Random Daily Office Thoughts

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:

  1. Canticles follow Readings.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. The Chapter (verse-length reading) at Lauds (and Vespers but we’re focusing on morning here…) is followed by a single NT Canticle.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. The NT canticle of Lauds, the Benedictus (Song of Zechariah), was invariable. No questions asked.
  5. 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…

15 thoughts on “Random Daily Office Thoughts

  1. Scott

    At Ascension, Chicago, the first canticle at Morning Prayer is the one specified in the table on p. 144 in the column “After the Old Testament Reading.” The second canticle is always 16, Benedictus Dominus, except on most Sundays and on Major Feasts, when 16 was used as the first canticle and 21, Te Deum, is used as the second. At Evening Prayer, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis are always used.

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    Thanks, Scott! Yes, I think that is one of the standard High Church/Anglo-Catholic canticle patterns that tries to drive a good middle path between what the BCP offers and maintaining continuity with the tradition.

    Come to think of it, that’s probably a pattern that I should code in—and it wouldn’t be that hard either…

  3. Christopher


    There never will be a perfect prayer book or breviary. Only ones that we should use.

    I would avoid attempts at “definitive.” Their function is likely multivalent and even various. Historical usage to make definitive claims would require looking at the wide range of variations across houses and centuries, variations that may not line up with the two sets of broad principles you outline here. Okay, I admit, I’m being a splitter for a minute so that any clumping does not do violence to actual practices, or better, ritual debris. Actual practices might be even more interesting than what we have preserved to us in offices, rubrics, etc.

    I tend to understand the Gospel canticles as the pinnacle of what I have labeled a liturgical or present Presence eschatology, since systematics does not have a technical term for an eschatology that has Jesus fully present to us and at the same time holds this in tension with the Consummation.

    As to our offices, no they are not pre-conciliar and no they are not monastic, they are common, which does require adaptation in a direction different from offices that assume several little hours, etc. Most households and parishes will not be doing more than Morning and Evening Prayer, which are not precisely the same thing as Matins-Lauds, and Vespers. And that is okay with me. Further, common has necessarily recognized that this book is all of ours, and that it has immense flexibility for adaptation, including to pre-conciliar forms if one or a community so chooses.

    I would note that the canticle following readings principle is a Reformation principle that has Benedictine roots–our response to the Voice/Word.

    Here is my opinion right now–it could change tomorrow. That in my world, we would have a lectionary that offered also the possibility morning and evening chapters as an option. I would also like to see all collects for all feasts in the BCP. I would like to see stabilization of the Canticles by making the Gospel canticles invariable. Or if variable, to have the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, alternate in some way for example.

    All in all, I do a rather simple office. If all were doing only that, that would be better than what most do, which is none at all.

  4. Derek the Ænglican


    I’m not talking about constructing the perfect Office here, I’m talking about how current Episcopal communities choose between the options in the ’79 BCP.

    I’m just saying that there are a lot of factors that can go in to how we decide to use the options allowed to us.

  5. BillyD

    Of course, the table of canticles isn’t of very much help with Rite I as contained in the BCP; for that, you have to go to something like the Anglican Service Book. Their versions of the Rite II canticles seem to be taken from the Authorized Version, with mixed results.

  6. David Cobb

    Christ Church, New Haven follows a pattern very similar to Ascension, Chicago- with the Benedictus used every day of the year; and though it makes a bit of a muddle of language- we use the Rite II canticles from the OT, even though the office is always Rite I; not ideal but saves producing yet more booklets or leaflets.

    And though you’re working on the canticles in the readings, our practise with the invitatory is to use the Venite as standard, to use the Jubilate when the Te Deum is the second canticle, Ps 95 on Fridays and Wednesdays of Lent and the Easter Anthems through the 50 days.

  7. Geoff

    The Church of St Mary Magdalene, Toronto, has a bespoke booklet providing traditional language forms of the canticles in the Book of Alternative Services in the Lady Chapel, where their sparsely-attended recitations of the Office are held.

  8. Bob Solon Jr

    Derek, so what about the EOW canticles? I have been using them on my personal trial basis for about six months, using the suggested table of canticles in EOW1. There are certainly more of them, but all seem quite lovely and edifying in their own ways. And the suggestion follows your observation: OT canticle first, then NT, with Gospel Canticles an available option, usually in the Evening. There are one or two edits I might make to the table of canticles, but, after all, the selection of canticle is by rubric a choice.

    I have worshipped with the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, and their usage is pretty much straight-up BCP with some EOW options utilized. On the other hand, the St. Helena Breviary strives for a more pre-Reformation feel, with much elaboration of antiphons and hymnody ( a la Galley’s the Prayer Book Office), and even some choices that I question in terms of faithfulness to the BCP.

    And I think that might be the bottom line here. As Anglicans, catholic yet reformed, people of the Prayer Book, for whom it has the technical force of canon law, are we not pretty much obligated to follow the pattern clearly stated? I agree that knowledge of how we got to where we are in our offices is useful, but even knowing that, it seems to me that we follow it because that makes us who we are. After all, possibly the most sublime service in all Christendom (OK, I am a bit biased here :-) ) is Solemn Evensong. Pretty much right from the 1662 BCP, with a composed setting of Mag and Nunc and all the responses sung well – ah!!

    I digress perhaps a bit. I do wonder if the choice of canticles carries as much weight as you suggest, esp. given the broadening of texts available under EOW.

    In any case, a happy New Year to You and a blessed Feast of the Holy Name!


  9. Derek the Ænglican


    I confess to not having used the EOW canticles.

    are we not pretty much obligated to follow the pattern clearly stated? Hmmm. I’d say that we’re obligated to use the canticles that are in the book. No Canticle of Hezekiah at straight-up morning prayer because it’s not in the book (Don’t suppose that one’s in EOW, is it?) But what about Rite I? The table clearly doesn’t cover it. That seems as good a signal to me that we have freedom even within the suggestions.

  10. Bob Solon Jr


    Perhaps we’re saying the same thing. We do have complete freedom to select canticles. We can even swap back and forth from traditional to contemporary language in Rite II. I’m simply wondering if one’s choices for canticles (whether based on a suggested BCP framework or not) signify as much as I am hearing you suggest. And the other big option is, which Psalmody to use? I submit the BCP cycle is actually superior to the 30-day cycle in terms of matching content with context. I got far more out of Psalm 90 last evening than I think I might have with 148, 149, and 150. Is there a theological implication there as well? Not sure.

    In any case, you are right we have great freedom within the Ordo of the Offices, and for that I am glad.


  11. Derek the Ænglican


    I guess the question could be asked this way: what does it mean to be “catholic yet reformed”? Is our catholicity a matter of occasional nodding acquaintance or does it continue to impact our daily praying? Equally what does it mean to say that the Anglican system has deep monastic and Benedictine roots? Is it an occasional reminder or does the discipline of psalmody shape our daily praying and meditating?

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