MORE than twenty years ago, working as a member of the Daily Office Group of the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England, I remember a particular discussion after which two new policies were enacted. One was to view Prayer During the Day and Night Prayer as offices which would work particularly well for busy laity to use as their morning and evening prayer. Following on from that, Prayer During the Day would be found not as a midday office – though it could well be used as that – but at the beginning of the book. If you want morning prayer (small letters), use Prayer During the Day. If you want to use evening prayer (small letters), use Night Prayer. Those decisions were acted upon and, though I have no idea how well they fared – or indeed the Daily Office as then reformed – they were an attempt to tackle the problem of how to commend Daily Prayer to the laity. I have heard more recent versions of the same idea, with Prime, as found in the English Proposed 1928 Prayer Book, and Compline, similarly. Again I have no idea how this suggestion has fared. It might be no more than a romantic attempt to revive the Office of Prime, axed by the Catholic Church in the 1970 reforms, and preserve the beautiful setting of Compline, more or less according the Use of Sarum, the work of the Plainsong and Mediaeval Music Society.
The Church of England, historically, did make a noble attempt to celebrate the Office as a daily devotion for laity as well as clergy. As well as stories of churches filling up day-by-day, in times gone by (rather a long time gone-by admittedly), the most popularly-attended Sunday services in many an Anglican Church until 50 years ago were Mattins and Evensong, Morning and Evening Prayer. It is said that the Forsyte Saga on the television killed Evensong, but to this day (at least up until the Lockdown) Choral Evensong, as sung in cathedrals, has been a favourite devotion, especially for those who regard taking Communion as a ‘being a bit too keen’. Choral Mattins, by contrast, has almost vanished, forced into extinction by the Parish Communion movement.
Entering into the full communion of the Catholic Church in 2011, I knew what to expect. As an Anglo-Catholic, and as a liturgy tutor, I was well aware of the many attempts the Liturgical Movement made in the Catholic Church to commend an essentially monastic office – seven times a day and once during the night – to laity. The Liturgy of the Hours was itself an attempt and the Day Hours were presented in various ways. For one thing, it was not only possible but usual to conflate the three minor offices which punctuate the day into one office, Prayer During the Day. For another, there were one or two efforts to make the Office more relevant – the operative word fifty years ago. Thus we found, in the English edition on the English side of the Atlantic, popular hymns and poetry. Little did I know, in the late 1970s, when I bought my copy of Morning and Evening Prayer – green in those days – that one of the principal contributors to the Office in English was a former nun of Stanbrook Abbey, who now lies at rest in the churchyard of St Mary’s Catholic Church, East Hendred.
Many parishes have tried to encourage the use of Morning and Evening Prayer by the laity. Simplified versions have been published and there are often a few copies at the back of churches, as there are at mine. The truth is not that the laity are Laodicean – though many are – but that, fundamentally, the Office Book remains too daunting and intrinsically clerical, or so it seems. To judge from social media, there is a constant stream of newcomers to the Office, and they receive instruction from a supportive group.
Those looking for help with the Liturgy of the Hours, in its British or American translation, seem to be outnumbered by individuals exploring the more arcane treasury of the pre-conciliar Breviary. This is a highly-specialised area and adherents split into those who are pre- and post- Divino Afflatu (1911) – that is, the reforms of Pope St Pius X, those- who find the 1961 breviary just the thing, and those who take positions for and against – mainly against – the Psalter version which came out under Pope Pius XII. Occasionally, straying into this camp, are supporters of the Anglican Breviary, an unofficial English translation, and they are often turned on by those who know that, quintessentially, the Breviary has to be in Latin and as prescribed by the Church That said, judging from these social media groups, the Latin language is far from dead. What distinguishes these contributors – from more or less any viewpoint – is their interest and expertise in highly-specialised matters. This, then, is not the terrain of the popular lay office.
My own role in this, encouraged at the time by the Holy See, was to produce the Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham. This was to provide the Ordinariate – or ideally the Ordinariates – with a version of the Prayer Book Office (Morning and Evening Prayer), as found in the Book of Common Prayer 1662, together with an anthology of post-scriptural readings drawn from the English Spiritual Tradition. That anthology was compiled mainly by Fr Aidan Nichols OP. The prototype was well-received in Britain but was not formally adopted in the USA. This rather prevented it going into a second edition: the Holy See asked me to produce a revised edition but it seemed impossible to proceed whilst stocks of the first edition remained. Whether the Ordinariate, which now has plans to produce a fresh Office Book, has any more success with introducing the laity to using the Daily Office remains to be seen. Anglican Cathedrals, catering for a variety of visitors – some regular, some occasional – discovered that a pillar lectionary, based on ‘purple passages’ but preserving something of lectio continua was what was needed. We’ll leave that aside before we discover more metaphors to mix.
