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The annual Church Kalendar with its annual round of feasts, fasts, observances, lessons, and prayers sanctifies the year and takes the natural rhythms of time up into the life of the Church and its worship of God. In particular the festal cycles built around Christmas and Paschaltide (including Lent as its preparation and Pentecost as its conclusion), give the year a structure that honors the Incarnation and the Cross and Resurrection.
Likewise every week is sanctified and oriented towards God by the weekly observance of the Resurrection with Eucharistic worship on every Sunday; by the observance of Sunday as a day of rest in which work and shopping are eschewed for rest and recreation; and by the observance of Fridays with abstinence.
Finally, time is sanctified within these larger rhythms for the year and the week by a daily structure of prayer, both communal and personal.
From ancient times devout Christians, and particularly the clergy and members of religious orders, have sung or said daily Offices of prayer. The precise content of these Offices varies from time to time and place to place, but almost always has consisted of a core composed of the Psalms read through systematically. Usually the Offices also contain lessons from Scripture, prayers proper to the day or season, canticles from the gospels, and often other variable material including hymns, verses, and ceremonies. Where the number and resources of worshippers permit, these Offices take a normative, public form. But the ‘normative’ form of the Office may only be rarely attained, as busy laymen lack the time or opportunity to join in this kind of worship. Nevertheless, all devout Christians should strive to include in their day elements of the Offices to help orient themselves towards God, and so ‘redeem the time’ by offering part of its back in worship to its Lord and Giver.
By the late Middle Ages in the Latin Church the Daily Office consisted of Mattins and Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. These Offices were interspersed throughout the day. Mattins and Lauds, often combined and often said in the middle of the night or so as to conclude near dawn, were by far the longest. Theoretically these Offices provided for the recitation of the whole of the Psalter in the course of a week. In addition the lessons (mainly in Mattins) contained remnants of the ancient practice of lectio continua, the ‘continual reading’ of Scripture, in which books of the Bible were read through in order. The weekly reading of the Psalter, however, was often interrupted by feasts, and only vestiges of the lectio continua were retained. As a result the reading of the Psalter, of the other books of Scripture, and of lessons from the Church Fathers in Mattins, was rarely consistent or systematic. The Office was said in Latin and was very time consuming. Also, the rubrics governing what was said in a given Office could be extremely complex and variable. In consequence use of the Office was largely limited to religious ‘professionals’. Even the less learned parish clergy often found the Office impractical and burdensome, both because of the daily time it required and because of a sometimes imperfect grasp of Latin.
One of the great and fruitful innovations of the Church of England in the Book of Common Prayer was a major reform of the Office, the rationale for which is given in the Preface to the 1549 book. The Prayer Book simplifies the Office, restores to it systematic reading of both the Psalter and of the rest of Scripture, and makes the Office accessible to all auditors and to all literate readers by rendering it in English. The result is both a remarkable framework for the piety of laymen as well as clergy and also a provision for the systematic reading of the Bible in the context of worship. The chief serious loss of the Prayer Book Office, as compared to the earlier breviaries, is the loss of readings from the Church Fathers and the often very beautiful and theologically rich Latin hymns.
Even if the Office is read by an individual alone, it still is the same Office said by the whole Church. Scripture reading in the Office, therefore, is not a solitary, private matter, but part of a communal, Church-wide activity. The Prayer Book Office is accessible to the individual in his room, to a family or household in their domestic devotions, and to public congregations ranging from modest missions to the greatest of cathedral or collegiate churches. All are enabled to pray with the whole Church and to encounter Scripture, the Church’s book, not as isolated individuals but as members of the worshipping body which originally received and still hears and interprets the Bible.
The Anglican simplification of the Office was achieved by distilling seven Offices, requiring two or more hours daily for full recitation, into two Offices: Morning Prayer (or Mattins) and Evening Prayer (or Evensong). Morning Prayer contains elements from medieval Mattins, Lauds, and Prime, while Evening Prayer contains elements from medieval Vespers and Compline. The Prayer Book further simplified by reducing to a minimum the variable and seasonal elements and by drastically reducing interruptions into the normal cycle of readings. The very complex medieval rules concerning the calendar of feasts and seasons, commemorations, and variable elements such as antiphons and hymns meant, as the 1549 preface noted, ‘that many times, there was more busines to fynd out what should be read, then to read it when it was founde out.’ The Prayer Book Office, in contrast, is very easy both to explain in its basic structure and also then to use.
