Note: I’m not saying anything new here, I’m just putting some thoughts into conjunction with one another to stimulate my thinking on this topic…
The Daily Offices of the BCP are liturgical compositions in their own right. They contain their own internal logic and—500 years on—their own history.
These Offices are not the monastic Offices or the pre-conciliar ones.
And yet, the BCP Offices contain the elements and footprints of the earlier Offices. Those of us who have done the digging or have experience with the older Offices know what and where these are. Regular—even avid—users of the BCP who have not done these investigations usually do not know what and where they are because nothing in the book alerts them to it.
The Daily Offices of the BCP are liturgical compositions in their own right. They contain their own internal logic. Sometimes this logic is neutral towards the historical Office material and neither encourages or rejects its use. Other times, the logic of the current book is at odds with historical usage.
The most obvious example of what I’m talking about is the use and distribution of the canticles for Morning Prayer. The table on page 144 lays out the general principles according to the logic of the current Offices. I’d make these explicit as:
- Canticles follow Readings.
- Variety is to be preferred. Following the post-conciliar notion that a broader exposure to Scripture is better than a limited exposure, canticles have been added and selected to ensure a broader encounter with Scripture.
- The proper pattern is OT–>NT or NT–>Early Church. Thus the first Canticle is from one of the OT options (Canticles 8 through 14 in Rite II) and the second is from one of the NT options (Canticles 15 through 19). The main variation is when the Benedictus is used after the first reading and the Te Deum—a composition of the Early Church. The deviation from this rule is the Gloria in Excelsis (Canticle 20) which seems to be functioning like an NT canticle and has bona fide NT roots but is a composition of the Early Church…
Against these principles are the principles that come from the pre-conciliar Offices. The fundamental difficulty here is the very substantial amount of overlap: both forms (BCP and pre-concialr) have OT and NT canticles and there was use of quite a number of OT canticles. However, here are the principles that we know from the pre-Conciliar Offices:
- The Chapter (verse-length reading) at Lauds (and Vespers but we’re focusing on morning here…) is followed by a single NT Canticle.
- The daily OT canticles are found amongst the psalms in the Office of Lauds. So, these were used after the variable psalmody but before the eponymous “lauds” (Pss 148-150 treated as a single psalm). With the reforms of Pius X these doubled in number with the distinction between Lauds 1 and Lauds 2—more and less penitential forms.
- Monastic Uses substituted 3 OT Canticles as the psalmody in the 3rd Nocturns of Matins. Thus, the OT canticles continue to be associated structurally with psalms, not with readings. There’s a clear sense that OT and NT canticles function differently which is driven by theological principles.
- The NT canticle of Lauds, the Benedictus (Song of Zechariah), was invariable. No questions asked.
- The Te Deum was used at the end of Matins—sometimes. Generally on feasts and in festal seasons. On ferial days it was simply omitted—nothing took its place.
Upon looking at these differences it is abundantly clear that the two cannot be harmonized in a simple fashion. The pre-conciliar use of canticles does not fit with the current structure of the BCP Offices. Thus conscious adaptation is required. Furthermore, the complexities are such that there are several ways that adaptation could occur. If there are two readings, both of which require canticles and no psalms are being substituted with OT canticles than liturgical gyrations are in order—and we don’t all groove the same way.
At this juncture, there are two obvious paths:
- Follow the apparent logic of the BCP Offices without reference to pre-conciliar models.
- Make choices and adaptations to honor the legacy of the pre-concilar Offices within the structure of the BCP Offices.
I would suggest that these two options constitute the major differences between how current Episcopal communities practice the Daily Office (where and when it is still practiced in community…).
The first option here is entirely legitimate and honors the BCP as the duly authorized liturgy of the Episcopal Church. But I don’t like it. A willful amnesia toward our liturgical traditions and origins is hardly a move towards strengthening our proclamation of the Gospel in a changing world.
Choosing the second option gets very complicated. And not just liturgically.
The elephant in the room here is that there has never been a simple division between the BCP Offices and the pre-conciliar offices. Through the life of all of the Books of Common Prayer up to the present one there has always been a tension between current Episcopal/Anglican practice and current Roman Catholic practice. What I now have the luxury of calling “pre-conciliar Offices” were not simply historical and their use was not simply a preference for historical formulae; they impacted on and made statements about relationships between the two churches. How we prayed and how we chose to negotiate adaptations made statements about how we viewed our history and about how we related to the Church of Rome.
Within the life time of the American 1979 BCP, the pre-conciliar Offices have not had the same valence as before. They have far more of an historical signification because there are now post-conciliar Offices. That is, if one wants to negotiate the BCP to stay close to current Roman practice, following rules based on the pre-conciliar Offices no longer suffice. The post-conciliar Offices are structurally different and have different logics that are themselves adaptations of the pre-conciliar forms to a new model.
The bottom line is that how we place our canticles in Morning Prayer (or sort out any number of the other options) are theological decisions that may be driven be several different motivations including how we understand the theological principle of continuity and our understanding of ecumenism.
Furthermore, the theological valences of these choices are hidden to most Episcopalians. Most people neither know nor care nor know why they should care. And, at the root level, as long as they even know what the Daily Office is, I ought to be happy…