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A Defense of Cranmer’s Office




It is easy for liturgists to criticize the Daily Office that was reformed by Thomas Cranmer and more or less retained in our liturgies until the second half of the twentieth century. Such critics will argue that Cranmer’s Daily Office, along with its many descendants, is too penitential in focus and is characterized by a lack of variety, long sections of psalmody with no particular relation to the time of day or season of the church year, and lengthy scripture readings. And all of it based on a faulty sixteenth-century reconstruction of early Christian prayer practices, which incorrectly understood the meditative reading of the entire Bible and recitation of the entire psalter as characteristic of all primitive Christian daily prayer rather than of monasticism specifically. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear calls today for the Daily Office to be reformed along ‘cathedral’ rather than ‘monastic’ lines, emphasizing fixed psalmody keyed to the time of day and year and shorter lectionary readings. Accordingly, reforms to the Daily Office in Anglican liturgies since the 1970s have mostly moved away from Cranmer’s model.


Indeed, it is something of a truism that the Daily Office suffered general neglect in the first wave of Anglican liturgical reform that was driven by the concerns of the Liturgical Movement. While this movement did vital work in focusing the Anglican worship on our participation in the Paschal mystery in baptism, regular celebration of the Eucharist, and the Triduum, the Daily Office was largely ignored. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer is provides a good example of this relative lack of attention: the prayer book adds the little hours of Noonday Prayer and Compline, but Morning and Evening Prayer are, at first blush, fairly conservative revisions of those offices as found in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer prayer book. The revisions that were made, however, move the Daily Office significantly away from that of Cranmer’s precedent by increasing variety and especially by allowing a great deal of choice to the officiant choice. The Daily Office Lectionary is significantly shortened, reduced from four readings per day to three, and the Psalter is split up over seven weeks (with imprecatory psalms optionally omitted) rather than read once a month. Further, a plethora of new canticles are added, and no canticles - not even the Gospel canticles - are required to be said at particular times, although the traditional evening canticles (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittus) are the only canticles printed in-line for Evening Prayer. Similarly, much more variety is added in the collects after the Lord’s Prayer: while a Collect for Mission is required (unless an intercession is used), the Collect of the Day is not required and there are seven other collects which may be used. It seems likely that the revisers intended to preserve a three-collect pattern, in which the Collect of the Day is said, followed by one of the seven collects in a weekly cycle, followed by a Collect for Mission, but this is nowhere indicated by the rubrics. The service is still, as we will see, capable of being rendered in a distinctly Cranmerian mode, but so much is left up to the officiant that it is also entirely possible to say the Offices very differently while still abiding by according to the rubrics.


A defense of the oft-maligned traditional Daily Office exemplified by the 1662 Book of Common Prayer could offer a moderate corrective to this trend. However, lest this appear to be an exercise in mere antiquarianism, irrelevant for the worshipping life of the Episcopal Church today, I’d like to show first how exactly one might render the 1979 Daily Office in a more traditional mode while nonetheless obeying the rubrics; this is the way that I typically pray the office. It would look something like this:



MORNING PRAYER

EVENING PRAYER

Opening Sentences from Lent section

Opening Sentence from Lent section

Confession & Absolution

Confession & Absolution

Preces

Preces

Full Venite as Invitatory Psalm

30 Day Psalter

30 Day Psalter

Old Testament reading from alt year

Old Testament reading

Magnificat

Te Deum (Benedicite in Lent; opt. in Advent; Pascha Nostrum in Easter Week)

Gospel

New Testament Reading

Nunc Dimittis

Benedictus

Creed

Creed

Lord's Prayer

Lord's Prayer

Suffrages A

Suffrages A

Collect of the Day

Collect of the Day

Collect for Peace

Collect for Peace

Collect for Aid Against Perils

Collect for Grace

Prayer for the President of the US...

[Prayers for the President of the US & all in Civil Authority]

Prayer for Clergy and People

Prayer for Clergy and People

Prayer for All Sorts...

