Breviary, BCP & English Office

This is a short piece not originally intended for this blog, but relevant enough to publish it here anyway.

Several times I have referred to the Anglican Breviary which is a big book which contains all seven Hours of the daily cycle of Prayer:

  1. Vespers
  2. Compline
  3. Matins/Lauds (in the secular tradition counted as one hour)
  4. Prime
  5. Terce
  6. Sext
  7. None

The Book of Common Prayer tradition reduces the daily cycle of prayer to two hours:

  1. Morning Prayer
  2. Evening Prayer

This is a radical departure from the Christian tradition of prayer as it had grown to exist. The critique that the 7 hours were abused and not in fact said as they were intended to be said in medieval times is no argument for their abolishment, but an argument for their proper and intended use! The Prayer Book (BCP) Offices are very basic and bare without obvious scriptural grounding and practice.

Diagnosing the Problem

It is often said that The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) conflates the Offices of Matins, Lauds and Prime into Morning Prayer, and Vespers and Compline into Evening Prayer. It is closer the truth to say that the BCP Office consists elements taken from the traditional sevenfold Breviary Office so that in Morning Prayer the hours of Matins, Lauds, and Prime are represented by elements taken from them. And that Evening Prayer consists of elements taken from Vespers and Compline so that they are represented in Evening Prayer as it were.

The BCP does not function the same way that the traditional sevenfold Office does. The BCP Office was intended to be a vehicle for the public reading (and hearing) of Scripture. Though this is undoubtedly the result of Abp. Thomas Cranmer’s protestantism, there is nothing uncatholic about reading Scripture as part of the Divine Office as such. The uncatholic nature of Cranmer’s version of the Divine Office is, paradoxically, his removal of the Divine Office from its scriptural grounding and context.

The sevenfold Office has variations according to the Church Year and its seasons. The seasons are mapped onto the life of our Lord Jesus Christ as it is presented to us in Scripture. The Church Year begins with Advent. Advent is the season in which the coming of the Lord is the leading theme. The theme is twofold:

  1. The first coming of the Lord which occurred in the Incarnation.
  2. The second coming of the Lord which will occur at some future time known to God alone.

The readings and the propers (Antiphons, Hymns, versicles, responses, legends etc.) are all tied into this theme and thus serve to impress upon the mind and heart of the Christian the content and meaning of Scripture. It is not just the year, however, which is tied to Scripture that way. The day, for the Chistian, is also mapped onto Scripture and the life of the Lord Jesus Christ. Psalm 119: 164 says:

Seven times a day do I praise thee …

A feat actually accomplished in the Breviary tradition by spreading the 7 hours of prayer over the day at an interval of about 3 hours. These hours are tied to specific foundational events in our Lord’s life which wrought our salvation:

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 hours alway.

A medieval rhyme

The worshiper keeping these hours according to day and season is making a deliberate act to unite the entirety of life to the Lord Jesus Christ by interpreting and practicing Scripture. By dropping the hours of Terce, Sext, and None all-together (they are not even represented in Morning and Evening Prayer) and by radically restructuring Matins, Lauds, Prime, Vespers and Compline into Morning and Evening Prayer the scriptural conception (Ps. 119, 164) and practice (each hour connected to an aspect of the Lord’s redemptive suffering) are torn apart and are lost to the Christian. This does not, of course, doom us as Christians to the pit of darkness, but it does diminish the way that our lives were previously mapped onto the Scripture and the life and redemptive acts of our Lord Jesus Christ. Instead we get two hours of prayer which serve primarily as a vehicle to immerse the worshiper in Scripture without providing means to interpret and practice it as was (supposed) to be done before. Mere immersion in Scripture does not suffice, it needs to be interpreted and practiced if Scripture is to be the food which grows and sustains Christian maturity in Christ.

