I wrote the following a while ago … I refined the whole thing into an M.Div thesis but the core thought is laid out (if imperfectly) here:
The first Book of Common Prayer of 1549 radically simplified the Divine Office by taking a few elements from several Hours1 contained in the Breviary tradition and from them constructed the Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. Percy Dearmer writes that:
The First Prayer Book was an English simplification, condensation, and reform of the old Latin services, done with care and reverence in a genuine desire to remove the difficulties of the Mediaeval rites by a return to antiquity.2
A contemporary Catholic Anglican, Mark Haverland the Metropolitan Archbishop of the Anglican Catholic Church, writes:
One of the great advantages of the Prayer Book tradition begun 1549 was the collection into a single volume of the essential material for most acts of worship, which in the Middle Ages was scattered in several volumes.3
In another one of his many writings Percy Dearmer wrote more elaborately concerning the Book of Common Prayer and its Catholic pedigree:
Far more important are the next two prefaces, which are taken from the First Prayer Book of 1549. The first, ‘Concerning the Service of the Church,’ is an adaptation of that to the reformed Breviary of Cardinal Quignon, which it follows in all essentials. This model, which the English Church thought the best for that of the introduction to its Book of Common Prayer, was published by authority of Pope Clement VII. in 1535. Nothing could more clearly show the Catholic idea which the compilers of our Prayer Book had of the meaning of the word ‘reformed.’ The words of the preface make this point still clearer. It is not concerned with sacraments or ceremonial, but throughout only with the practical question of restoring the lectionary and psalter to its ancient thoroughness and simplicity in accordance with the ‘godly and decent order of the ancient Fathers.’ Four times in this short preface is the authority of these ‘ancient Fathers’ invoked. In accordance with their example the language is to be that which is understood; untrue, uncertain, and superstitious readings are to be dropped, and nothing to be read that is not in Scripture, or ‘agreeable to the same.’ This is the most important of our prefaces, because it stood alone at the head of the First Prayer Book, and it has been with us ever since. If Cranmer meant that Book to lead to Protestant practices, he certainly concealed his purpose remarkably well.4
On this basis Catholic leaning Anglicans have often claimed that the Office of Morning Prayer is in fact such a simplification, condensation and reform of the Latin (Medieval) Offices of Matins, Lauds and Prime and that Evening Prayer is likewise such a simplification, condensation and reform of Vespers and Compline.5 It is also not uncommon to find claims being made that in the Book of Common Prayer we find preserved the Benedictine monastic tradition of prayer but made available to all praying members of the church and therefore is not reserved monastics alone.6 This is of course a variation on the theme that in the Book of Common Prayer a genuinely ancient and Catholic tradition is being revived and that therefore the reformation as represented in and by the Book of Common Prayer is catholic. The claim is then made that in the Book of Common Prayer there is preserved a monastic and patristic perspective which is unlike the medieval scholastic perspective. This is contrasted with the Continental Reformation which is then said to have valued the monastic and patristic perspective to a much lesser degree such as is visible in the different liturgical texts and ceremonies used by them.7 Catholicism on the continent of Europe in the Counter Reformation began to emphasize the Mass and extra liturgical devotions such as Benediction and the Rosary to fulfill the religious needs and duties of most of the laity. This is evident even today given the popularity of both the Rosary and the service of Benediction in many conservative Roman Catholic parishes even today. What is absent from parish use in the Roman Catholic Church since the Counter Reformation is precisely the celebration and performance of the Divine Office. It is true that in the Anglican Reformation that is as it were a threefold emphasis in religious life. In the Book of Common Prayer the most important service is that called Holy Communion which is the equivalent to the Mass. The second most important service as that of the Divine Office represented by morning and evening prayer which are the equivalent of the medieval divine office. A third emphasis, though not present in the Book of Common Prayer as such, is private devotion. The private devotions of the people is the practical incarnation in the daily lives of the people of the doctrine prayed in the Book of Common Prayer.8
Though perhaps not strictly speaking false, this is at least a significant stretching of the truth. It is more truthful to say that Matins, Lauds, Prime, Vespers and Compline are, as we shall see, represented in Morning and Evening Prayer by certain elements taken from these Offices. If all that was done to the Divine Office was that they were simplified, condensed, and reformed they would still retain some of their essential medieval features.9 However, since the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, even some of the essential features of the Medieval Offices have disappeared. A mere backbone of Scripture and Psalter is pretty much all that is left as essential. In describing the essential features of the Divine Office contained in the Book of Common Prayer, Percy Dearmer writes:
