The structure of Vespers

Vespers an Introduction

The Roman Divine Office seems to have achieved a stable structure in the 8th century, though other features of this Office date back much further (4th century or earlier see Dobszay, Critical Reflections on the Bugnini Liturgy: The Divine Office, p. 3). For my purpose, describing the basic structure of the Offices, a look at the Office as it was around the time of Charlemagne suffices. This a convenient point to start, but in no way indicates an ideal age* to which we must return. The liturgical day begins with Vespers following the order of creation in Genesis. Vespers, as Battifol suggests, is one of the three components of the Nocturnal course and is followed by Matins and Lauds. The second group of offices is Terce, Sext and None comprising three diurnal offices. The last group consists of Compline and Prime.

Vespers and Lauds are sister offices. They are placed at the pivots the day where darkness gives way to light and light to darkness. The predominant tone of these offices is praise. They progress from from Old testament Psalms through the Chapter and Hymn to the New Testament Canticle concluded by the Collect (or collects for often there are more than one). The story of fall and salvation is thus contained in the structure of these offices from prophecy to fulfillment. In the words of Prof Dobszay:  “from Creation (psalms) through redemption (hymn, canticle) to sanctification (collect)” (Dobszay, Critical Reflections, p. 4). The Office of Vespers begins with Opening Versicles which is invariably followed by five Psalms (well, except in the Office of St. Benedict where there are only four) and each Psalm has an antiphon. A Chapter, Hymn, Versicles, Antiphon, Magnificat, (sometimes Preces) and is finally concluded by the Collect.

*(Archaeologism is – in my view anyway – ill suited in Liturgics. Archeologism has corrupted the understanding of Liturgy as “given” and has rendered Liturgy malleable. Liturgy is now what we create rather than Liturgy is God’s given means to re-create us in His Image and Likeness. This explains such disastrous projects as the Book of Common Prayer in the English Catholic tradition and the Liturgy of the Hours in the Roman Catholic tradition.)

Deus in adiutoriam …

In the Anglican Breviary there are devotions given with which we may prepare ourselves to perform the Divine Office. These are the Prayers before the Office and consist of the Aperi DomineThe Prayer of St. Gertrude, Pater Noster, Ave Maria, and the Credo. These are not constituent parts of the Divine Office but devotions in preparation to the Divine Office (this is not to discourage them from use, but just to clarify what they are and are not).

The Office itself begins with “O God, make speed to save me. * O Lord, make haste to help me.” which is a citation taken from Psalm 70 vs. 1 (see Anglican Breviary, p. B123 & A2 though the translations of the verse vary slightly). The liturgical historian Father Pierre Battifol speculated at this point (see History of the Roman Breviary, p. 70) that the entire Psalm used to be said here not just the first verse. He provides some evidence for his assertion based on Chrodegang Regula 14 where it is said that Psalm 70 is recited out of Choir in the Dormitory preceding the Divine Office. Perhaps Battifol’s suggestion is not unreasonable but it is also not entirely convincing either. Saint Chrodegang did not in fact say that Psalm 70 was recited as the beginning of the Office and Amalrius of Metz a little later also seems to know nothing of such a practice:

Because of the aforementioned wild beasts, our shepherd says: “God, come to my assistance; Lord make haste to help me.” At the beginning of the office he requests that they be unable to succeed to such an extent as to separate someone from our gathering through their cleverness.

Amalarius of Metz, On the Liturgy, Bk 4. 2. 11.

It is, I suppose, possible that Amalarius is referencing the whole Psalm by its first verse but it seems a rather clumsy way to do it (if indeed he intended to indicate the whole Psalm which the text does not say). As it is it seems a more natural way to read Amalarius as confirming our traditional custom of just using the first verse.  Be that as it may the custom of simply using the first verse is entirely appropriate to begin the Office with. In fact, when you think about it, reciting the first verse rather than the whole Psalm seems to a better use rather than reciting the whole Psalm. Using only the first verse directs the attention to the specific content of this verse rather than distributing the focus at the beginning of the Office over the whole of Psalm 70. The invocation of God’s help to be able to pray is – it seems to me – better achieved with simple recitation of the first verse rather than the whole Psalm.

Psalm 70 vs 1 is followed by the Doxology which immediately gives the Office a specifically Christian shape. The doxology praises the Holy Trinity, as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the way St. Basil the Great had adapted it. The doxology accomplishes several things. On the one hand it makes immediately clear that the God of the Bible (the God invoked for help in Psalm 70) is none other but the Most Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This is an important point being made here. The God of the Scriptures is not the deity worshipped by Judaism, Islam, and certainly not the deity (or any of the deities) of the various forms of polytheism. The God of the Scriptures, as Christians know Him, is the Trinity. It is the Trinitarian God who is invoked to come to our help and assistance that we may be able to pray and commune with Him.

