Prayer Book Thoughts

As is usual, I’ve got a number of projects going on across a variety of burners. One of them is a project for Scott Gunn and the folks at Forward Movement on the prayer book. As a result, I’m doing some writing and thinking and reworking of material that’s appeared in a variety of places. The section I’m working on right now is a preliminary part that wrestles with liturgical spirituality as it applies to liturgical practice.

This is a first draft.

I’ve both written some material here and cobbled in some previously written bits that’s moving towards a whole—but isn’t there yet. As I think through this stuff out loud, though, I welcome your thoughts, comments, and push-back.

The audience here is both laity and clergy, but with an eye more to laity—I’m trying to keep the tone and content on the lighter side. No footnotes.

Let me know what you think, and we’ll see where it goes…


The American 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the official worship resource for the Episcopal Church. On one hand, it stands in the tradition of the English and Scottish Books of Common Prayer that stretches back to the middle of the sixteenth century—all of which partake in the great stream of the Historic Western Liturgy that can be traced back to the Apostolic Age with notable periods of formation in the sixth and eighth centuries. On the other hand, it also participates within the recent ecumenical Liturgical Renewal Movement fostered by the Roman Catholic Second Vatican Council (1962-5) that re-energized liturgical scholarship by looking at the fourth century—the earliest period of church history for which we have solid liturgical documentation. So—it’s a book with a very old heritage that has recently been updated with the best modern thinking about what the early church was up to.

Because there are a lot of historical things that can be said about the prayer book and about the services contained in it, many folks who try to teach about the prayer book start from an historical angle. I’m not going to do that. Don’t get me wrong—the history is important if you want to know how these things developed; we will talk about some historical stuff and about how things changed over the years. But neither do we want to confuse the act of describing development with the act of enriching spirituality. The history can help you understand why some material has been put together; but that—on its own—won’t help you use that material to grow in love towards God and neighbor. As a result, I’m going to focus on the prayer book as it is now, and pull in the history as it helps us understand why we pray as we do and how we can do it better!

I want to start with three fundamental statements about the prayer book from which everything else proceeds. First, the prayer book is best understood not as the Sunday service book, or even as a collection of services, but as a complementary system of Christian formation. Second, this system with its interlocking cycles has a coherent spiritual purpose. Third, this system as enshrined in the successive Books of Common Prayer is an essential part of what it means to participate in the Anglican tradition.

The Prayer Book System

When we consider the table of contents of the Book of Common Prayer, we note that—broadly—there are three kinds of services. First, there are those that take us a life-cycle arc from birth to death that are chiefly of a pastoral nature (meaning that there’s a particular event or life-experience that is bringing the priest and the people together at that moment). Thus, there are services that take us from “Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child,” to “Baptism” (infant baptism being typical, if not the norm), to “Confirmation,” to “Marriage,” to “Reconciliation of a Penitent” to “Burial.” Second, there are those services that order our worship on a regular repeating basis. The liturgical round is made up of three components: the liturgical calendar where we reflect upon our central mysteries through the various lenses of the seasons of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and in his continuing witness in the lives of the saints, the Daily Office where we yearly immerse ourselves in the Scriptures and Psalms, and the Holy Eucharist where we gather on Holy Days to most perfectly embody the Body of Christ and receive the graces that the sacraments afford. Third, there are the services for ordaining and consecrating the clergy of the church: deacons, priests, and bishops. (Sometimes these are conceptually grouped together and called “the ordinal.”)

Of these three kinds of services, the second (the regular repeating ones) constitute the theological, spiritual, and practical heart of the prayer book. Again, these are the Daily Offices (consisting of Morning Prayer, Noon Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline) and the Eucharist also called Holy Communion. However, they are dispersed through the book in such a way that their importance, their various elements, and their relationship are not easily identified. Grasping the content and nature of these services is the key to understanding the spiritual structure offered by the prayer book.

If the standard by which you measure the services of the church is Sunday morning, you might wonder why they are grouped together in this way. After all—that was one of the big shifts between the current prayer book and the way Sunday was done before it: Morning Prayer used to be the standard Sunday service, now the Eucharist is the standard. It appears that one displaced the other, and functionally that is the case, but when we take a big step backward and get a bigger picture historically, we realize that this is a set of false options.

