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:
- Matins/Lauds (in the secular tradition counted as one hour)
The Book of Common Prayer tradition reduces the daily cycle of prayer to two hours:
- Morning Prayer
- 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:
- The first coming of the Lord which occurred in the Incarnation.
- 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 +