Reflecting on Continuous Psalmody in the Anglican Breviary

The pre-Pius X Breviary largely distributed the Psalter over Matins and Vespers throughout the week. Most of the Psalms from Psalm 1 to 109 were read at Matins and most of the Psalms from 110-147 were read at Vespers. This arrangement of the Psalter emphasizes the continuous reading of the Psalms. The Psalms are read prety much as they occur in the Bible. Psalmody hearing the Word of God and also prayer, but secondarily.  This particular distribution of the Psalms derives from the Roman Cathedrals and was known (but not yet sacrosanct) to St. Benedict of Nursia. The latter adopted much from the Roman tradition but introduced certain changes as to how the Psalms are distributed over a seven day period. The “Roman distribution” of the Psalms can therefore be dated to the 5th or 6th centuries. The state of affairs before that is very difficult to determine, and may not be possible at all. Careful reflection on the bits and pieces of information available to us has brought scholars to talk about two distinct traditions of psalmody: 1. Cathedral and, 2. Monastic psalmody.

The Monastic and Cathedral palmody are two types, or two ways of performing psalmody. The table below is largely derived from Stig Simeon Frøyshov’s* paper The Cathedral-Monastic Distinction Revisited. Part I: Was Egyptian Desert Liturgy a Pure Monastic Office? and provides an easy to understand description of these two types of psalmody.

Parameter Monastic Psalmody Cathedral Psalmody
Dimension Individual & private Common and public
Church Hierarchy Clergy not necessary Clergy is necessary
Character Pedagogical, meditative Praise and intercession
Orientation Interiority (from God) Symbols, actions (to God)
Pray without ceasing” Literal non-Literal
Time Unceasing, continuous Fixed time (7 or 8 times a day)
Psalmody Continuous Selected

It becomes clear that the distribution of the Psalter at Matins and Vespers throughout the week fits the Monastic type. The way the other offices (Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Compline) use the Psalms is of the Cathedral type. The Divine Office, therefore, is a happy blend of Cathedral and Monastic types of Psalmody from at least the 5th or 6th century onward.

Whatever else may be true of the reforms enforced by St. Pius X they did not abandon either of these types but continued the “blend” of Cathedral and Monastic psalmody. The Psalter as we have it in the Anglican Breviary follows the Pian reforms using the Coverdale Psalter. The distribution as we find in the Anglican Breviary is represented in the Table below:

Psalter Distribution Anglican Breviary


In the table above blue indicates continuous psalmody. Blue and bold indicates that the continuity is broken because the editors of the Pian reform were unable to fit all the psalms in their new distribution. Whenever this occurs an attempt is made to stay as close as possible to the continuos psalmody. Red indicates selected psalmody, and green indicates a selected psalmody which also keeps the biblical order. It should be clear from the diagram above that continuous psalmody by distributing all 150 Psalms over the course of one week is kept. Where in the older distribution the Psalms were distributed over Matins and Vespers (mostly) the Psalms are now distributed over Matins, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. Most of the Vespers psalms remain in this office but the Matins psalms are often found distributed over the little hours (Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and Compline). It has been said that the re-distribution of the Psalter by Pius X was the most radical aspect of his Breviary reform. This is true. At the same time it must also be said that the reform is not so radical as to break any and all continuity with the previous distribution.

In fact it could be argued that what the Pian reforms have done is not unlike what St. Benedict did in his re-distribution of the Roman Psalter as we encounter it in his Holy Rule. In Benedict’s reform of the Roman Psalter and in the Pian reform (which, again, is what the Anglican Breviary has adopted) the Cathedral and Monastic types of psalmody are combined.

From the most ancient times, it would seem, we have (1) Cathedral Psalmody, (2) Monastic Psalmody, (3) a “Mixed Psalmody” in the “liturgy of the Hours.” The Book of Common Prayer follows the same pattern. In the Cranmerian reforms the Psalter was re-distributed, though much more radically, perhaps inspired by Cardinal Quignon? On very few occasions does the Book of Common Prayer, even in later editions, allow for selected (Cathedral) psalmody. The Anglican Breviary achieves a better balance between Cathedral and Monastic in its “Mixed Psalmody” by adopting the Pian reforms of 1911 while using the Coverdale Psalter derived from the Book of Common Prayer.

Personally, I tend toward the old Roman (allowing the slight re-distribution of the Psalms at Prime) Psalter as it stood before the reforms of 1911. But reflecting on the reforms of 1911 I have grown to appreciate its efforts and wisdom. I no longer believe the Pian reforms to have been “disastrous” but, perhaps, even beneficial. After all, for those of us with busy lives, the Pian reform does make the Breviary much more “brief” and thereby much more accessible. It is this accessibility that really counts. At least … that is my less than humble opinion.

Fr. Gregory Wassen

*Frøyshov argues that the distinction between Cathedral and Monastic Psalmody is not as sharp as is often said in relevant scholarship. He also suggests that the twelve Psalms tradition (well known from Cassian’s Institutes) was in fact selected psalmody rather than continuous and that the Monastics may have performed both types of Psalmody. If this is so, and it seems plausible that it is, that means that Cathedral type psalmody was also performed by monastics and therefore a sharp dividing line between Monastic and Cathedral (in terms of exclusivity) is not likely. Continuous and selected psalmody did not mutually exclude one anoher.


5 thoughts on “Reflecting on Continuous Psalmody in the Anglican Breviary

  1. Thanks for these reflections, and the handy charts! Like you, the Pian psalm distribution has grown on me as well. (I also love the fact that the AB preserves the reckoning of Sundays and the corresponding collects of Trinitytide; makes it align with the Ordinariate calendar in which I worship.)

  2. Also, not directly related to psalm distribution, but are there any musical resources for the AB that might enable one to occasionally chant offices with proper tones?

  3. Dear Fr. Gregory,

    Thank you for the chart and explanation!
    Do you know of a Kindle or hard copy publication available that arranges (only)the Book of Psalms in the order listed? I realise that’s a bit eclectic, but it would help me with memorizing the Cloverdale Psalms.

    Mary in Tennessee
    SVOTS Class of 2010

    1. Hi Mary, I have thought about your question and I have looked for such a book or kindle edition. I am, however, unable to find it. Perhaps the cursus provided in the 30 day Psalter of the Cranmerian type would be of helo to memorize? Canon Winfred Douglas set the (Americanized) Coverdale Psalter to simple plainson tones and can be found here:

      Another option would be the Saint Dunstan Plainsong Psalter available from Lancelot Andrewes Press.

      Fr. Gregory

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