Indeed, the Sunday morning “either/or” is a relatively recent occurrence historically. The first Anglican prayer books replicated the Sunday morning pattern of services that they inherited from the Western liturgical tradition: Morning Prayer followed by the Litany followed by the Eucharist. All three services were done one after the other! After the Reformation, the piece that got dropped was the consecration of the Eucharist itself: they would do Morning Prayer, the Litany, and the Holy Communion service through the readings, sermon, creed, and prayers but then would stop. (Sometimes the Eucharist was only consecrated three or four times a year!) It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that Episcopal clergy even had the option of doing either Morning Prayer or Holy Communion. So the “either/or” had classically been a “both/and.”

The heart of the prayer book system is given to us in the first real sentence of the first real section of the prayer book:

The Holy Eucharist, the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts, and Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, as set forth in this Book, are the regular services appointed for public worship in the Church. (p. 13)

Here in this sentence are the three key items that we identified above. The establishment of “the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts” is determined by the Calendar; the Holy Eucharist and Daily Morning and Evening Prayer alternate as central public services.

Starting with the Calendar, we must begin with the recognition that most human measures for marking time are social constructs. That is, nature gives us a few points upon which we hang our hats. The motion of the sun determines two main things: day and night, and a year broken into four quarters based on our motion around the sun. The motion of the moon provides us with another measure but, as it does not match with the solar cycle, causes more complexity than it solves. Given the sparse directions given by the world around us, the majority of the methods by which we keep time say more about “us” and what we think is important than they do about the nature of time itself.

Like the natural world, the Book of Common Prayer has seasons. However, rather than pointing to agricultural potential or lack thereof, the prayer book constructs time around the person of Jesus in a set of seasons referred to as the Temporal cycle. While the Sanctoral cycle (which celebrates the saints) logically follows subsequent to the Temporal cycle, it is super-imposed upon the year as a succession of static days mostly independent of the seasons. The way that the prayer book orders time, then, is supposed to tell us something about our priorities. Time itself is provided with a Jesus-colored lens.

Now we move to contemplate the Eucharist and Office. The liturgy of the Western Church—especially liturgy that partakes of a monastic spirit—can be described as (among other things) a disciplined and bounded encounter with Scripture. That is, under the early medieval monastic ideal—lifted up as a worthy pattern in the preface to the first prayer book in 1549—the Scriptures were read yearly in the Office; then the Mass could cherry-pick small sections of text (known as “pericopes”) at its leisure, firm in the knowledge that—thanks to the constant repetition of Scripture—the congregation would immediately recognize the proper text and recall its literary context.

Thus, in the Office the Psalms, the garden from which the fruit of all the other Scriptures may be plucked (as Athanasius put it),  would be repeated regularly (weekly, monthly or 8-weekly), and the bulk of Scripture read through every year or two depending on how many lessons you use at Evening Prayer.  This is fundamentally catechectical—it teaches. This pattern grounds us in the stories, the laws, the histories, and the laments of the people of God that illuminate and inform our own experiences.  Too, the canticles serve an important function. They aren’t just praise-bits stuck in with the “real” material, rather they are lenses and orienting devices to help us interpret the readings—especially the set traditional canticles.

The Eucharist, then, as it rolls through the seasons, offers us not only a weekly (or more frequent) experience of the grace of God but allows us to hear and experience the Good News in several major modes: expectation, joy, enlightenment, penitence, celebration—the principle Christian affections. If the Office is primarily catechetical, the Eucharist is primarily mystagogical. That is, it leads us by experiences of grace into the mystery of God and the relationship that God is calling us into with him and with the entire created order through him.

The final aspect of the Prayer Book system is that the Calendar, the Office, and the Eucharist all form us for a continual practice of personal prayer; while the prayer book gives us the words for our common prayer, these words likewise offer models for how we converse with God in our private and passing moments.

The Spirituality of the Prayer Book System

The purpose of any spiritual system is to bring the practitioner and their community into a deeper relationship with God—to create a family of mature Christians. Through their increasing awareness of who God is, how much God loves them and all of creation, they translate that love they have been shown into concrete acts of love and mercy in the world around them. There are several different strategies that different spiritual systems use to accomplish this. One of the classic ones—referred to in St Paul’s direction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17)—is the recollection of God. The idea here is that if we can continually keep in mind the goodness of God, the constant presence of God, and an awareness of the mighty works of God on behalf of us and others, that we will more naturally and more completely act in accordance with God’s will and ways. Continual recollection is nearly impossible, but there are methods to help us in this habit.

