The first Book of Common Prayer, which is the first of the two Prayer Books authorized in the reign of Edward VI, dates from 1549. The two Daily Offices in this book, Mattins and Evensong, can be seen from different angles as both very traditional and very revolutionary. In fact, I think the Offices are substantially conservative and traditional, but in their own era would have seemed revolutionary. An inventory of the revolutionary and traditional elements to the Offices will help to show the reasons for this evaluation.
In relation to the preceding, late medieval, Latin liturgical books, the revolutionary changes include mostly rather obvious, clear facts:
- The Prayer Book is in English, not Latin. Latin is not excluded: ‘when men saye Matins and Euensong priuatelye, they maye saie the same in any language that they themselues do understand.’ (Preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer) Eventually an official Latin translation of the Elizabethan Prayer Book was produced for university chapels and schools such as Eton. Likewise, Latin was used in musical settings in royal and collegiate chapels, sometimes widely and sometimes rarely. Nonetheless, the normative liturgical language becomes the vernacular, the tongue ‘understanded of the people’ (Article XXIV).
- Apart from a direction that questions concerning the use of the Prayer Book shall be referred to the diocesan bishop (Preface), the book is rather non-directive and open in many matters. There are very few directions concerning ceremonial, posture, vesture, and similar matters. The Offices may be said or sung, and an occasional rubric requires audibility or that the officiant stand. In general, however, compared to the older Latin books, the Prayer Book is open ended about matters other than the text itself. (Later Prayer Books will provide more rubrics and direction.)
- The highly variable elements of the rite are radically reduced. Most medieval elements that changed regularly according to the season and day were eliminated. Such elements entirely eliminated in 1549, include invitatories on Psalm 95 in Mattins, antiphons on psalms and canticles, metrical Office hymns, and seasonal collects. The only heavily variable elements retained in the Prayer Book were the proper psalter (now to be read in a monthly course), Old and New Testament lessons (now to be read in an annual course), and a first collect (usually that of the previous Sunday). (Again, later Prayer Books restored some seasonal and variable elements. For example, the 1552 book directs that the Athanasian Creed be used on more than a dozen feasts and provides psalm alternatives to the gospel canticles. The Office in 1549 has no options to be decided by the officiant, so 1552’s provision of canticle options is a rare step away from the Tudor passion for strict uniformity.)
- Only two other variable elements are retained in 1549, both of which are seasonal and both of which permit only two possibilities. In both cases the season determines which alternative shall be chosen. These choices are easily grasped and are so few and so binary that little confusion or doubt could result. First, ‘alleluia’ is to be said or sung after the opening versicles ‘from Easter to Trinitie Sundaye’. Secondly, the Te Deum is to be used daily, ‘excepte in Lente’ when the Benedicite omnia opera is to be used.
- Finally, and strikingly for parish priests obeying their duty to say the prescribed Offices, those Offices were greatly reduced in number and length. The medieval round of Mattins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline became Mattins and Evensong. The elimination of most variable elements not only simplified and shortened the actual recitation of the Offices, but also removed much of the effort in determining what was rubrically mandated: a fact famously noted in the 1549 Preface assertion that ‘there was more busines to fynd out what should be read, then to read it when it was founde out.’
By 1549 the monasteries, priories, and convents of England had been suppressed. Cathedral chapters, concentrations of clergy in the universities and some schools, and, of course, the large bulk of parish clergy remained. The simplification, abbreviation, and Englishing of the Office may have been welcomed by many of the remaining clergy, though no doubt the linguistic and musical revolutions were regretted in some quarters.
The book left after these great changes, however, apart from its simplification and the change from Latin, is nonetheless remarkably conservative and traditional. All of the elements retained in the 1549 book have medieval precedents. Nothing read when the 1549 book is used is new, apart from some of the collects. The core of the Office is solidly, even profoundly, traditional.
At the heart of the Offices the regular reading of the full Psalter was retained in a lectio continua. The Anglican pattern divides the Psalter into sixty divisions, thirty for Mattins and thirty for Evensong. This use of the Psalter retains the single most characteristic element of the medieval Offices. The number of verses read daily fell, as a theoretically weekly reading of the full Psalter was altered to an almost invariably monthly reading. But a substantial average of about 80 verses of the Psalter was and is still read daily, thereby retaining the conservative core. Moreover, the Anglican pattern, while reading fewer Psalm verses daily than do the Latin breviaries, is more systematic: each month the Office reader marches through the full Psalter.
The conservatism of the Anglican Offices is further demonstrated by the fact that virtually everything present in the 1549 versions of Mattins and Evensong is also present in the 1559 and 1662 English Prayer Books and then in the books of the daughter Churches of the Church of England, at least until the Great Disruption that began in the late 1960s. The basic structure of the 1549 Offices is retained, though additional prayers were added at their beginning and end. The canticles, retained from the medieval books, are all retained, though other options are permitted in some cases in the later books. The Creed, Lord’s Prayer, opening and closing versicles, and collects are all retained, mostly without any changes whatsoever.
