Necessary or Expedient?

By Robert Solon

Recently I was asked to offer a lecture to a history class on the Book of Common Prayer, and as part of my preparation I was browsing YouTube examples of the BCP in use. What I found by far the most often was not the Eucharist, but the Daily Office, and specifically Choral Evensong. I discovered not only excerpts of the canticles and responses in their various composed settings, but entire recordings of services from start to finish, not only from English cathedrals via the BBC, but also from the United States and other places.

Even so, in the Episcopal Church today, there is very little churchwide public recitation of the Office. In 2009, for example, the average number of weekday Offices celebrated per month for all parishes was 3.6, or perhaps about one public office per week in most weeks,[1] and about one Office on a Sunday per month as well.[2] (Large parishes by average Sunday attendance offer more, with the largest corporate-sized parishes [ASA 401+] averaging 4 public Offices per week.) Unlike the Eucharist, which practically every parish offers at least once every Sunday, the Office is offered significantly less frequently.

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For communities that offer it publicly, there is much more variation within the 1979 Office than in prior editions of the prayer book. There are two different forms for The Invitatory at Morning Prayer and up to 33 options for the Canticles (depending on how different translations are counted). Extra options are available for public use in Enriching Our Worship 1. That’s plenty of options, even for those few large parishes that average as many as three or (very rarely) four weekday offices a week.

Besides a desire for more variation, there seems no further need for revising the Office. The ordo of the Office is basically unchanged in most editions of the Book of Common Prayer in most Provinces since the 1549 BCP. In fact, it can be argued that Cranmer’s conflation of the seven offices from the Breviary into two was his most successful and lasting contribution to Anglican worship. Just ask any church music director about settings of “Mag and Nunc,” or browse the web for recordings of Evensong, or check the webpages of the (usually larger and urban) parishes that offer a Sunday evening service, and it most likely is Evensong according to Rite I or the classic English 1662 prayer book.[3] Most people, when they think of Anglican worship, probably don’t think about the Eucharist. They think about Evensong.

In discussions on Covenant and elsewhere on BCP revision, a common theme among those who push for revision seems to be a desire to add more options and variety within the framework of the Eucharist. Most of these calls seem to come from clergy. Possibly we grow bored offering the same services two or more times a Sunday, and wish to spice things up a bit, and assume everyone thinks like we do. Perhaps that extends to the Office as well. I daresay (and hope) many, if not most, clergy recite the Daily Office from the BCP privately, if no public observance is practical. Over time they have become very familiar with the canticles and Psalmody and readings and collects. Perhaps some think their recitation needs some spicing as well, and so would look to add such options into the prayer book.

It’s important to remember the difference between private and public celebration of the Office. On public occasions, Episcopal churches are bound to the rubrics of the prayer book and, depending on locale, its authorized supplements. In private, any person can do anything that proves fruitful. The rubrics and lectionary become only suggestions for the one who prays. If we find ourselves bored in our private recitation of the Office, we are free to add, subtract, or modify anything we say and do. That does not require any modifications to the prayer book. It’s a matter for one’s spiritual director to address, not the  Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music.

If we are going to pursue revision of the prayer book (and I hope we don’t, or decide to do whatever we consider the bare minimum) then let’s focus our time and attention on what we collectively use the most: the Eucharist and other sacramental rites. Leave the Office alone. There’s already plenty of variety available, and as the most Anglican of all our liturgies, it deserves the most deference and defense we can give it.

The Rev. Robert Solon is a priest of the Diocese of Newark.

Footnotes

[1] Data supplied by Dr. Kirk Hadaway, Officer for Congregational Research, via email on March 25, 2011. Raw data available on request.

[2] This Sunday Office could be Morning Prayer in place of the Eucharist (perhaps because a priest was not available), but anecdotally more likely was Evensong.

[3] A major recent exception is the Church of England’s Common Worship and the volume Daily Prayer, which departs rather widely from the classic ordo and is in fact much closer to the Roman Catholic ordo. Fortunately for us, Evensong from the cathedrals is still, as far as I can tell, invariably from the Book of Common Prayer.

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