Prayer for All Sorts and Conditions of Men

General Thanksgiving

General Thanksgiving

Prayer of St. Chrysostom

Prayer of St. Chrysostom

Concluding Sentences: 2 Cor 13:14

Concluding Sentences: 2 Cor 13:14




The portion of Morning Prayer in brackets is replaced by the Great Litany on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The prayers after the collects were somewhat variable in the older prayer book tradition; the 1979 Prayer Book only requires that either a collect for mission or a form of general intercession be used here. The Prayer for All Sorts and Conditions of Men and the General Thanksgiving were not printed in-line in the office of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, but they have appeared in this position in each American prayer book until 1979, and the inclusion of the Prayer for All Sorts and Conditions of Men fulfills the 1979’s requirement for a general intercession if a Collect for Mission is not used. 


Granted that one could pray this way, why should one? To answer this question requires a liturgical and ascetic theology of the office. While a full elaboration of such a theology is beyond the scope of this piece, I’d like to offer a brief sketch: the Office, first and foremost, is an objective sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God, in which the Church on earth, through the Spirit, participates alongside the communion of saints in the ascended Christ’s worship of the Father, giving voice to the whole cosmos’ worship of God. Any responsible treatment of the Office must begin, I believe, with exactly this theocentric focus. It is not, of course, that God somehow needs our prayers to bolster God’s divine self-esteem, but rather that praise and adoration are the proper response of a creature to the Creator, and especially of the redeemed creature to the Redeemer. However, as with all Christian worship, this ultimately theocentric focus must be held together with the awareness that the Office nonetheless is in some sense for us. It was developed by the Church out of texts inspired by the Spirit not only to praise God but also to shape us into the sort of creatures who can love and praise God aright. And this is where the question of the Office as ascesis takes center stage. Asceticism might not be a popular word in most Episcopal circles, but it is precisely as a mode of long-term, ordered, patient, even boring spiritual formation that the human work of the office - and especially the Cranmerian office - can be best understood.


Central to the Cranmerian office is a commitment to the formative power of the Word of God prayed and spoken, one which combines a catholic commitment to the office as the Church’s public office of praise with a Reformational emphasis on the Christian’s in-depth involvement with Scripture. Far more than either pre-Reformation breviaries or contemporary reforms, Cranmer’s Office is steeped in Scripture even while it avoids reducing engagement with Scripture to personal study. Not only the lengthy psalmody, canticles, and readings but the opening and concluding sentences, much of the text of the preces and responses, and many of the motifs of the collects are straightforwardly scriptural. And not only a few parts of Scripture: the older lectionaries covered nearly the entire Bible in a year, with the entire psalter repeated every thirty days. Key to the success of this Office, I would suggest, is a commitment to letting Scripture work on you, which is to say, let the Spirit work on you: to soak in long lessons, to luxuriate (or occasionally drag through) lengthy portions of the psalter, until Scripture’s words become yours, Scripture’s prayer your prayers. There are few better methods to achieve this than constant repetition, and this is exactly what Cranmer’s office does. One comes to know the Psalms much better when one is praying them twelve times a year rather than about six, after all! 