Fixing the Problem

There are several attempts by Catholic Anglicans to restore the Divine Office to traditional health, such as was also done for the Mass as in the several Missals produced by the Anglo Catholic Movement. One such attempt is represented by The English Office Book which keeps the Cranmerian structure of the Divine Office but adds Antiphons, Hymns, Collects, short versicles, and significantly expands the sanctoral cycle which was almost entirely removed by Abp. Cranmer in the first and second BCP’s. When this is used in combination with the various diurnals or little hours books produced by the Catholic revival of Anglicanism this might be a very elegant way of fixing one of the problems with the Prayer Book.

Another way of going about fixing this problem is to retain all the Prayer Book propers (Epistles, Gospels, Collects) but to restore the sevenfold Office around it as it were. This has been accomplished in the Monastic Diurnal & Monastic Breviary Matins and the Anglican Breviary. These attempts at restoration fully reintegrate the Divine Office into the scriptural structure as it was (officially) in use in medieval times. Practical considerations may, however, favor the English Office option above. The English Office is even more attractive as an option when it is used with the 1922 Revised Lectionary which qualifies the Office as a vehicle for Scripture reading by deliberately tying it to the Church Year. There are ups and downs to both the Breviary and English Office options and neither are perfect. The Breviary for example is too low on a daily diet of Scripture reading, whereas the English Office suffers from the Protestantism of Thomas Cranmer (in that it this Office is divorced from older and more traditional ways of prayer).

A mere return to medieval times is, however, undesirable in that the 7 hours were aggregated so that they were not in fact said at intervals throughout the day at all. This is an abuse. Some justification could be found to aggregate Matins-Lauds and Prime into one block, but the other hours ought to be said as close to their proper times as possible. If such is not possible the English Office is a good alternative. Especially in parishes it may be difficult to keep the sevenfold Office where only one priest is available for all the priestly functions – even more difficult is the situation where a priest has to be bi-vocational. In such situations the sevenfold Office cannot be kept and the two-fold Office, retaining its seasonal and sanctoral cycle features, seems to be the best alternative.

Fr. Gregory +


About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
This entry was posted in Anglican Breviary, Book of Common Prayer, Psalmody. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Breviary, BCP & English Office

  1. Charles Smith says:

    I agree with your assessment because I have been encourage by my mentor, Father Jenkins to do more of the BCP, morning and evening prayer as part of the commitment to the diaconate. As a user of the AB I already miss the majesty of the divine office but, time constraints make using them both difficult to manage. Then one needs time for “lectio” also.
    Charles Smith

    • Father Gregory says:

      I am sorry to hear that you must leave the AB behind. It is good to obey one’s mentor though. Such an act on your part cultivates humility and the sacrifice you make is one you can offer to the Lord! I am saddened that the AB seems not to be considered “commitment to the diaconate.”

      I really believe that we as Catholic Anglicans need to face the music of the Reformation and realize that more than the Mass got mutilated in the Reformation and that something needs to be done to regain the Office as well as the Mass. It is my practice to add the readings from the 1922 Lectionary to the devotions before the Office (two bfr Matins, and two bfr Vespers or Compline).

      Fr. Gregory +

  2. Jim Hicks says:

    You point out one of the issues that makes the LOTH unsuitable for me as an alternative. Prime has vanished, of course. But the structure is awkward for one wanting to pray Terce, Sext and None. Arranging the Psalms for those three hours rather than just praying one is difficult. The AB lays it all out there!

    • Father Gregory says:


      I keep on reminding everyone around me that the ancients found the “entire world” refracted by Scripture. This is why Ps. 119:164 is interpreted the way it is. The Ebstorf Mappamundi is an excellent example of that. If you google it and read the description of it you will realize that this “map” of the world “reads” the world in Christ through Scripture. This was once normal and this is why Scripture meant to so much more to them than it seems to mean to us post-Reformation moderns. The nominalism and univocity popularized by the Reformation has dethroned Scripture from its prominence in our lives to occupy a seat among the many other things in our lives which now compete for that empty throne. We do not relate Ps. 119: 164 with the Office not because the relation does not exist, but because not having Scripture in its proper ruling position in our lives we are unable to read Scripture with understanding:

      “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
      I Corinthians, 2, 14.

