On the Choice of Offices

A correspondent sent me a note over the weekend, noting (correctly) that if one wishes to undertake the discipline of the Office, it’s good to pick one primary form and stick with it. His question, then, was which one:

  • The BCP Offices,
  • The Roman Liturgy of the Hours,
  • The Anglican Breviary,
  • The Monastic Diurnal + Matins

Others could be added to these…

It’s a good question and one that I spent some time wrestling with a few years ago. I can’t tell him, or you, or anybody else what to do, of course, but here’s the answer that I’ve come to and that works well for me.

I’m a Prayer Book Catholic within the Episcopal Church. Now—as we’ve noted before, the term “Prayer Book Catholic” isn’t exactly the same in England as it is in America due to the differing situations of our respective prayer books. However, I take it to mean that I am obliged to the prayer book and its system of devotion as understood and supplemented by the riches of the Western liturgical heritage.

Thus, for me, I am obligated to the Morning and Evening Prayer Offices of our authorized Book of Common Prayer—that’s part and parcel of what it means to be an Episcopalian.

Now, the Offices contain a number of permissions—like the liberty of antiphons and hymns—that open the door to the riches of our heritage found in books like the Anglican Breviary, the Monastic Diurnal, the English Office,  the Brevarium RomanumA Monastic Breviary, and many others.  As a result, I have and use these other books to supplement my prayer book services both in terms of material and in terms of additional offices.

Indeed, this was part of the genesis of the St. Bede’s Breviary. I wanted to create something that was faithful to the rubrics of the prayer book, but that also could easily include the other items when I had the time and desire for them. As a result, I have my “House Use” that I use regularly and can choose from the other leaner versions as circumstances require. However, at the root is always the framework and content of the BCP Offices.

In Advent and Lent I like to add in the Little Hours and will often do so—or attempt to do so—from the Anglican Breviary or Monastic Diurnal or the Sarum Primer.  I say attempt because I don’t often succeed. My zeal for devotion frequently outstrips the time I have for it.

And that raises another important point. The BCP Offices are the least onerous of the list above. After all, it’s two Offices a day (only four if Noon and Compline are included). If I were to take the Anglican Breviary as a base office discipline,  I would be obligated to pray all of it. Even doing so in aggregation would be difficult, and at this season of my life I just can’t imagine being able to juggle it all consistently, day in and day out. I hope this will change some day—but can’t see it happening until the girls can drive themselves!

For me and the discipline I’ve chosen, the Anglican Breviary represents the best source for supplementary material. I want to be able to pull in its antiphons and hymns. More particularly, I’d love to be able to draw on its patristic readings to augment the Offices.

So, if some are you are wondering why I’m proposing the Anglican Breviary project while also talking about the importance of the prayer book, this is how it fits together. I know several people who faithfully pray the breviary and who have asked me to work with it; I’d also like to make it available to interweave with the prayer book itself.

At the end of the day, selecting an Office discipline is a balance of ecclesial identity, devotional continuity, and an honest appraisal of your own ability to stick with the choices you’ve made. The heart of the Office is the repetition of the Psalter. If you can’t consistently make it through the whole psalter in your chosen Office discipline, then you’ll want to reassess it and consider if you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, and what will work for you. It’s always easier to start with the shorter and more basic and graduate to more complex forms as you go.  But don’t be hasty about it either. Liturgical formation—like all other life-long habits—should be measured in months, seasons, and years rather than days and weeks.

3 thoughts on “On the Choice of Offices

  1. Derek Olsen

    In a perfect world, it’d be a both/and, not an either/or. Reading the Bible separately enables you to focus more on the text and the context, and to read for specific purposes, whether that’s lectio divina or for another form of reading.

    Praying the Office is participating in the Church’s discipline of worship. Yes, the Bible is read, but it’s not the same as in-depth study. It’s about regular repetition.

  2. Fr. Aaron Orear

    “I hope this will change some day—but can’t see it happening until the girls can drive themselves!”
    I know precisely what you mean. I am never more sympathetic to the Roman insistence on celibacy than when I sigh and move the tapes in my office readings book forward a week and a half – a week and a half of daily prayer missed due to a sick little boy, or swim lessons, or an exhausted Mama who just needs me to take the boys for the morning so she can finally sleep three hours straight. Of course, these things are part of God’s calling for my life at this time. I guess I need a bit more Brother Lawrence.

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