Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in continual godliness, that through your protection it may be free from all adversities, and devotedly serve you in good works, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
An Anglican priest friend of mine was lecturing at a gathering of Roman Catholic nuns. This was back in the ‘90s right after Rome’s clergy sexual abuse scandal was first reported. After the lecture my priest friend asked these Roman nuns what they were going to do in light of the scandal.
As a former Protestant, he was expecting to hear something to the effect of “we’re going to leave the Roman Catholic Church and go somewhere else.” What he actually heard surprised him.
The nuns told my friend that they would repent. These nuns would repent for not praying for their priests enough. They would repent for neglecting to pray for their parishes. Finally, they would search their own hearts and repent of the hidden sin they might find there.
A Call to Repentance
In the first line in this Collect we beseech God to “keep… the Church in continual godliness.” This nothing short of a call to repentance.
This Collect implies that when we do not seek God’s continual godliness — when we do not repent like the nuns were talking about — the Church can stumble and become faithless. At different times and in different places in our 2000 year history the Church has not been as faithful to Christ her husband as she should have been.
This fact isn’t something we gloss over. We shouldn’t pretend that everything is OK, or choose to believe that whatever happens in Rome our Church will remain faithful. We are all susceptible to sin. This prayer drives us back to the feet of Jesus where we plead for his protection.
Of course, Jesus himself promises that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church (Matt. 16:18). There will always be a faithful remnant. But that doesn’t mean that pockets of the global Church will not fall into sin.
From Global to Personal
One of the things I love about the Anglican way of being a Christian is that we can’t pretend our history is perfect. We accept that. We own that. And we learn from that, praying with open eyes, as it were.
This Collect also reminds us to pray with global eyes. We ask that God will protect his bride, the Church, around the world. Second, this prayer is fitting for the Anglican Communion. We pray that God would continue to shower his Holy Spirit across our 85 million member Church. Third, this Collect is true for our particular parishes. We pray that God would protect our diocesan bishops and our parish priests and deacons.
On an personal level, writing as a priest, this Collect reminds me that I’m not impervious to falling into sin. I need the Holy Spirit to continuously draw me back the feet of Jesus. I must not become so focused on the business of parish ministry that I forget to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).
How Do We Ensure that We Remain Faithful to the End?
This question is not a new one. It’s as old as the apostolic times.
If you follow the ACNA lectionary, in this Sunday’s epistle lesson you’ll hear “we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1). Even the Church of the first century was in danger of falling into sin. We must cling to the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ alone so that we do not fall away.
We Begin and Grow in Repentance
The Christian faith begins in repentance. Paul writes to the Church in Corinth that true godliness — what we pray for in our Collect — is colored with repentance: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10).
Our Anglican liturgy is filled with repentance. Early in our liturgy we ask God to have mercy on us. Before we receive the Eucharist we pray a prayer of repentance. And then we are reminded in the “Comfortable Words” that the reason Christ came into the world was to forgive sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). The free forgiveness of sins is found in Christ alone and is offered to all who with sincere hearts earnestly repent of their sins.
Finally, the Christian faith grows from repentance. St. Paul writes to the Ephesian Church that they are saved by grace through faith so they can be set free to produce good works. He writes:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:8-10).
Our good works don’t save us; God’s grace does. Only his grace can set us free. Sin binds us in such a way that we are turned inward and care only about our selfish desires. In salvation, Christ’s Holy Spirit removes the chains that bind.
In Christ, we are no longer turned inward gazing at ourselves. Now, we are freed to gaze outward and see God and neighbor. Loving God and neighbor are the good works Paul talks about in Ephesians. These good works, our Collect reminds us, are the proper way to serve God.
So, this week and every week, we beseech God to give us eyes to see the sin hidden in our souls. We seek forgiveness found in Christ alone. We are strengthened by the Holy Spirit to continue in the godliness that began in repentance. Finally, we are freed and strengthened by the Holy Spirit to love our neighbor with Christ’s love. These good works can only flow from continual godliness that begins in repentance.