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Goodbye Daily Office?

Daily Office

On some recent occasions when I was present, clergy were leading the Daily Office from A New Zealand Prayer Book He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa. In each of these cases, when they got to the appointed psalm, however, rather than using it as a prayer that we, the gathered community, prayed together, the psalm in the NZ lectionary booklet was proclaimed by a reader as one of the set readings. At the end of this read psalm portion, there was no doxology (“Glory to the Father and to the Son…). And also, at the end of the psalm portion, the usual readings’ response was used (“Hear what the Spirit… Thanks be to God.“)

In some of the recent discussions around the Revised Common Lectionary, and in my looking at other online discussions, it is clear that this (mis)understanding of the place of the psalms is not unique to New Zealand. There are people who treat the set psalm not as a prayer but as one of the four readings.

I was recently at a large gathering of clergy, and the day concluded with Compline (Night Prayer). The antiphon for the Nunc Dimittis appeared on the screen, and we said it all together (“Preserve us, O God, while waking, and guard us while sleeping…”). But the Nunc Dimittis itself was omitted. Compline, Night Prayer, instead of having a grammar, a dynamic, a tradition, an insertion into common prayer, became a collection of lovely words the leader likes that we said together.

I was recently with an Anglican priest at traditional Choral Evensong. It was that priest’s first experience of this. In saying this, let me be clear: I’m not advocating for this 1662/1928 rite; I’m simply recounting this alongside the above stories. Rarer as this rite is becoming, there are trained clergy now who not only would struggle to lead such a service if asked, they actually haven’t even ever been part of the traditional Anglican daily office.

Three decades ago in this province, General Synod removed the requirement that clergy pray the Daily Office. Such a significant change to Anglican teaching and practice (the “formularlies”) required ratification by the “twice round” process of agreement by diocesan synods followed by confirmation by General Synod. Abandoning the common Prayer of the Church (another term for the Daily Office) was an intentional decision made at the highest level of our Church and involving the widest agreement at every level of our Anglican Church of Or.

The Book of Common Prayer had made the Daily Office, with its regular praying through the psalms, an aspiration for the whole church – common prayer – widening it from the discipline of monks, nuns, and clergy. Praying the Daily Office was the least clergy could offer in their rule of life and spiritual discipline. It remains part of the (required) daily discipline of clergy (and encouraged for the laity) within the universal (catholic) tradition of the Christian faith – a discipline going back through Jesus and on into our Jewish roots.

A priest I know focused, for his study leave, on the place of the Daily Office in the life of clergy. His conclusion: if you had had extensive time regularly using the Daily Office in formation (in seminary, theological college, curacy) then this mostly continued to undergird the life of ordained ministry. If there was not this foundation in formation, normally the clergy person did not persevere in this discipline.

I have often likened praying the Daily Office to shoes – at first it all can feel very uncomfortable (there are places that new shoes pinch, and blisters can even result). Persevere with the discipline, and the Daily Office becomes integral to walking the spiritual way. For most people who try the Office once or twice, or only on the odd occasion, the uncomfortable feeling does not leave. The focus is on the shoes (the pinching and blisters) not on the walking; the focus is on page numbers and ribbons, not on the praying.

It is not the fault of clergy who were ordained in the three decades since the Anglican Church of Or abandoned the discipline of the Daily Office. We (on purpose?) keep no province-wide statistics of the percentage of clergy formed at our national seminary, St John’s College in Auckland. But the relatively small percentage that do end up with some time at St John’s are not required to study the theory and practice of the Daily Office – so central to Anglican spirituality historically. Nor are they required to have the Daily Office as part of their formative discipline whilst at St John’s.

The psalms have formed the warp of spirituality’s weaving in Judaism, the life of Jesus, and the Christian church. They form the vocabulary of a balanced spirituality – from praise and thanksgiving to lament; from love and compassion to depression; from exuberance to rage. Many, many Christians are in danger of losing the psalms as our common prayer.

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13 thoughts on “Goodbye Daily Office?”

  1. Amen. Totally agree with your concern here, Bosco. No that I’ve always been faithful to the Daily Office – but when I have, I always feel the benefit of it.

    For what it’s worth, what discourages me most often is the habit of our Canadian daily office lectionary of giving us tiny snippets, rather than the extensive readings in the BCP tradition.

    1. Thanks, Tim. A response from me personally to your two points. One of the values of the Daily Office is that there are times and seasons – there are times when I just do not get to pray the Office, but I’m conscious others are. In other words: when I pray the Office, I’m inserting myself into the common life of the church, not simply exercising myself spiritually individually. I’m less concerned than you about the length of the readings – my discipline is of more psalms less Bible reading in the Office. Systematic reading of the scriptures complements my praying of the Office. I hope that makes some sense – and it is in no way disagreeing with your good points. Blessings.