The Doxology itself also has an interesting history. Up until at least the time of St. Basil the Great (4th Century) the traditional form of the Doxology had been: Glory be to the Father, Through the Son, in the Holy Ghost. Some heretical teachers had used the different prepositions used for Father, Son and Holy Ghost to assert a difference of nature between Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. So that to the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Ghost were taken as proving this point in a liturgical form. Clearly, it was argued, the Son and the Spirit are oriented toward the Father and thus subject to Him, and therefore different in nature from Him. The Glory, after all, is offered to the Father and not to the Son nor the Holy Ghost. St. Basil immediately recognized this was not the traditional understanding of the this liturgical formula and he countered the heretical assertion by laying down the traditional theology of the Trinity while also adapting the liturgical formula to Glory be to the Father, with the Son, and with the Holy Ghost which in our Western formula is Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. This formula leaves no room for the assertion of a difference of nature in the Trinity. The basilian formula is unambiguously Trinitarian.



About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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7 Responses to The structure of Vespers

  1. TW says:

    “such disastrous projects as the Book of Common Prayer”: help out a naive reader who truly doesn’t understand. My daily BCP Vespers has versicles, doxology, psalms & antiphons, Scripture, Magnificat & antiphon, collects, etc. Where/how do you locate the profound cleavage between disaster & God’s given means?

    • Father Gregory says:

      Sounds like you are using the English Office Book or perhaps “The Prayer Book Office” rather than a straight forward BCP. Which is – as far as I am concerned – great progress in undoing the harm done to the liturgy in the 16th century.

      The “profound cleavage” lies precisely where the (traditional) Christian liturgical tradition is almost completely undone to establish a different version of Christianity by liturgical means. That was the intention behind ridding England of the Sarum Use (of the Roman Rite) and replacing it with the Book of Common Prayer. I am familiar with Anglo Catholic attempts to obfuscate or at least downplay that the Protestant Reformation was Protestant (at least in England), but it seems to me that McCullough has thoroughly debunked Anglo Catholic versions of the English Reformation.

      The way I look at it God works with us through tradition. That is tradition is – to borrow the language of a Russian theologian – the life of the Spirit in the Church. Iow the way the tradition evolves and stabilizes the work of the Holy Spirit. Attempts to radically alter what is thus given is tantamount to undermining the work of the Spirit and substituting the Spirit’s with one’s own.

      I suppose it is not unlike the attempts of certain historical/critical scholars attempt to re-create a Bible after their own ideas (editing out what is contrary to their views and editing in what seems more acceptable to them). It may be true that such re-edited bibles are still very reminiscent of the traditional version but they aren’t the same … There is a reason why tradition has settled on a particular version of the Bible and that is (so to speak) the canonical version of it and no other is “given” to the Church. I would advocate something similar for Liturgy. We have been given a certain form and essence of it which simply cannot be changed without changing the way liturgy effects us.

      The disaster of the BCP (and the LOTH) as I see it is not so much that they are particular combinations of Scripture, hymns, versicles and antiphons, but that they are not the combinations, hymns, versicles, antiphons such as they were given. The finger which slowly wrote and gave us the traditional liturgy is discerned in its “continued use” to be that of God, the finger which tore the traditional ways from us and replaced with other ways belongs to another.

      If I had to say all that in fewer words I would want to boil it down to this: what God gives us in tradition is “made” by Him specifically as a means to re-make us in His Image, to replace that tradition with one’s own personal creation based on one’s own ideas is to risk a spiritual form of “confirmation bias” (so that I am not in fact re-created in God’s Image by His means, but confirmed in my un-reformed state via my own ideas and means).

      You may or may not agree, but perhaps the line of thought i was trying to get across is more accessible now?

      Gregory +

      • Father Gregory says:

        Btw. this is not to say i would deny any sort of “reform” but I would advocate that reform be modest and thus be a re-editing of sorts of what is given rather than creating a new thing entirely with some trappings from what went before. In that sense I can see a debate about whether – for example – the Pian (1911) reforms of the Roman Breviary are “creations” or “reforms.” I would come down on the side that this “reform” was really a creation insofar as it completely overhauled the Psalter and with it created (out of the blue?) new antiphons to fit the new Psalter even where it wasn’t necessitated by the new distribution of Psalms. Though it left other essential features intact and did not burn down the entire old liturgy to fashion a new one out of its ashes so to speak (as was done with the BCP and the LOTH).

        (An idea of “organic development” (which is I think how the Spirit works in liturgy) can be found in Alcuin Reid’s book about that subject).

