Prayer-Book Augustinianism

I had the blessed opportunity to attend a lecture by Sarah Coakley at the Vancouver School of Theology back in 2018 about Trinitarian theology and mysticism. During the Q & A, somehow liturgy comes up (amongst Anglicans, not very surprising), and Coakley said something that has lurked within me ever since — setting aside the BCP would be a great loss, in part because of the rich Augustinian theology of the collects.

This struck me this week in particular because the Prayer Book collect is this:

ALMIGHTY God, who through thine only begotten Son Jesus Christ hast overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life: We humbly beseech thee, that as by thy special grace thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Canadian BCP 1959/62

The opening to this prayer is taken from the Use of Sarum, with origins at least as early as the Gelasian Sacramentary (7th-c):

O God, by Your only-begotten Son you have overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life; grant us, we ask you, that we who celebrate the solemnities of our Lord’s resurrection, may by the renewing of Your Spirit arise from the death of the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

My modernised version for congregational use.

I have to confess that I prefer the medieval version, but perhaps I am too cautious of moralism.

I did not ask Professor Coakley to elaborate with examples, of course, but I wonder if this collect, or collects of this sort, are what she means by “Augustinian”. According to Barbee and Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, the very opening of this prayer is anti-Pelagian, for the -ism associated with the name of Pelagius argues that we can by our own merit live good enough lives to reach heaven, thus rendering null and void the mystery of the cross.*

Cranmer then writes his own petition for the collect. In his version, we actually have an interesting little phrase that was excised in 1959/62, “as by thy special grace, preventing us, thou dost…” Preventing us in contemporary English sounds like God’s grace is stopping us from doing something. In fact, though, it is a thoroughly Augustinian concept that has been hijacked in modern theology — prevenient grace.

Prevenient grace in the context of 1549 when Thomas Cranmer wrote the prayer (thus eleven years before Arminius was even born) is the idea that the grace of God goes before us (pre-vent, go before, praevenio) and thereby empowers us to choose the good. The term has been adopted by Arminian side of the Arminian-Calvinist debate, it would seem, but here in Cranmer’s collect, it rides closer to Augustine and Luther than Jacobus Arminius.

How does it do so? Well, Cranmer is using the phrase “preventing us” to describe God’s “special grace” in its activity in our lives. And, by that preventing grace, God does “put in our minds good desires”. The question if the resistability or otherwise of God’s grace does not arise, but what we do see is that our good desires are a direct result of the action of God’s grace in our minds.

The petition proper is also itself of the school of Augustine — “so by thy continual help we may bring the same [ie. good desires] to good effect”.

I think that the phrase “preventing us” renders this prayer solidly with Augustine — but does it exclude other perspectives? No, it does not. The nineteenth-century Russian St Theophan the Recluse continually haunts my thoughts on grace and prayer:

It is most important to realize that prayer is always God-given: otherwise we may confuse the gift of grace with some achievement of our own.

In The Art of Prayer, ed. Igumen Chariton of Valamo, trans. Kadloubovsky and Palmer, p. 98

This is not the only time he says something like this. He repeats it in similar words throughout the book. The fifth-century Greek writer, St Mark the Monk (who made it into the Philokalia) says similar things about grace. I think this is worth considering because when we think about “grace” and how we need God’s help to think and do good, we think we are being particularly Augustinian and/or Reformed. And this collect, I would argue, is certainly part of that tradition, expressing these ideas in an Augustinian fashion, so Professor Coakley is assuredly correct in this characterisation.

Yet the wider tradition also sees a necessity for grace in our lives. And I think Prof. Coakley would emphatically agree, particularly that we have a tendency to drive a wedge between “East” and “West” that does not really exist when we look at the deeper agreements of our theological traditions.

*I have not read Pelagius, Caelestius, or Julian of Aeclanum myself, so I set aside judgement as to whether this is a fair statement of what they believe, simply noting that it is what the -ism associated with Pelagius is understood to be.

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