“Cathedral” Conundrums

My writing has hit a snag…

I was on a pretty good roll, then page proofs for the St Augustine’s Prayer Book took me away, then focus on some web projects, and with both school and ballet starting up again for the girls the household’s been crazy, and now I’m trying to get my head back into it.

The real problem, though, is that I’m trying to make sense of the distinction between “cathedral” and “monastic” prayer in the Daily Office in a way that’s clear, accessible, and transparent. At the end of the day, the spirituality of the Daily Office goes in one of two major directions based on whether you take a “cathedral” or a “monastic” approach to it. I think I’ll be doing the Office a disservice if I don’t tease that out. On the other hand, so much of the scholarly literature that attempts to define these terms and isolate their characteristics is not terrible clear especially since—at the end of the day—“cathedral” and “monastic” are extracted ideals that don’t actually fit terribly well onto the historical practice. To complicate matters, there is considerable prejudice for the “cathedral” style and against the “monastic” style in the writings of the Liturgical Renewal Movement. To try and put the problem in a nutshell, it’s this: they see “cathedral” prayer as the communal prayer of the whole church and “monastic” prayer as the individualistic prayer of a spiritual elite. In keeping with the LRM’s central focus on worship as the activity of the whole people of God, you can see why they privilege the first over the second!

In line with LRM norms, the framers of the ’79 BCP tried to introduce quite a bit more “cathedral” elements into what they saw as Cranmer’s “monastic” re-write of the Offices.  It’s not until I started digging into this particular angle of this aspect of the problem that I realized exactly what had been done to the Office in the ’79 book. The pieces are falling into place. The Anglican Office really is “monastic” at heart. But the current prayer book attempts to fundamentally imbue it with a “cathedral” character, and understanding how, why, and what that means and communicating it in a coherent and non-technical way is not easy…

This project as a whole is making me realize two big things. First, I’m coming to consciously see myself as participating in the first generation of a post-LRM critique. As I’ve said before, the LRM did many wonderful things, the Church is richer for its work—but it operated out of a number of fundamental assumptions that have to be re-explored. Second, there’s something about being a layman with an interest in lay devotion that gives me a different angle on a field that’s been principally written about and dominated by priests. I’m questioning some of the standard sine qua nons of liturgical scholarship as reflecting a clerical bias… More on this later—time to get the girls up and get the day rolling!

25 thoughts on ““Cathedral” Conundrums

  1. Fr. Michael S.

    As I understand it, the cathedral/monastic distinction seems a bit overstated, since the “cathedral” type can only have applied in urban areas, and only between the 4th and 8th centuries or so. I’ve heard it argued that “The cathedral office had unchanging psalms, so the [ignorant, illiterate?] people could join in!” But the sæcular and monastic offices also have fixed psalms for Sundays, and Feast days don’t go too far astray. In that front, the BCP traditionally went afield from both of them. Then the late 19th/20th c. move toward the reduction of pslams seems to make them a mere prelude to the Good Stuff, rather than the point of the office – I had people object to having two psalms when I was directing choir!

  2. Scott Knitter

    George Giuver’s excellent book Company of Voices seems to me to make a lot of sense of the distinction, with the cathedral office involving not only more fixed elements but also more ceremonial: processions, lights, various people taking different roles. I’m fascinated by the story he tells of the cathedral-style use of the brief office form in Celebrating Common Prayer by a UK parish: people come in, pick up one of the prepared binders, take one of the roles (each psalm, canticle, reading, etc., is said or led by a different person), and pray the Office. I think the earlier urban cathedral-style office was often quite grand, a la Howard Galley’s Great Paschal Vespers in his Prayer Book Office (processions to various stations).

