On Sunday morning in Episcopal Churches around the world, celebrants, on behalf of their congregations, will ask God “the author and giver of all good things” to, of all things, “increase in us true religion.”
Religion is a rather unpopular word these days. According to the good folks at Pew Research, “The phrase “spiritual but not religious” [SBNR] has become widely used in recent years by some Americans who are trying to describe their religious identity. While Pew Research Center does not categorize survey respondents in such a way, our surveys do find that the U.S. public overall appears to be growing a bit less religious – but also somewhat more spiritual.” If this really is the case, then why would we pray such an outdated prayer?
Marion Hatchett tells us that this Collect is first found in the Gelasian sacramentary from roughly 750. During the English Reformation, it took on new life when Thomas Cranmer edited it to ask God not merely for an increase in religion, but an increase in true religion (Commentary, 191). This made all sorts of sense in the 1540s and 50s as the English Continent was at war because of the perceived flaws in the religious practices of the Bishop of Rome as opposed to the true religion of the Reformers. As years went by, however, the tendency to associate religion with action waned, and as Diana Butler Bass notes in her Christianity After Religion, by the 17th century, religion was more about a system of ideas and beliefs about God, such that by “modern times, religion became indistinguishable from systematizing ideas about God, religious institutions, and human beings; it categorized, organized, objectified, and divided people into exclusive worlds of right versus wrong, true versus false, “us” versus “them” (97). If this really is the case, then why would we pray such an outdated prayer?
Continuing with Butler Bass, I would like to suggest that this prayer is, in fact, not outdated, but rather a perfect collect for our times as we redefine what it means to be religious away from a system of beliefs, but a way of living one’s life in devotion to God. Drawing on the work of Wilfred Cantwell Smith in his 1962 Book The Meaning and End of Relgion, Butler Bass suggests that in contrast to the modern understanding of religion, the Latin root, religio, actually refers to “faith – living, subjective experience including love, veneration, devotion, awe, worship, transcendence, trust, a way of life, an attitude toward the divine or nature, or… a particular way of seeing and feeling the world.” If, on Sunday morning, we are praying not for our particular set of ideas to be better than the ideas of the Baptists or the Lutherans, but instead for an increase in awe, worship, and trust in God who calls us to a particular way of seeing and feeling the world, then sign me up. In fact, I’d bet we could get a lot of SBNRs to join us in that prayer. It is, I would argue, the perfect collect for our times.