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.