  3. Derek Olsen

    Ack! That’s one of the books I’ve heard of but haven’t seen. I’ll have to check with my local library and see if I can get it through ILL…

  4. Derek Olsen

    I think it has been overstated, and it gets a lot more complicated than that too. So far the most full explanation I’ve come across is in Paul Bradshaw’s Two Ways of Praying from 1995. He’s good with nuance but by the middle of the book, the terms have acquired so much nuance it’s hard to tell exactly what he’s arguing (or how) except that we’re supposed to realize that “cathedral” is better and is supposed to win in the end. How medieval items get labelled either “cathedral” or “monastic” seems quite suspect to me and, in trying to assign labels, I think he contradicts himself in ways that call the viability of the whole model into serious question.

  5. Scott Knitter

    I think you’ll find it a very good read. A bit less scholarly in style than Robert Taft’s Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, but I think it’s right up there with Taft’s book to form a pair of essentials on the Divine Office. Guiver revised his book in 2001.


    Guiver prefers the term “people’s office” rather than “cathedral office” and says his book’s subject is the people’s office. He spends a chapter delineating the differences between the early “people’s” office and the early monastic one and then showing how these influenced each other as each developed further.

    As it happens, even though he thought he was writing a book about the people’s office, he ended up being very enlightening about both.

  6. Tom Sramek Jr

    This sounds fascinating and I hope that you will keep blog readers informed of your progress. From my perspective, a “Cathedral” Daily Office would seem to assume at least an appreciative audience (ex. Evensong) if not a participatory congregation. A monastic Daily Office would make no such assumption. I’m not sure whether a monastic reading of the Daily Office would be more inviting to participation (assuming that if you are there, you want to be involved) or less (not even acknowledging that people not part of the monastic community are there). As I noted, fascinating stuff!

  7. Scott Knitter

    I think that’s where the terms get confusing: Choral Evensong sung daily as part of the cathedral’s round of offices can actually be more of a monastic office (psalms sung through monthly in course, not much involvement of the people; it’s the office of the choir and chapter).

  8. William R. MacKaye

    I don’t really understand the distinction your making, and your suggestion that clerical domination made the 1979 revision of the offices more cathedral style. To this lay person, who’s had years of experience praying the offices both alone and in groups where no clergy person was present or least wasn’t leading the service, the 1979 offices are more accessible and more lay friendly than 1928 by far. I’m really eager to see where you go with this. Please give examples. I learn best by example. And I’m glad to see Scott Knitter chiming in. I’ve missed his thoughtful voice on Episcopal blogs of late. But perhaps I’m reading the wrong ones.

  9. Beth

    Very interested in the notion of “consciously see myself as participating in the first generation of a post-LRM critique.” I came out of seminary in the mid-90s as a young priest utterly enamored of the LRM and delighted to have sat at the feet of some of its leaders at the ends of their careers, but have just in the past 5 years or so begun finding myself questioning some things I absorbed. Ditches I once would have died in, chanting “the work of the people!”, are (maybe?) starting to look different to me.

  10. Derek Olsen

    I fear you’ve conflated two different things. First, “clerical domination” has been in the sphere of liturgical studies–and it’s a mostly benign domination!—it’s just I find myself bringing slightly different assumptions than the clergy. Second, the revision of the Daily Offices towards a more “cathedral” direction–no, there hasn’t been a clerical shift here, but I do think there’s has been some subtle alteration of the internals that I will be happy to spin out once I figure out the right way to say it!

    I’d love to hear more about your experiences with the ’28 vs. the ’79 Offices, though! I’ve never led and have only occasionally prayed the ’28 ones. On paper there doesn’t seem to be much difference–only fewer options (which I think would make it easier rather than harder…) What makes the current book more accessible and lay friendly?

  11. Fr. Michael S.

    Among people I have known who’ve come from a Roman Catholic background, and tried to sort out the BCP office, they’ve been totally confused by the 1979 and have come away with some very odd ways of assembling it. If you start with the 1928 (that is, with the 1549 ;-) ) as a base, then you can easily continue to make it look like a recognizably Anglican office – but if you start from scratch, that can be tricky!

