As most Anglican liturgy buffs know, one of the few changes to the classical Anglican Morning Prayer is the suppression of the Te Deum during Lent (and Advent). The rubrics of the 1549 BCP direct:
After the first Lesson shall follow Te Deum Laudamus, in English, daily throughout the year, except in Lent, all the which time, in the place of Te Deum, shall be used Benedicite omnia Opera Domini Domino, in English as followeth
This direction was suppressed in the 1552 book and the Te Deum and the Benedicite were simply both given as options with no direction as to their use.
I’ve recently discovered that there was a bit of a backlash against this practice around the turn into the 20th century on the part of the learned Anglican liturgists of the English Rite party. Vernon Staley spends a bit of time on this matter in his book on the Church Year:
We have said above, that the rubric in the First Prayer Book of 1549 is to a certain extent in accord with ancient precedent; for whilst the direction to omit Te Deum in Septuagesima and Lent was general, if not quite universal, the mediaeval custom was not to substitute Benedicite. This later canticle, considered in itself, is even more inappropriate to penitential seasons than the Te Deum; for it consists of “one unbroken song of jubilant adoration,” whilst the Te Deum has “mingled with its triumphant praise the tenderest pleadings for mercy, the acknowledgment of human weakness, and the memories of the humiliation of the ‘King of glory’ when He took upon him to deliver man.” That the Te Deum should be omitted in Septuagesima and Lent is one thing: that the Benedicite should take its place is another thing altogether. The omission of the former canticle is in accordance with sound precedent; the substitution of the latter is not: for, as we have already noted, in the Sarum rite, Te Deum was a canticle of Sunday and festival Matins; whilst Benedicite was a canticle of another service, Sunday Lauds: neither canticle was for week-day use. What is really needed is a third canticle for penitential seasons and days, and perhaps ordinary week-days, less joyous than either Te Deum or Benedicite. Neither of these latter canticles was sung or said on ordinary week-days; both having a festival character and use, in the Sarum rite. (Staley, The Liturgical Year, 74-5)
This passage may have been inspired by the tear upon which John Dowden, Bishop of Edinburgh, proceeded in his The Workmanship of the Prayer Book (1899, 2nd ed. 1902/4) from which Staley quotes. Dowden’s Appendix E is on the form and use of the Benedicite in the prayer book tradition and he presents the liberty of the 1552 and subsequent books as a very good thing in this case. Here’s the context of the quote Staley pulls:
The opportunity may be taken here of pointing out the real gain of the liberty afforded since 1552 of using either the Te Deum or the Benedicite at any time of the year as the canticle after the first lesson. . . .
A moment’s consideration makes clear that, while Benedicite is one unbroken song of jubilant adoration, the Te Deum has mingled with its triumphant praise the tenderest pleadings for mercy, the acknowledgment of human weakness, and the memories of the humiliation of the “King of glory,” when He took upon Him to deliver man. Setting aside a false antiquarianism and looking at things as they are, I think few will be found to claim Benedicite as, in itself, more suitable than Te Deum for a penitential season. The reader will remember that in the mediaeval use Benedicite was not substituted for Te Deum in the penitential seasons, but Te Deum was omitted. The rubric of the Prayer Book of 1549 is not a continuance, even in an imperfect form, of the ancient rubrical directions. If Benedicite had continued to be sung every Sunday at Morning Prayer, the omission of Te Deum would have a significance which is not attained by the substitution. In my opinion the rubric of 1549 was a lame and wholly inefficient attempt to effect a very laudable object.
It seems to me to be a matter much to be regretted that our Reformers, in their desire for simplicity, abandoned altogether, with the one exception of Benedicite, the use of the several Scriptural canticles which had a place at Lauds on successive week-days. Much more suitable than Benedicite for Lent and Advent would have been the choice, from the Sarum Lauds for Monday, of the exquisitely beautiful Song of Isaiah (xii. 1-6) with its mingled sense of sin and gratitude for God’s mercy. . . .
Should a canticle yet more marked by a penitential character and by the tearful pleadings of fear and sorrow be preferred, the Song of Hezekiah (Isa. xxxviii. 10-20), which was sung in the Sarum Lauds for Tuesday, supplies what is needed.
If the time ever comes when the Church of England will attempt to revise and further enrich her Book of Common Prayer, it is to be hoped that consideration will be given to the treasury of sacred song which lies ready to hand in the canticles for Lauds not only in the Sarum rite, but also in the great store of the Cantica of the Gothic Breviary, and in the old Paris Breviary, which is marked by a number of noble canticles drawn from the Apocrypha. (Dowden, Workmanship, 244-7)
When one turns to the Deposited English 1928 book, you’ll find in the Alternate Morning Prayer that after the Te Deum and the Benedicite comes the Miserere, Ps 51. (The Song of Isaiah referenced above is included in the American ’79 BCP, minus the first verse that gives it its major penitential punch…)
So, to recap, the Te Deum includes language that recalls the humiliation of both God and the church as well as praise. The Benedicite is basically all praise. As such, the Te Deum seems preferable between the two. However, since the Te Deum is used as the Church’s song of joy, it does seem inappropriate for Advent and Lent and there are better options out there.
To return to the point raised by Dowden in particular—where the heck did the Benedicite come from? Let’s recall the received wisdom on the formation of Morning Prayer. That is, it’s essentially a shortened form of the old Morning Offices said in aggregation–saying Matins, Lauds, and Prime one right after the other which was a not uncommon practice particularly for secular clergy. Hatchett’s Commentary on the ’79 BCP has a table laying this out on page 92 (EP is on the facing 93). The Te Deum was used on Sundays and on Feasts of 9 Lessons; the Benedicite is the appointed Lauds canticle for Sundays. So, is this why these were chosen—Cranmer and the boys decided to use the canticles from Sunday because it was the start of the weekly cycle?
I don’t think so.
My research on the Prymers may be bearing some interesting fruit here… When you look at both the Sarum pre-Reformation prymers and the Reformed English prymers, both contain the Te Deum and the Benedicite for daily use. The Sarum Matins of the BVM uses the Te Deum everyday without regard for season, and—likewise—the Sarum Lauds of the BVM uses the Benedicite daily. In the so-called “Marshall Hours” that replace the Offices of the BVM in the Reformed books (first appearing around 1535—almost 15 years before the first BCP comes on the scene), the “Matins” office already aggregates material from Matins and Lauds and—again—contains both items for daily use. Thus, if one looked at the Marshall Hours, they contained three canticles for the morning: the Te Deum, the Benedicite, and the Benedictus. If, in following the directions of the Sarum Breviary (not the prymer), the Te Deum were to be dropped in Advent and Lent, there would be two canticles left: the Benedicite and the Benedictus. And there, I suspect is the real rationale of why the Benedicite appears as an alternative to the Te Deum. It has nothing to do with being a real replacement or substitution. Instead, there were three morning canticles that people knew in English and were used to saying in English from the prymers—and these happen to be the three that appear in the Prayer Book’s Morning Prayer.
Again, I’ll be saying more about this in coming days, but I do believe that prayer book historians would be well to give the prymers a bit more attention. I think their role in the shape of the Prayer Book offices has been significantly underplayed especially in current narratives of Prayer Book origins.