        Gregory +

      • TW says:

        Thanks for your reply. I’m in the ECUSA and use the 1979 BCP as my basis. I would like to use a complete, traditional, seasonal set of antiphons with the psalms and canticles (except for the antiphons everything I listed is part of the standard office given in the prayer book). Unfortunately that is a complicated undertaking, so I am not equally ambitious or well provided-for on every day. Minimally, with only my own church’s “Plainsong Psalter” and hymnal, I can chant the psalms and canticles, usually with a generic antiphon (unvarying or Paschaltide/Lent/other times). A little more I have in the St. Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter. Much more, in The Monastic Diurnal Noted, a true treasury of the church’s ancient melodies–this is a rich source of antiphons for me on feast days and during seasons of the church year that have daily antiphons.

        In addition to your reply, I’ve also understood your perspective more fully from more reading of the blog since I posted my comment. I am very sympathetic to your wish that traditional seasonal uses had been more faithfully preserved, and to your idea of a forma plenior/communis/brevior that share a clear common framework. Even using the Monastic Diurnal Noted, a book developed within an ECUSA community, I find that the alterations over the years in our lectionary are a stumbling block. In Ordinary Time, I can try to dig up the week’s propers, but I have to deal with two rival calendars, and often neither matches what is being read in my lectionary.

        There are two things I would venture to defend in the Cranmerian tradition: (1) I suppose I’m “Protestant” enough, if such it is, as to appreciate a less ambitious sanctoral calendar, where apart from major feast days the Scripture readings can maintain some kind of arc and seasonal relevance; (2) the basic idea of an abridged office for every Christian (I am a lay person) — perhaps for its time (though I know you don’t trust the motivations at work in the English Reformation, inspiration was certainly taken from Cardinal Quignonez’s work etc.) Cranmer’s office was a pretty good attempt at a “forma brevior”?

        Still, I really enjoy being in harmony with more ancient traditions to the extent that’s practical. The Daily Office is an obvious place where the Church could and should display more unity. And here (“practical”) is the real point, in my opinion. It would not be rocket science to offer, to Anglican Christians who pray in English (though I know Latin and would jump at the chance if my spiritual/practical needs were better met by materials in that language) an office book with a traditional lectionary, antiphons, etc.; in a full seven-office format for the virtuosi, perhaps, but most needfully in a forma brevior on the scale of the BCP office. To really serve those of us who think “psalms” and “canticles” at least should be sung, I believe there needs to be musical notation in there too. (I’m a little mystified at the constant proliferation of words-only breviaries in the marketplace, leaving an important part of our prayer tradition to be reconstructed by experts or else entirely omitted.) Have you seen the confessional Lutherans’ “Brotherhood Prayer Book”? It is so much more what I am describing than anything I believe there is in the Anglo-Catholic (or other Catholic) realm! Why are we falling so short of that? I hope it is not because those of us who want to pray a traditional office, together, are simply an inadequate aggregate of care and energy.

        In my immediate environment I feel that the Daily Office, however much it serves me as my daily spiritual bread and butter, is a niche interest. When I pray St Chrysostom’s prayer (“two or three”) alone or with just one or both of my children, I tell myself that so many others are praying the office with me every day in at least a vaguely similar form. And many are, but you are right that we have fragmented what was provided to us–I’m less convinced than you that we’ve done so in a way that’s theologically vainglorious, but I’m certainly convinced that greater unity and traditionalism per se would be a good thing. But until and unless those of us who want to pray and sing a traditional, practical (MP & EP or so) Daily Office have complete and user-friendly materials from which to pray–materials that actually “get” things like the importance of seasonal antiphons sung to ancient and traditional melodies–we will continue to appear as fragmented niche enthusiasts and not as the faithful remnant united around our sustaining prayer traditions. In this landscape, I’m happy just to have a BCP in wide use that resembles the Western church’s office to the degree it does, with resources like the MDN that allow a deeper connection to the past on occasion.

        P.S. I don’t own the English Office Book, and the Prayer Book Office is one of the great book rarities of our time. However, especially given my desire to have the antiphon melodies somehow connected to my antiphonal, I’m not really sure how to equip myself any better.

      • TW says:

        Oh, I also have the Anglican Breviary–I’ve actually owned it since long before I ever adopted the habit of formal daily prayer. Pardon me for taking less notice of it in my thoughts, but perhaps I’ve said enough for you to see why. Give me “The Anglican Breviary, forma brevior, fully noted with traditional Gregorian chant,” and my dreams will be realized.

  2. Father Gregory says:

    TW thank you for your answers! I read them several times with care.