A primary goal of liturgical spirituality is to create a disciplined recollection of God. Thus, if we specifically pause at central points of time—morning and evening; noon and night; Sundays and other Holy Days—to reorient ourselves towards God and the mighty acts of God, whether recalled to us through the Scriptures or experienced by us through direct encounters with the sacraments, then this discipline will lead us towards a habitual recollection of God.

In the liturgical round, the Book of Common Prayer gives us specific moments to stop and orient our time and ourselves around the recollection of God. As a result, one of the most important parts of the book is the Daily Office section that provides forms for prayer at morning, noon, evening and night. These prayer offices are our fundamental tool for disciplined recollection; they provide the foundation for our spiritual practice. This foundation, then, is punctuated by the Eucharist on Holy Days (at the least). And, conceptually, this is how we should view Sundays—not the day of the week on which we go to church—but as a Holy Day which recurs on a weekly basis.

While this sounds all awfully churchy it’s actually not. Indeed, this liturgical structure was mediated into the prayer-book tradition by a spiritual devotion for the laity. The idea of the Daily Office was originally a regular communal practice. By the end of the 4th century, it was transitioning into a monastic practice and began to be less of a feature in lay life. By the medieval period, it was expected that the laity would be at Matins (Morning Prayer) and Vespers (Evening Prayer)—as well as Mass—on Holy Days. With the rise of lay literacy in the High Medieval period, though, came the Books of Hours. These were the central devotional books used by laypeople (men and women alike) and they contained a cycle of offices that followed the basic structure of the monastic and priestly Office books but with fewer psalms and greatly reduced seasonal variations. On the eve of and during the English Reformation, the Latin Books of Hours and the English-language prymers held an important place in the devotional lives of upper- and middle-class lay Christians who prayed these several Offices on a daily basis. The Daily Offices that appeared in our initial 1549 Book of Common Prayer—and in every book subsequent—are equally derived from these lay prymers as well as the Sarum breviaries.

The Prayer Book System and the Anglican Tradition

This pattern of prayer—the Daily Offices prayed twice a day and the Eucharist at least weekly if not more frequent—is the common heritage of the Christian Church. The Eastern Orthodox Churches have it; the Roman Catholic Church has it; the Anglican Churches have it. All of these churches understand that not everybody is going to be doing all of this praying all of the time—and that’s ok. However, in the Eastern and in the Roman Catholic traditions, the Daily Offices (the Divine Praises and Liturgy of the Hours respectively) are practically the province of clergy and monastics. Lay people, for the most part, are not aware of them or encouraged to do them. Indeed, Roman Catholic spirituality since the time of the Reformation has emphasized daily Eucharist to the point that any other kind of daily service would be considered odd! Of the churches that have retained it, the Anglican churches are the only ones that have consistently insisted by means of the prayer book that clergy and laity alike should be participating in this cycle of worship, formation, and transformation on a daily basis. I say “by means of the prayer book” advisedly… Our books insist on it, but that doesn’t mean that the people have always practiced it and that the clergy have always taught it!

However, many of the reform movements within Anglicanism have been anchored by a call back to the prayer book system. We see it with the Caroline Divines; we see it with the Oxford Movement; we see it with the Victorian English Revival. We even see it with the life-long Anglicans John and Charles Wesley—the prayer book system is part of the “method” that earned the (originally) derisive name of “Methodism!”

Can you be an Anglican without engaging, practicing, knowing, or caring about the prayer book system? Of course—millions of Anglicans do it every day! But can you be an Anglican who claims to be engaged in the art and practice of spirituality without grappling with this system? Well—as the prayer book represents one of our central threads of continuity through the ages and across the world, it’d be hard to make a case for that. This is the homeland of Anglican spirituality. Even when Anglican churches and their flocks have not been diligent in inhabiting the system, there is value in realizing that it exists, seeing it as a devotional ideal, and understanding our own efforts with the larger picture of the Church’s spiritual work.