  12. Walter Knowles

    I think it’s important to recognize that liturgical scholars have been backing away from the “cathedral-monastic” distinction ever since Juan Mateos proposed it in the 1950’s. It’s particularly worthwhile to read Paul Bradshaw’s recent work on this.

    I’d suggest that it’s also time to nuance the “Benedictine roots of Anglicanism” with the recognition that at least as many–if not more–of the vowed religious (which includes the various forms of canons regular) in the medieval British isles were observant to various forms of the Augustinian rule rather than the Benedictine rule, and this includes the office. And canons regular had a different office organization than cloistered Benedictines.

    And when we look very carefully at a church (cathedral) where we can unpack the use of the psalter in the offices (Hippo Regius under Augustine) we find that the distinction simply fails. Augustine’s monkish community did extended recitation of the psalter–though we don’t know how extensive–at a night vigil, but I’d guess that the people who regularly attended morning and evening prayers at the basilica had a repertory of 30 to 50 psalms “in memory,” not the half-dozen or so that the “cathedral” office proposes. Mateos-Taft-Bradshaw tend to forget the depth of memory competence in pre-and-partial-literate societies. I don’t see anything evidence in pre-gregorian homiletics, outside the great pilgrimage centers of Rome, Constantinople, and Jerusalem (the late-antique versions of the Disneyland franchise) that indicates any foundational difference, whether you are in Antioch, Seville, or anyplace in between.

  13. Walter Knowles

    You can find it on addall.com for next to nothing. It has to be in your library. And first and second editions are insignificantly different. The third member of this holy trinity (Taft, Guiver, and…) is Gregory Woolfenden’s _Daily Liturgical Prayer_ (Ashgate, 2004). If anything Fr. Gregory’s (unfortunately he died a couple of years ago) book is more important than Taft, which I find gets trapped in RC clericalism at times, and that blurs his scholarship.

  14. Christopher

    I tend to think of these as being on a scale. I would argue that Cranmer’s attempts are more related to the pure monastic type but really neither. His attempts are to have not just a chapter or monastery but every household and a people at prayer at home, in the parish, throughout the diocese and land. They are hybrid oriented to that purpose. And perhaps need their own term following Bl Julian and Martin Thornton: homely or domestic.

  15. Tyler Sampson

    It might be a bit unfair to lay the burden entirely at the feet of the LRM. The waters of the Anglican office are inherently muddy. Cranmer’s revision that clumped the whole of the daily cursus into two principle offices is already a blurring of “monastic”/”cathedral” identities. If anything, blurring the distinction between the two is a great and long-held tradition in itself.

  16. Derek Olsen

    Ok—borrowed a copy from a learned friend—shall plow through it with all due haste… In the meantime, I’ll probably hop over to the Calendar!

  17. Derek Olsen

    Yes, Tyler, I’d suggest that the categories were blurry long before Cranmer and that, as Walter correctly points out, people are less and less using the distinction to the degree that the categories themselves need to be entirely re-thought.

    However, there are a few things that we have to acknowledge: 1. Monastic and cathedral are not the best terms out there—but they were certainly part of the conversation in the crafting of our current prayer book and some of the shape and choices in the present book reflect their impact. 2. They do capture a valuable distinction—they just don’t do it well. What’s the better way to get at and talk about them? (Open question, not a rhetorical one…) Again, I see Bradshaw trying to do this in Two Ways of Praying but he never truly moves beyond the problematic labels and, I believe, dooms his effort.

    There’s no question that Cranmer saw himself as appealing to early medieval monastic norms. With Christopher, though, I don’t think that he was being wholly monastic even if he intended to be, and that we need to carefully consider the devotional currents of the time which, certainly in his court circles, were fundamentally located in the Books of Hours/primers. I think it greatly enriches our perspective if we consider the 1549 BCP not just a collection of clerical books—which has been the standard line for decades—but as an incremental expansion of the lay devotional books! Once this book is done, I have some projects planned as a demonstration of this assertion.