    I am familiar with Canon Douglas’ work as well as the later Matins book (I’ve used them both). There is a way to abbreviate that too while leaving the essence of the Office intact (at least arguably). I am also familiar with, if not very impressed with, the ’79 BCP. Though I am in a “Continuing Anglican” Church my beef with the 79 BCP isn’t that its theology is so radically different from the ’28 (I don’t think it is). The ’28 & ’79 BCP’s are – to my mind – two sides of the same (very) 20-ieth century coin 😉 I do not prefer ’28 over ’79 like most other Continuing Anglicans. I am an ex-Eastern Orthodox Priest with no previous history with the BCP in any of its incarnations and my views of how God “speaks” and deifies us is very much “Medieval Western” (if you will) or “Eastern” (as it is called today). Liturgy is a revelation as I see it. God disclosing Himself on His terms grabbing hold of us. So – I would not hesitate to say that the Divine Office in the ’79 BCP is an improvement over that of the ’28 (but only slightly).

    That said – I do think that the Lutheran Liturgical Prayer Brotherhood have done a marvelous work. I used to own copy of their book but I could not bring it with me when I moved back to Europe. be that as it may the way they set things up and provided music for the KJV Psalter is brilliant. Of course their excluding of traditional veneration of Saints and the lack of “legends” and “homilies” is still an issue (as is their very imperfect lectionary). If only I could read notes (and/or neumes) I would long ago have started to work on putting your dream together! The Anglican Breviary, as you may know, contains two Calendars a Simple (for Anglican use) and a Universal (for Anglo Papists I guess). The Simple Kalendar could be used (I suppose) to distinguish “double” and “simple” (or even memorials). This would mean that the occurrent Scripture of the season gets read more often. The problem remains that the lectionary as it is contained in the Anglican (and Roman) Breviary is brilliant in its intention but fails in execution. A reform there is certainly necessary. I do have some ideas about that too (which go back to Dobszay, Pope Benedict XVI, and the Office as it wa done in Henrician times).

    Cranmer is a in the technical sense of the word a “heretic.” I do not mean that as a derogatory term at all but simply in its theological meaning of being in deliberate opposition to the Catholic Faith (and what is more trying to destroy it). That does not – to my mind – mean that all his hand has touched is of necessity tainted. His rhetoric in the first BCP about the Pie and the structure of the Divine Office is nonsense. I will use myself as an example: it takes me about a minute to fidgure out the Pie for either the Monastic Office (Diurnal & Matins) or the Anglican Breviary and these books are at least complicated as was the Medieval Pie. Its all about knowing what you’re doing (and I think he knew what he was doing very well … ). In some ways, I think, Dixian scholarship remains true. It is true that there are similarities between Quignonez and Cranmer’s reforms.

    The Quignonez Breviary was a “private book” not a “common prayer” and it was intended for Priests to become more familiar with Scripture (to be read once a year) and the whole Psalter (once a week). The Quignonez Breviary therefore excludes all the things that he considered “Choir parts” (the pieces sung by the people and choir). The presumption was that the FULL Choir Office would still be performed! The Quignonez was NOT meant to ever be used as a Choir Office. This private, clerics only, Office was to a significant extent behind Cranmer’s reform project. Another, more important, source for Cranmer were certain Lutheran experiments of Morning and Evening Prayer. Though I don’t think we should ignore Cranmer’s creativity either. he did not simply “copy” Lutherans nor Quignonez. It is ironic that many of the defects of Cranmer’s Office are the result of his adopting a scheme of private devotions and trying to mold them into “Common Prayer.”

    The first BCP’s appeared without music. i am not convinced that was intentional nor am I convinced it was not intentional. I would not put it past Cranmer to consider “music” too papist for comfort. Merbecke provided some basic music for the BCP. The Ritualist movement and the Catholic Revival in the CoE generally provides several attempts to produce chant for the Psalms (complete with ritual) and an Antiphonary. The so-called Sarum Antiphoner is in fact such an Anglican product and still available on There is also the work of John David Chambers on the Liturgy of the BCP and the Sarum Psalter. Over a hundred years old and almost entirely forgotten.

    As far as your dream is concerned … Perhaps a collaboration effort between you and me? I am quite serious! If you would want to see if we can come up with something practical, traditional, and singable we could post it – perhaps even do better by vlogging examples.

    fr.gregorywassen-at-gmail-dot-com let me know if you’re game!

    Gregory +

    • Father Gregory says:

      O – uhm – as far as the posts on this blog … If you begin reading at the start I am an Orthodox Priest discovering Anglican Catholicism and my views evolve and change over time. I don’t anticipate a stop in this process as long as i live I hope to evolve 😉

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