When praying the Divine Office with the Anglican Breviary (AB), we first need to know what is to be said today. The Liturgical day begins at Vespers and so should we. So that even though the first Office we encounter in the pages of the AB is Mattins, the first Office to be recited will always be Vespers every time we begin a new liturgical day.
There are two Kalendars in the AB the Simple and Universal Kalendar. The former is an adaptation especially for Anglicans desiring to follow the Book of Common Prayer principles which has a strong emphasis on the seasonal (and therefore ferial) Office. The latter is intended for those who wish to follow the lead of Rome in its emphasis on the sanctoral (and therefore festal) cycle.
Having made up your mind which Kalendar you wish to follow (if you are a religious or in Holy Orders you should really follow the Kalendar of your Monastery/Church/diocese) you will first have to determine what Season you are in. Having determined the Season, you will need to determine what the previous Sunday was with respect to the Season. You can do this by figuring out the rubrics of the AB – once you know where to find them – but you could also make it easy on yourself by looking up the precise place in the Season on www.commonprayer.org or some such similar website which uses the traditional Eglish reckoning of the Season. The propers for the Season are in the C section of the AB (pages marked with a C and a page number). Usually you will find there the readings & responds for Matins whenever the occurent Scripture is to be read. You will also find the proper Antiphons on Benedictus and Magnificat for the Season given there (unless it is a ferial weekday when you will use the Antiphons given in the Psalter).
Now that you have determined your precise place in the Season, you will need to locate the place you are at on the Sanctoral Cycle. For this you will have to turn to the Kalendar given in the front of the AB. You will find the month and date and see what – if any – feast/saint is kept for that date. The Kalendar will also tell you what rank the feast has. The propers for festal Offices are found in the E section of the AB (I am deliberately leaving out the D section for now). There will be times when all the changeable parts of the Office are given in the E section or that you are directed to take all these parts from the Common (F section) insofar they are not given in the E section (excepted Feasts) and there will be times when parts of the Office are given in the E section while other Hours of the day will follow the ferial Office (partially excepted Feasts).
Any Feast – except a Memorial – takes precedence over a normal (ordinary) ferial Office. Few Ferias outrank Feasts (the Ferias which outrank Feasts are given in the AB in The List of Holy Days according to Rank on p. xliv – xlvi under the head Greater Ferias. Usually the Special Rubrics given in the Office (as opposed to the General Rubrics given in the beginning of the AB) will tell you exactly what Feasts the Greater Ferias in question will outrank. To celebrate the Feast of a saint recourse must first be had to the E section, and whatever is not provided there but is nonetheless required can be found in the Common. The kind of Saint being celebrated determines which Commons are to be used. The kind of saint is indicated by a capitalized letter or letters following the name of the Saint. If you are not sure you can usually find a reference made to Common nr. x or y which – if you will look up that number Common – will tell you what kind of saint you are dealing with. In fact under most circumstances the special directions (Rubrics) provided in the E section will tell you what to do for this Office depending upon which Kalendar (Simple or Universal) you are using. For the Simple Kalendar follow the instructions preceded by “SK” and for the Universal Kalendar follow the instructions preceded by “UK.”
It may very well happen that the Kalendar of you are bound to as a religious or clegyman does not exactly correspond with either SK or UK and in that case you will need to adapt the Office to the Kalendar you are bound to. If you are not (yet) conversant enough with the AB to so adapt it, follow the rules for the SK and keep the ranks assigned by SK while making feasts not included in the SK as Memorials only (until you are familiar enough with the AB to adapt more easily and appropriately). In general every effort must be made to abide by one’s diocesan or otherwise authoritative Kalendar. For religious a dispensation for adapting may be necessary and before saying the Office with the AB and/or adapting the Kalendar for whatever purposes the matter should always be put before the Superior or Abbot/Abbess before doing it.
It may happen that two feasts interfere with other so that either they occur on the same day, or the II Vespers of the outgoing Office occurs on the same evening that the I Vespers of an incoming Office occurs. The rank and dignity of the Feasts thus conflicting will determine how the conflict is resolved. The AB provides a table on p. xlviii – xlix which will help you determine how the conflict is correctly resolved. The Table of Occurrence (table I) helps you determine how to resolve the conflict of two feasts occurring on the same day, and the Table of Concurrence (table II) will help you resolve the conflict of two Vespers occurring on the same evening. In using the tables make sure you have familiarized yourself with the Note on the Preceding Tables on p. l.
Having done all that you should now be able to determine what Office is to be said and how it is to be said for today. In order to increase accuracy you will also need to look ahead in the Kalendar to see what festal or seasonal peculiarities are soon to occur. It may at times be necessary to anticipate parts of an Office or an entire Office or to translate it to the next available day.
The AB has a steep learning curve to be sure. But the AB also has a great reward. For one thing, having mastered the Office or continuing to master it, gives a real sense of accomplishment and progress and should be considered as a significant element in one’s ascetic efforts. And, yes, all of us who are Christians are called to ascetic effort. Also having reached certain “heights” in use of the AB after a prolonged struggle with it, one is less likely to give it up after having attained it. Things which come easy are often cheap and easily tossed away. Things for which we have had to struggle to attain have often become too valuable for us to be easily separated from. Practically this means that if our life of prayer has been shaped by significant effort (either by Rubrical complexity or length of the Office) will be likely to be more solid and more deeply ingrained and settled in our habits compared to a prayer life which has been shaped by ex tempore (or spontaneous) prayer and bible reading done when we feel like it, and for as long as we feel like it. Submission to a set rule, rather than our own desire, will be very beneficial for us. Praying and reading as we feel and when we feel like it is much more likely to be distorted by our passions (emotional addictions if you will) when submitted to our feelings rather than the Spirit of God working on and in us by the rule. The purpose of a rule – such as the Holy Rule of St. Benedict – is to minimize the role of the false (fallen/sinful) self and to allow the Spirit of God to quicken the real (redeemed/baptized) self. This is not, however, self-realization. Rather it is carrying the cross, and reaching out to Jesus Christ that we may be in Him and He in us.