17 thoughts on “Prayer Book Thoughts

  1. bls

    Wonderful! It’s terrific to look at this from a larger point of view – getting a look, from above, at the whole enchilada, so to speak. It’s great to put it together as “a system,” I think – and to point out what the objective of that system is.

    A little thing: it seems to me it might be a good thing to mention the Jewish round of daily prayers – especially if you want to emphasize Daily Prayer’s “non-churchiness.” As far as I can tell, Jewish customs must have been influential in the development of monastic offices via the earliest Christians, since (I believe) this stuff started to get codified in Judaism at and after the time of the destruction of the temple in CE 70. At the very least, daily prayer must have grown up in both communities in a side-by-side fashion – and the offices really DO have a great deal in common with the Jewish daily prayers.

    Do you happen to know more about this – and maybe about “which came first”?

  2. Derek Olsen

    This is an initial orientation section. There are going to be specific sections on the Calendar, the Office, and the Eucharist—I was going to talk about that stuff in the Introduction to the Office part. (Part of this process is figuring out exactly which bits to put where…)

  3. Geoff McLarney

    I wonder how applicable the characterization of the office as “province of clergy” is to the East. Around here at least it’s typical for Sunday services in Greek Orthodox parishes to begin with Orthros, followed by the Divine Liturgy.

  4. Jonathan

    I like it. I’m a bit ambivalent about the paragraph just before the section “The Spirituality of the Prayer Book System”. I’d say that the Calendar, Offices, and Eucharist form the backbone around and upon which our personal and private practice of prayer is built, at least in part because there are some important non-BCP sources that can significantly shape private prayer like the various strands of contemplative prayer.

  5. James Morgan

    Derek, you might want to investigate a book I read long ago: The Prayer Book Pattern, by Monica Furlong (a solitary of the Church of Wales). It’s based on the English 1662 BCP, and gives a theological rationale for the structure of the Prayer Book. Long out of print, and I had a copy but can’t find it

  6. Derek Olsen

    But how about the daily practice of the Office? Me sense—which could be mistaken—is that the daily use is more monastic than lay.

  7. Derek Olsen

    I don’t think you need to be ambivalent about it. Models is a pretty loose word. Too (as I’ll touch on later) contemplative prayer is woven in here a bit more that you might expect. As attested by John Cassian, one of the central early forms of the breath prayer—of which the Jesus Prayer is probably the most common now—was Ps 70:1: O God make speed to save me; O Lord make haste to help me…

  8. KA Carlson

    David, I think this is a really great overview, but I find your language is tending toward the academic … and I feel like that puts a distance between me and what you are trying to say. So my only comment would be to write it with some of the vigor and energy with which you speak, and make it feel more conversational and draw us in to YOUR love of the BCP. This feels dry to me.

    As always, PEACE.


  9. Derek Olsen

    Regarding a certain dryness, I’m not surprised—that’s an occupational hazard for me… Blogging has helped me find a lighter tone, but I know that in these rough pieces there’s an uneven-ness in tone, particularly in where I’ve cobbled together bits from different places. Thanks for the feedback!

  10. Susan Loomis

    I’ve heard at least three “Introduction to the Prayer Book” lectures, and what you’ve written has covered many points I’ve never heard mentioned. Love the content so far. Please don’t get bogged down trying to clean it up now. Finish your first draft, and we can all get picky about once you’ve got the content in place.

  11. rick allen

    Just a minor point about this statement:

    “Lay people, for the most part, are not aware of them or encouraged to do them. Indeed, Roman Catholic spirituality since the time of the Reformation has emphasized daily Eucharist to the point that any other kind of daily service would be considered odd!”

    Vatican II’s Constitution on the Divine Liturgy does indeed encourage the laity to pray the Daily Office:

    “Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually.”

    My impression is that that particular exhortation has not been much followed. On the other hand, of the five Catholic parishes at which I have been registered, one had daily morning and evening prayer. My own attendence, I should add was very occasional, and there were no great crowds, but it was a regular offering of the parish. Unusual, but short, perhaps, of “odd.”

  12. Jonathan

    Yes, that’s why I don’t actively dislike summing up the relationship between common prayer and private prayer by saying that common prayer provides models for private prayer. It seems like they interact in more complicated ways while maintaining their own distinct (natures/characters/traditions).

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