What is the character of the Divine Service, as the choir offices are called? It is the daily reading and hearing of Holy Scripture – primarily the recitation of the Psalter, accompanied by prayer and by meditation upon the teaching of the Bible.10
It is true of course that Psalter and Scripture reading is also an essential feature in the Medieval Offices, so how is the Book of Common Prayer different? The Book of Common Prayer radically breaks with the traditional way of reading and hearing Scripture and the recitation of the Psalter. In the Medieval tradition the reading and hearing of Scripture, as well as the recitation of the Psalter, is woven into a Temporale and a Sanctorale:
A reoccurring issue in matters of liturgical reform – from before Trent- is the question of the interrelationship of the temporal and sanctoral cycles. The temporal cycle is that which governs the Christian year, beginning in Advent, then Christmas and Epiphanytide (with Christmas ending on the 40th day of the feast of the Nativity, with the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary in the Temple), Septuagesimatide Lent, and Eastertide. The sanctoral cycle is of course the calendar of the saints, martyrs and prophets, which has inevitably grown and expanded over the centuries. 11
Which in certain seasons, such as Christmastide, produces a very complex combination of liturgical celebrations as demanded by the temporal and sanctoral cycles respectively:
This is (perhaps dizzyingly) complex, but it is possible to see here that the temporal cycle (Christmas and the Circumcision) is harmonized with the sanctoral, despite the fact that there is a crowd of feasts and octaves to commemorate. They do not displace one another, they overlap. Very often they overlap specifically in the readings, where (especially at Matins) although the office is on the festal structure (three nocturnes instead of one), the readings and responsories at the first nocturne are those of the ferial office (or temporal cycle), not the festal office (or sanctoral cycle).12
These cycles create a definite and clear theological teaching and hermeneutic which is conveyed by the practice of reading and hearing Scripture and the recitation of the Psalms. The Book of Common Prayer almost entirely obliterates the Sanctorale Cycle, and effectively cripples the Temporale Cycle, thereby leaving the interpretation of the Scriptures and Psalter in the Divine Office mostly to the individual imagination. The structure of BCP Morning Prayer and the Medieval Matins, Lauds and Prime, and the BCP Office of Evening Prayer and Vespers and Compline are also radically different. The Medieval Offices can be described as prayers that teach the Christian Faith by exegeting Scripture (by means of the Sanctorale and Temporale Cycles), the Book of Common Prayer Offices can be described as prayers which, while immersed in Scripture, are characterized by the near absence of exegesis.
This structural difference results in the elaborate ritual of the Medieval Offices, containing the antiphons and hymns accompanying Scripture, being deleted in the Book of Common Prayer in the interest of creating a prayer office characterized by austere simplicity. The Protestant reformers, for all their insistence on simple worship, paradoxically ignored the biblical precedent given in the Old Testament for how to worship God: with ritual and hymns and the elaborate beauty of incense and vestments. Likewise, the reformers also failed to recognize that the sevenfold nature of the Medieval Office is itself embedded in biblical exegesis. The sevenfold structure is justified on the basis of Psalm 119: 164: “Seven times a day do I praise thee.” It is also justified on the seven redemptive moments in our Lord’s suffering as evidenced in a medieval verse:
At Matins bound, at Prime reviled, condemned to death at Terce; nailed to the Cross at Sext; at None his blessed side they pierce; they take him down at Vesper-tide, in grave at Compline lay; who henceforth bids His Church observe these seven-fold hours alway.13
In reducing the number of offices to only two the Reformers did away with this biblical reading of the Offices.
Also, the yearly (temporale) distribution of Scripture readings in the Medieval Office is anchored in the Lord Jesus Christ as presented to us in the Gospels so that certain books are reserved for certain seasons, thus bringing out the way in which they speak of Jesus Christ. The book of the prophet Isaiah is therefore read in Advent, Genesis is read in Lent, and so forth.14 The Book of Common Prayer, again, entirely severs these exegetical ties by not keying the Scripture readings to the liturgical seasons and also deleting all of the exegetical keys of those Scriptures from the Offices: the hymns, antiphons, anthems, responseries, ceremonial, and patristic readings.
In sum: the Medieval Office teach the Christian faith by exegeting Scripture by connecting it with the Temporale and the Sanctorale. The Book of Common Prayer attempts to teach Scripture by immersion in Scripture, hoping that mere immersion will result in mature Christian faith without providing the parameters necessary for Christian exegesis. If the history of the Church, and the overcoming of many heresies, has taught us anything … It is that Scripture is used by heretics and catholics alike. Scripture alone does not suffice. The thing with prayer is this: the things you pray, will end up being the things you believe. Restoring our ways of prayer along the lines of the Anglican Breviary is therefore, as I see it, an urgent necessity.
Gregory Wassen +