, the collect read as follows:

God, unto whom every heart is open, and all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts, by the infusion of thy Holy Spirit: that we may perfectly love thee, and, meritoriously, worthily magnify thee…

Cranmer changed “infusion” to “inspiration” and deleted the word “meritoriously,” changes designed to avoid any entanglement in the late medieval doctrine of human merit achieved through an infused grace. In his book Worship By Faith Alone, Zac Hicks traces this kind of modification across multiple prayers, showing how Cranmer systematically removed references to human merit and refocused merit on the work of Christ alone (see especially pages 113-123). In this regard, I would also connect the modification of the collect to the 39 Articles of Religion, which insist that we are justified “only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (Article XI) and that good works are done only after justification by the “inspiration of the Spirit” (Article XIII).

The Great Commandment

In conclusion, the Collect for Purity is specifically designed to help us keep the great commandment of love for God. When asked “which is the great commandment in the Law,” Jesus answers by quoting Deuteronomy 6:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. (Matthew 22:36-28, rf Deuteronomy 6:4)
The Collect for Purity invokes the Holy Spirit to cleanse the heart so that we may “perfectly love” God with all our hearts. It is the perfect collect to begin the service in which we commemorate the perfect love of Christ and return perfect love to God in the power of the Spirit. As Saint John puts it
We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)

Appendix: Consider Using the Traditional Version

Those planning Sunday liturgies should consider using the traditional version of the Collect for Purity:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

I’ve highlighted in bold the differences from the contemporary version. The first difference is the most important: unto whom, instead of to you. Not only does unto whom appropriately limit the use of pronouns, but it also makes for better poetry. Notice that the following phrases each have eight syllables:

…unto whom all hearts are open… (eight syllables)
…and from whom no secrets are hid… (eight syllables)
…that we may perfectly love thee… (eight syllables)

In the traditional version, these three phrases of equal length provide a rhythmic core to the collect. The modern version reduces the first phrase to seven syllables (“…to you all hearts are open…”) which throws off the rhythm of the whole.

Even in churches that use contemporary language for most of the service, the traditional Collect for Purity works as a kind of bookend alongside the Lord’s Prayer, which nearly everyone says in its traditional form. It is worth remembering that the older pronouns (thou, thee, thy, thine) are the English pronouns of greater familiarity. They are thus especially appropriate to the Collect for Purity (as for the Lord’s Prayer) in creating an atmosphere of intimacy with God at the beginning of the Sunday service.


Photo by Jacob Davis.

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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