  18. Christopher

    We are distinct in Christian history that the Offices of Morning and Evening were the inheritance of all. I continue to ponder. One central distinction in which Cranmer leans Benedictine or monastic or of the desert/wilderness is the Psalms in continuous round. Here we are treated to the full range of the human condition and to examination of ourselves individually and collectively within the One who took all of this upon and into himself. It is not the the intent becomes less than wholly monastic, it is that all Christians are called to be singularly oriented to God in Christ. And to do that with the diversity of humanity and responsibilities in work, life, and loves requires a revision suited to the whole and not just to certain houses. Whether that solution is still appropriate to the purpose is a related but distinct question. The questions I ask of his solutions and of 1979 are related to his intent of a nation in its diversity of households at prayer. The BCP in one version or another was once the Primer of those related to Cranmer’s reforms as Derek observes. A Primer that governed or ordered the whole.

  19. Rdr. James Morgan

    I rather hesitantly opine that there is a difference between West and East here regarding the ‘Cathedral’ and ‘Monastic’ offices. The Copts still use an almost daily recitation of the Psalter in their Agpeya or daily office. The Byzantines are wedded to a weekly recitation except in Lent when they do it twice (in monasteries). Armenians I don’t know about.
    And then the weekly psalter was diminished in parish use today by all the additional stichera and other stuff, so Orthodox people only get maybe12 or so psalms in their vespers and matins services, but they do get a LOT of theological hymns!
    I remember reading of an attempt in Russia to do everything an ‘All-night Vigil’ at a seminary shortly before the Revolution, and it took around 14 hours. Not even monks pray that long at a stretch!
    The West had this thing of using festal psalms for big feasts, which disrupted the weekly round of psalms.
    Just some thoughts, Derek. Keep up the good work, but I’m still wedded to ‘traditiona church English’.
    Main reason I didn’t like the 1979 BCP was that many services were not done in both modes, but that is your church and not mine now.

    Rdr. James Morgan
    Olympia, WA OCA

  20. Mockingbird

    The distinction between “cathedral” and “monastic” rites is important for the history of the office, but less so for the analysis of the present-day rite. Our office rites can be used either way. Monastic-style would emphasize (a) attendance at every service by the same participants (b) singing the entire Psalter on a set schedule (c) reading the Scripture in course and (d) a quiet, meditative atmosphere. Cathedral-style implementation would better accommodate those whose busy lives allow only occasional attendance, so that those praying would feel less loss of continuity if they missed a few services. The same rite can serve for those aspiring to the monastic ideal of life as constant prayer, and to the cathedral ideal of praying and rejoicing through all the occasions of life.

    I grew up on the 1928 BCP, and in my childhood parish the two main services alternated Morning Prayer and Communion (the word “eucharist” was not yet widely known to lay-folk) weekly. The most noticeable differences between 1928 Morning Prayer and 1979 Morning Prayer are: (a) The new rite uses the Jubilate as an alternative to the Venite; one can no longer routinely have both at one service. (b) You no longer have to flip over to page 163 to find the Pascha Nostrum. (c) The new rite has expanded choice of canticles (so that those who want to implement the old Lauds rotation can do so). (d) an option for a third reading just before the Creed. (e) Suppression of the option of saying the Nicene Creed as an alternative to the Apostles’ Creed (but we never did this in my childhood church anyhow) (f) Longer suffrages, since it is no longer presupposed that the Litany will follow. (g) The collects of the day, for peace, and for grace are no longer fixed elements of the rite. The only requirement is that at least one of the eight listed collects be said, followed either by general intercessions or the Prayer for mission. (h) the rubric allowing a hymn or anthem before the close is now part of Morning Prayer. Formerly it was only in Evening Prayer. (i) The whole congregation may now say the Prayer of St. Chrysostom together with the officiant, not just the General Thanksgiving.

    None of these differences is self-evidently “cathedral” as opposed to “monastic”. They all allow greater adaptability of the rite to either style of implementation.

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