The systematic character of the Prayer Book Office lections is achieved by simple systems for reading the Psalter and Scripture. In the English Prayer Books the Psalter is divided into 60 parts, one for each morning of a 30 day month and one for each evening. Some later revisions of the Prayer Book, including the 1928 American book, retain this division but also provide for an alternative, briefer, and much less systematic system of proper, or assigned, Psalms for each day of the year. The original scheme for complete monthly reading is much to be preferred. On the one hand, by reading the Psalter through each month, rather than each week as in the theoretical medieval pattern, the Prayer Book scheme reduces the readings to manageable length even for laymen or busy parish clergy. On the other hand, the monthly scheme ensures familiarity with the whole of the Psalter and keeps the Psalter at the heart of the Offices. The alternative system, using briefer readings of proper assigned Psalms, reduces and changes the Psalter from the core of the Office into a kind of third lesson before the Old and New Testament lessons. It is much, much better to adhere normally to the universal Church’s use of the Psalter as its chief hymn book and source of liturgical reference and allusion. The use of a briefer selection from the Psalter at most should be used on an occasional feast or special occasion when a particular psalm or psalms may have unusual aptness for the occasion.
In addition to monthly reading of the Psalter, the Prayer Book Office also reads through the Old and New Testament in a systematic, continual fashion. Here too the historic English Prayer Books are most thorough and systematic, while some later revisions of the lectionary tend to shorten readings lamentably and to omit altogether in rather dishonest fashion passages that are hard to interpret. The traditional scheme of readings includes substantial Old Testament and New Testament lessons, often an entire chapter from each Testament. In that way almost all of the Old Testament may be read through annually and the New Testament is read through several times in the year. Even with the briefer lessons assigned in modern Prayer Book lectionaries, the bulk of the Bible is read through, including the whole of the New Testament and the main narrative and prophetic portions of the Old Testament.
The translation of the Office into English (or other vernacular languages) is not much remarked upon now only because it has been imitated by all Western Churches and is taken for granted. Since the Roman Catholic Church itself adopted the vernacular for public worship after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s this practice is no longer controversial. The superiority of the Anglican Catholic Office in English remains, nonetheless, because the 1549 Prayer Book, its Coverdale Psalter, and the 1611 Authorized Version of the Bible for lessons together form the classical literary versions in the English-speaking world of the texts in question. The combination of classical liturgical forms with simplicity of structure and the systematic reading of Scripture in the context of public worship provide an Office which cannot be surpassed for general use.
Anglican Catholic clergy are obliged to say Morning and Evening Prayer daily using an authorized Prayer Book of their Church. But it is one of the glories of Anglicanism that whereas in most Churches the Offices are said or sung almost exclusively by religious professionals, the Prayer Book Office is accessible to all the faithful, and is indeed used by many laymen.
While clergy are free to use other supplementary devotions, such as the Roman Catholic Breviary or the Anglican Breviary, such private devotions do not alter the obligation, usually taken on when seminarians become postulants, to say the Prayer Book Offices. This degree of uniformity provides an element of common worship and devotion that helps knit all of the clergy together, even if they are not able to join together physically with other clergy in public worship. The obligation to say the Office was made with increasing bluntness by the Prefaces to the historic British Prayer Books. The Prefaces of four British Prayer Books will illustrate this fact:
Neither that any man shall be bound to the saying of them, but such as from time to time, in Cathedral and Collegiate churches, parish churches, and chapels to the same annexed, shall serve the congregation.
And all priests and deacons shall be bound to say daily the Morning and Evening Prayer, either privately or openly, except they be letted by preaching, studying of divinity, or by some other urgent cause.
And all Priests and Deacons are to say daily the Morning and Evening Prayer, either privately or openly, not being let by sickness or some other urgent cause.
In the 1637 Prayer Book proposed for the Scottish Church, the Preface adds these words after the reference to an excuse due to ‘some other urgent cause’: ‘of which cause, if it be frequently pretended, they are to make the bishop of the diocese, or the archbishop of the province, the judge and allower.’ Clearly omission of the Office was viewed as irregular and as something that should be exceptional and infrequent.
In any case, the Anglican Catholic Church has settled the matter of the clerical obligation to say the Office by simple, positive canonical determination:
It shall be the duty of every Bishop, Priest, and Deacon of this Church to say, either by himself or with others, the Office of daily Morning Prayer and of daily Evening Prayer, unless for just cause prevented, and whenever possible, in such a manner that the Congregation may pray with him, in the Church or otherwise. (Canon 12.2)
Omission of the Office, therefore, remains irregular and abnormal and should, if it becomes frequent, be taken up by the cleric with his bishop, his confessor, or his spiritual director.
The different Prayer Books authorized by the Anglican Catholic Church provide for an Office which is the same everywhere in basic or core form and content, but with minor variations. The chief variations, apart from differences in the Old and New Testament lectionaries, concern permitted deviations from classical patterns, such as the American book’s alternative scheme for selecting proper Psalms. In general these permitted deviations should be avoided and the classical alternatives followed. The options permitted by the authorized Prayer Books of the Anglican Catholic Church are noted below, with suggestions concerning the ways these options should be taken, used, or avoided. In general the pattern from the first, 1549 Prayer Book seems particularly authoritative and normative.