Essay / On This Day

Cranmer Prays to the Trinity

Can you pray to the Trinity?

Of course, the very definition of Christian prayer is that it is trinitarian: We pray to God the Father, in the name of Jesus the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s the logic of mediation that’s built into Christian prayer, no matter what words we use in the prayer.

And keeping in line with that logic, the most “theologically correct” way to pray is to address yourself to God the Father, in the name of Jesus. There is also biblical warrant for praying to Jesus Christ, and doctrinal warrant for praying to the Holy Spirit. But the formula, “To the Father, by the Son, in the Spirit” is the structure of most Christian prayer.

So obviously we can and do pray to the Trinity. But can we say a prayer that begins, “Dear Trinity,” and bring a prayer to the one, the triune, God?

Thomas Cranmer (born on this day, July 2, in 1489) thought that we could, at least on special occasions. The special occasion he had in mind was Trinity Sunday, which comes just after Pentecost in the church year. The late Peter Toon wrote a short essay on this, entitled Praying to the Holy Trinity with Thomas Cranmer.

There are two places in the prayerbook where you can see Cranmer’s theological thought on this subject. One is the Collect for Trinity Sunday, and the other is the Proper Preface for that Sunday.

The Collect, which Cranmer simply translated from the older Latin prayer book sources (the Sarum Missal of 1549), goes like this:

Almighty and everlasting God, which hast given unto us thy servants grace by the confession of a true faith to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the divine Majesty to worship the Unity: we beseech thee, that through the steadfastness of this faith, we may evermore be defended from all adversity, which livest and reignest one God, world without end.

To anybody with ears trained for the prayerbook’s normal way of phrasing things, that Collect has an odd ending: It ought to include the phrase, “through Jesus Christ our Lord,” but it does not. That shows that this prayer, in addressing the “Almighty and everlasting God,” is addressing the one triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. It wouldn’t make sense to pray to Jesus “through Jesus Christ our Lord,” and it wouldn’t make sense to pray to the Trinity that way either. So the old Collect leaves out that mediatorial phrase.

But when you flip over to the communion service’s Preface, there is a special one, Proper for Trinity Sunday. That is where Cranmer the translator showed his theological hand. The old Sarum Missal had a Trinity Sunday Proper Preface that was addressed to the Father:

It is very meet, right, just, and our bounden duty that we should at all times and in all places give thanks unto Thee, O Lord Holy Father Almighty, everlasting God, Who with Thy only Begotten Son and The Holy Ghost art one God, art one Lord, not one only Person, but three Persons in one substance…

but Cranmer must have decided to bring this Preface into line with the Collect, and re-phrased it to be a prayer directly to the entire Trinity:

It is very meet, right and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks to thee, O Lord, almighty everlasting God, which art one God, one Lord, not one only Person, but three Persons in one substance…

As Toon points out, this is not just a matter of Cranmer the editor deciding to tidy things up in translation and align the grammars. It was a decision to make the most of the teaching opportunity that was Trinity Sunday.

It’s one thing to teach the doctrine of the Trinity to a congregation, but it’s another thing to lead them in prayer, worshiping God the Trinity. They know you mean business when you pray to the Trinity. Another way to say that is this: Christians are confident enough that the doctrine of the Trinity is the truth about God that they will teach it and preach it to others. But Christians like Cranmer were so certain that the one God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that he was willing to say it directly to God. To take a theological confession straight to God like that is really taking your life in your hands. You’d better be right.

It’s also worth noting that Cranmer put this prayer addressed to the Trinity in place for one week out of 52 in the year. He was not recommending that all, or even most, or even very much, of Christian prayer should be directed to “the Trinity” or to “three Persons in one substance.” Most Christian prayer should be directed to God the Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit. One Sunday out of the year amounts to a little less than two per cent. But it’s an important two per cent for faith seeking understanding in prayer.

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