The office does more than just throw a great deal of Scripture at us, however, recognizing that it is easy to become overwhelmed in long sections of Psalms and especially in long readings. It begins with confession, because this offering of praise and thanksgiving to almighty God is serious work which we can engage in only as redeemed creatures. The penitential starting sentences help to rouse the conscience, pushing us to throw ourselves wholly on God’s mercy (it is here where I must add a protest against the 1979’s deletion of the phrase “and there is no health in us” from the confession!), which we ask for and receive in the confession and absolution proper. The invitatory in the morning solemnly calls us both to praise and to careful attention to God’s Word which we will shortly hear. Then the Psalms, where our task is to make the praises, laments, and petitions of God’s people as recorded in Scripture our own praises. To be sure, these may not always seem seasonally appropriate, but the inclusion of apparently dissonant psalms (e.g. Ps. 88 in Eastertide) forces us towards a more textured and nuanced appreciation of the Church Year. And then the readings. It is admittedly easy to get lost in long readings, but this is where the invariable use of canticles is crucially helpful: They provide us a doxological and Christological lens for reading Scripture as a whole. Saying these canticles immediately after each reading orienting our engagement with Scripture around praise of God and especially thanksgiving to God for the mighty salvation wrought for us in Jesus Christ. It is hard to imagine a more appropriate response to the reading of the Gospel - that record of the life and passion of Jesus Christ - than the Song of Simeon: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation!” Following the readings and canticles, the Creed further helps contextualize them, helping the Christian guide her interpretation of Scripture not only by other parts of Scripture but also by the testimony of the early church. And then the prayers: The inclusion of the Lord’s Prayer presumably needs no defense, but the Cranmerian suffrages are absolute jewels- Tiny petitions, generally drawn from the Psalms, which pack an enormous punch in just a few words. To truly appreciate them takes, in my experience, years of practice, years which current trends towards variety make it quite difficult to acquire. The use of the Collect of the Day connects the Office to the church year and to the Holy Communion service; the invariable collects following do the exact sort of work to align the Office with the time of day that more recent additions such as the Phos Hilaron and the Lucenarium attempt. The prayers that follow allow a limited amount of officiant discretion to shape public prayer according to the particular needs of the worshipping community, drawing the community’s needs into the larger office of praise, Scripture, and intercession. The traditional concluding sentence links the Daily Office once more to the Holy Trinity.


And alas! None of this works quite so well if the various commitments of the Cranmerian office are softened or rejected altogether. The rejection of invariable canticles, and especially invariable Gospel canticles, in the 1979 book strikes me as a particular misstep, given the vital work which they do to shape our reading of Scripture in daily prayer and indeed our praying of the Office more broadly. We seem, moreover, to have thoroughly abandoned Cranmer’s Reformation emphasis on the engagement of God’s people with the whole of the Bible in worship, allowing the omission of Psalms deemed unsavory or difficult and producing an Office lectionary which in two years only covers about half of the Old Testament! We must, of course, freely grant the historical point that Cranmer erred in believing that such engagement with the Bible was characteristic of primitive Christian daily prayer. But the fact that it was not the prayer practice of the early church does not mean that we too ought to reject it. Why, precisely, ought scholarly reconstructions of early Christian prayer be normative for us? This is more often assumed than actively argued for. Sure, it may be monastic in provenance, but couldn’t one argue that one of Anglicanism’s charisms is precisely the application of a monastic-type spirituality to the lives of all Christians? Indeed, in a moment of remarkable Biblical illiteracy among not only Episcopal lay people but even some clergy, it strikes me that a heartier regular dose of Scripture might be precisely what we need! The exigencies of modern life, of course, might require the church to provide shortened forms of the Office for private devotion for those who do not have the time to recite the full Office, but I see no good reason why our church should have abandoned the commitment to a fuller lectionary in its public worship. Keeping so many other elements invariable or nearly so, then, aids ease of use and encourages memorization, making it yet easier for the office - and especially the short ‘arrow prayers’ of the responses - sink into one’s bones. It also helps to focus one’s attention to the variable elements (the psalmody, the lessons, and the Collect of the Day) rather than overwhelming the pray-er with massive amounts of novelty. One is freed by a sort of holy familiarity, even boredom, to attend in particular to joining one’s prayer to the inspired words of the Psalms and to receive the news of salvation in Jesus Christ from the lessons. Which is why the old Anglican Office remains an unsurpassed reformed catholic office: one which combines doxology and asceticism in a way which allows us to be formed to rightly worship God now and forever, world without end.


Benjamin Crosby

Montreal, Quebec

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1 Comment


Benjamin, have you looked at the 2019 ACNA Book of Common Prayer? You might like it.


The ACNA solution to the "there is no health in us" part of the confession was to change it to the following: "And apart from your grace, there is no health in us."

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