No doubt other observers might note further elements of change and of tradition. The foregoing list, however, suffices, I think, to establish a sound basic conclusion. The Anglican Daily Offices reformed the medieval Office books heavily, but in ways that were nonetheless very traditional. The result was so satisfactory, that it has survived nearly five centuries.
There were several clear pastoral and theological principles at work behind the reform of the Office. For the most part these principles were and are much less controversial than the ideas that directed many of the changes in the Prayer Book’s Eucharistic rite. The Preface to the first Prayer Book suggests that in regard to the Offices, the goal was not to alter doctrine, but to make practice more pastorally effective, less burdensome, and more uniform.
First, the Prayer Book sought to make the Office more pastorally useful. In the medieval Church, the Offices were almost exclusively the province of religious professionals. And even some of those professionals (lay brothers in religious houses; less educated parish clergy) found the Latin Offices a heavy burden that they did not faithfully attempt to carry; or, if they made the attempt, did not succeed in carrying. Apart from a fraction of the religious professionals, only a very few wealthy and well-educated laymen, even by the 1540s, were able to obtain and use even simplified versions of invariable Offices of devotion. In contrast, the ordinary and invariable elements of the Prayer Book Offices could quickly be memorized by illiterate and literate laymen alike. Since a Bible was the first book that newly literate people were likely to acquire, the Office soon could be said both in the parish churches and domestically by many layfolk. The Office, in other words, changed from a specialized activity for religious professionals to a central element in the devotion of all Christians. The domestic church was born, centered in the same Offices the professionals still said and sang in the parish churches and rectories. The change was effected by the normal use of English rather than Latin, by some abbreviation, by a great reduction in variable elements, and by a much stronger use of a newly-available English Bible.
Secondly, the Prayer Book made the Office more Biblical. Apart from the use of the gospel canticles and the Psalter, the Latin Offices mostly had only a brief Scriptural verse or two. More extensive lessons from Scripture were read at Mattins, but Biblical books were not read through systematically even in Mattins, and were not read significantly at all in most of the Offices. The systematic reading by Anglicans of a full chapter of the Old Testament and a full chapter of the New Testament, at both Mattins and also Evensong, restored the ancient practice of lectio continua. The Prayer Book Offices, therefore, not only allowed for the effective creation of the domestic church, they also allowed and allow Scripture to become integrated into the devotional life of Anglican clergy and laity. The theoretical centrality of Scripture, affirmed in the theology of all Christian traditions, is actually effected for ‘all sorts and conditions of men’, at least potentially, through Anglican practice. Lex orandi statuit legem credendi: and for Anglicans that regulating and foundational prayer provides the context and setting of Bible reading. For Protestants Bible-reading is largely a private affair. For Roman Catholic and Orthodox laity Bible-reading often does not occur much at all outside the Eucharistic liturgy. For Anglicans, the Bible is read daily with the Church in the Office, as well as in the Eucharist, and the Office is as widely available to laymen as it is to the clergy.
Finally, the Prayer Book, particularly given the original scheme for reading the Psalter monthly and the Bible annually, made the Offices more orderly. The Prayer Book establishes daily, weekly, monthly, and annual patterns, which order and structure time, both secular and sacred. In particular, the regular, monthly progress through the Psalter establishes a rhythm that recurs unendingly and that helps to mark and regulate both briefer and longer patterns. The Psalter rhythm frames and regulates the smaller patterns of the two Daily Offices and of the variable weekly collect. The Psalter rhythm also provides continuity as Church seasons make their major alterations and progresses. The 1549 Prayer Book lectionary rather relentlessly assigns lessons to days of the secular calendar. But almost any lectionary of Biblical readings will do, so long as it retains substantial lessons and patterns of ‘continual reading’ – and so long as it is itself not subject to too much or too frequent change. Stability is important to prayer, and excessive change is disruptive. Fortunately, the enduring and traditional elements of the Anglican Offices are so strong, that they can form a stabilizing frame for changes due to alterations in Church season and due to changing lectionaries.
The fact that the Prayer Book Offices survived from the mid-16th to the mid-20th century with so little change – and that they still survive among sensible Anglicans – is a very strong argument for the value and wisdom embedded in them. And that in turn is a very strong argument for the abandonment of alternative Offices by anyone aspiring to be an orthodox or traditional Anglican. The Anglican Office is conservative and of proven, enduring, and perennial value. There is no better thing to recommend anyone who wants to encounter classical Anglicanism, even in the absence of a sound parish, than the regular recitation of the traditional Offices.