  2. Yes. I wish people would wake up to the damage done to our sense of the common life by the neglect of the Psalms and common prayer. We have become the AACANZP – the Atomised ACANZP.


  3. Yet another sad day for all of us who care so deeply for the Divine/Daily Office
    and all it contains. Sadly that so much of
    this is happening in the Anglican Communion should come as no real surprise to anyone familiar with what has gone on in that communion over
    the last 40 to 50 years. Hey, when everything goes everything goes.

  4. Izaak Walton, from The Life of Dr. Robert Sanderson: “And he then commended to me the frequent use of the Psalter, or Psalms of David; speaking to this purpose: ‘That they were the treasury of Christian comfort, fitted for all persons and necessities; able to raise the soul from dejection by the frequent mention of God’s mercies to repentant sinners; to stir up holy desires: to increase joy; to moderate sorrow; to nourish hope, and teach us patience, by waiting God’s leisure; to beget a trust in the mercy, power, and providence of our Creator; and to cause a resignation of ourselves to his will; and then, and not till then, to believe ourselves happy.'”

  5. Sadly people simply do not understand how to lead an office or choose options in an informed way. In the UK I think this is less to do with not doing the office, and more to do with only doing it one way (probably from the daily prayer app). Then when people try to experiment they simply don’t know how to! Understanding the undergirding and history of the office helps people know how to “play” with it. I think one of the reasons clergy give up on it, is that they have only had it led in a “boring” way (or a way that appears boring to them). Many have never experienced a sung office (and if they have it was choral evensong and they didn’t like the music style) or spent any time in communities where the office is sung. The psalms are meant to be sung not said and there are many ways to do this. One of the things I am working on at the moment is a day when we can explore all the different ways of using the psalms, from plainchant, through “contemporary” to using music borrowed from the world outside.

    1. Thanks, Sue. This is why I so often speak and write about the “grammar” of liturgy – many people seem to have no real grasp about what is important and what is peripheral; it just becomes one thing after another… Blessings.

      1. Bosco, this Lent we did a ‘prayer smorgasbord’ course in the parish and one of the evenings was on the daily office. Our Book of Alternative Services has a very ‘stripped down’ basic office, and then several sections of resource material you can slot into it (canticles, litanies, prayers, responsories etc.). I printed a little four page leaflet with just the bare bones and told people ‘Start with this until you get comfortable with it. Then if you want more, come back, and we’ll explore things we can add’. I’ve had a really good response to that.

        1. Thanks, Tim. I think that is a key. This can help show the skeleton of it; the essential grammar of it. The Daily Office can be (made to be) seen as highly complex and esoteric 🙁 Also, when time is tight, (returning to) praying a simple Office is better than saying I have no time to pray the Office at the moment… Blessings.

  6. The Rev’d Richard Lee

    The Daily Office, a ‘duty and a joy’. Was and is for me a bedrock of ministry both ordained and lay. In so many aspects it connected, informs and enables our spiritual lives and gives us a lively language of prayer, that is always in our hearts and minds as we face the challenges of the day. To ‘dispense’ with it is to disable the very corporate life we are called to live. Also, it gives us all an accessible vocabulary of prayer. Since it’s demise have you noted a growth in I’ll thought out personal but ‘awkward and repetitive prayer introductions? “We just”. …. to name but one? You have highlighted a tragic deficit.

    1. Thanks, Richard. I would (I have a Maths degree) be loathe to posit a correlation between losing the psalter in prayer and awkwardness in the leading of public prayer. There is also increasing individualism in public prayer (and singing) but, again, I don’t know which is cause and which is effect. Blessings.

  7. Scott Knitter

    Our Anglo-Catholic parish in Chicago (Ascension) has had Daily Morning and Evening Prayer said in the church for decades, now from the 1979 USA BCP. It was one of the features that attracted me to the parish. I was impressed when I arrived to find that there was actually a short waiting list for officiants for Morning Prayer (6.40am back then; now it’s 7.10am weekdays). Another parish I’ve belonged to had a new choirmaster arrived who simply instituted a daily 5.30pm chanted Evening Prayer using a plainsong psalter. No hand-wringing about how to do it; he just started doing it and eventually others joined him and served as officiant, cantor, or reader. A common characteristic of these is that a consistent pattern was developed to standardize the choices of texts where there’s a choice (so it’s not the officiant’s preference, necessarily, but a known pattern/cycle). And it goes on whether people show up or not. So in a parish, I’d say the guideline is “Just start doing it and keep on doing it.” In our current parish, it helps that we’ve often had clergy trained at Nashotah House seminary, where the community prays the Office every morning and evening in the seminary chapel, and learning to lead this is a priority.

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