It is not just a question, however – or even mainly a question – what forms are available, what forms are used. Accessibility is key. We have had a successful experiment in this village – brought to an end by the Lockdown – of Morning Prayer (Lauds) on Wednesdays in the Catholic Parish Church and Evening Prayer on Fridays in the Anglican Parish Church. It has been a chance to strike out in a new direction. Whereas the Anglican service has been Book of Common Prayer, with readings from the Authorised Version, the Catholic service has been in leaflet form. It has used the Revised Grail Psalter and accommodated our Anglican guests by having two short readings (one from OT, one from NT), rather than one, and a popular morning hymn of the Ken or Keble kind. We have finished with the Anglican collect, originally from the Office of Prime, and ‘the Grace’, almost a sine qua non of a meeting involving Anglicans.
As we look for a way ahead, out of the Lockdown, we have learnt much from the use of Facebook and Zoom. Whereas the live-streaming of Mass is inevitably something of a compromise, the live-streaming by Zoom of the Office involves no such compromise. One of the transactional parts of the Mass is, for many, missing. That is not the case, of course, for the Office. I may be showing my Anglican background but all this has made me long for a spirituality more akin to that of the Orthodox, with regard to Office and Mass. I am not referring to the otherness of Orthodox culture – icons and kontakia, liturgies of heavenly length as well as heavenly beauty. What I mean is the ferial pattern of Office, combined with the Sunday and festal celebration of the Divine Liturgy.
Katherine E. Harmon, in a recent post on www.praytellblog.com (‘We’re still waiting for a Reformed Liturgy of the Hours’ 22 July 2020), dreams of an Office in concentric circles – my image I think. At the heart would be a simple kernel, easily accessible to lay folk and families. I think that might be met by something like the simplified morning and night offices I mentioned at the outset – a bit like Prime and Compline. Added to that – and complementariness would be crucial – would be Morning and Evening Prayer – Lauds and Vespers – the hinges on which the Daily Office hangs. In addition to this there would be something like the Office of Readings, but with scope for readings at various levels of density. Then there would be the Midday Office and the other minor offices, Terce and None, for the full celebration, as part of the monastic pattern. I am aware that have described more or less what we already have but the detailed reform that I think Katherine E. Harmon wants is to make all this less solidly monastic. A more accessible Office of Readings – a different track, that is, for those whose spiritual reading is from wider, simpler sources – and a more ‘cathedral’ feel to Morning and Evening Prayer would take us most of the way. But her other main point – apart from the lay-friendly one – is that the Office in all its forms, should be an organic whole. So we would continue to have seven times a day and once at night in monastic communities, and three or four sessions of one or two offices for the secular clergy. But we might find also Morning and Evening Prayer celebrated in parish churches, a simple Prime and Compline for those who want something short and accessible, morning and night, amidst the life of a busy home, and different ways of accessing the Psalter and the Lectionary, which are at the heart of every endeavour.
A final plea: could we not integrate the Office Lectionary and the Mass Lectionary, which so often jangle one with the other? A particular exasperation recently was working through the Acts of the Apostles at different speeds in the excellent Two-Year Office Lectionary and the Mass Lectionary. It all needs pulling together and, I’m tempted to say, made contingent on a version of the old One-Year Mass Lectionary, which was quite enough for many. Intrinsic to Anglican Patrimony, as I have experienced it, is opening and using a copy of the Bible, as handed down through the English Bible tradition. It might be exhausting to ask people every time they celebrate an office to look up chapter and verse for a bible passage but this experience of using the Bible should be part of the day, perhaps for the Office of Readings, perhaps for a somewhat longer reading than has been the case at Lauds and Vespers (though provision for that too is found in the General Instruction). In short, there is nothing new under the sun and we need not a root and branch reform but a re-imagining of the Office that the whole People of God, in different communities, as well as alone, can take part in.