      It is not our medieval predecessors who naively failed to understand Scripture, it is us arrogant moderns who are too blinded to “spiritually discern.” I think “Medieval Exegesis,” or at least “The Heavenly Tapestry” ought to be mandatory reading for confirmation classes!

      Fr. Gregory +

      • Father Gregory says:

        I also think that some writings from the Radical Orthodoxy authors (Pickstock and Milbank in particular) ought to be more widely read. “Truth in Aquinas” is a tough read but immensely rewarding.

        Gregory +

  3. Ryan Ellis says:

    As a practical matter, I have to do SOME aggregation to make the AB workable for me. I’m a layman with a job, a small business, and a family. While the ideal is seven hours, I have found that four is the best I can do:

    Morning: Prime as I am rushing out the door (“Morning Offering”)
    Lunchtime: Terce-Sext-None (“Daytime Prayer,” for the LOTH-inclined)
    Evening Commute: Vespers and Compline (a kind of “Evensong”)
    After Kids’ Bed: Matins and Lauds (“Vigil”)

    Most days, that works well for me. In particular, committing to Terce, Sext, and None at their appointed times just isn’t going to happen. Meetings, phone calls, losing track of the time, etc. condemns one against the traditional schedule.

    In addition, the anticipation of Matins and Lauds is an absolute necessity for me. There is no way that I could fit in Matins, Lauds, AND Prime before I’m out the door. I do tend to do this on Sundays, before my 11AM Mass. But on weekdays and Saturday small business days? Forget about it. Most of the time this isn’t too bad, but I do sometimes have to close one eye when I run across light imagery in the Lauds hymn.

    • Father Gregory says:

      A busy schedule indeed!

      That’s why I said added the qualifier “as possible.” Those of us who are full-time clergy living in Rectories would ideally make the sevenfold Office available in Church. 😉

      I also think yours is a case where the English Office Book might be a decent alternative. It is not hard to add patristic readings or legends to the English Office Book. It is much less time-consuming.

      Gregory +

  4. John White says:

    I pray all of the day hours in Latin using the 1962 Roman Breviary (with the Vulgate psalms). I use the AB for Matins/Lauds as the 1962 RB made a hash of the patristic readings and the Lives in the nocturns. Also, I usually pray Matins/Lauds somewhere between 1 and 3 AM depending on the call of nature, as it were. The nocturns in the AB are delightful and edifying, and at 3 AM the English is more accessible anyway. I then go back to sleep, and when I get up again at 5.30 I pray Prime; I can usually fit the little hours in during my work day, often doing 2 of the 3 together, and fitting a 5 minute examen in there to make sure I’ve not gone off the rails in my dealings with others at work. If I don’t pray Vespers at work before going home it usually doesn’t happen until everyone’s homework is done, etc. Some nights Compline gets attached to Vespers, which means I do a really poor nighttime examen, which is too bad, as to my mind the evening examen is the most important prayer of the day… my Jesuit training.

    If I don’t get to Mass on a given day then I feel like I don’t read/hear enough of the NT. I will often read the day’s Gospel out of a missal, but it isn’t the same measured method of reading completely through each Gospel that one gets from the prayerbook. So I miss that.

    When I started praying with the breviary I thought it would eat up my whole spiritual life; but amazingly, the discipline has increased rather than diminished my mental prayer. I now easily seem to find 15 minutes twice a day for mental prayer, which used to be difficult. I’m also much more regular with 10-15 minutes of spiritual reading each day. The spiritual adage that a disciplined ordered life multiplies time is really true.

    Of course, I never get to watch 11 back to back episodes of Hogan’s Heroes anymore.

    PS– Give my best to Father Kennedy.

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