“Traditional” Office Hymns

One of my favorite words that gets thrown around–“traditional”–is inherently slippery… “Traditional” for whom? When is the ideal time when something stops and starts being traditional?

The notion of tradition is always a contemporary construct–an idea of how we view things and privilege things that appeared and/or happened in the past. There was discussion on Ship of Fools about whether the “Traditional Office Hymns” in my “traditional Anglo-Catholic” ordo were, in fact traditional. It’s a perfectly fair question and my response is that the list I give matches the list in the first edition of Ritual Notes supplemented and checked with the Anglican Breviary meaning that the list stands firmly documented within Anglo-Catholic tradition.

On the other hand…

Here’s another list:

From Nov 1 Matins: Primo dierum | Lauds: Aeterne rerum | Vespers: Lucis Creator (Sunday, O lux beata) | Compline: Christe qui lux es
Advent Matins: Verbum Supernum | Lauds: Vox clara | Vespers: Conditor alme siderum
Christmas Matins: A Patre unigenitus | Lauds: A solis ortus cardine | Vespers: Christe redemptor omnium
Epiphany Matins: A Patre unigenitus | Lauds: Iesus refulsit omnium | Vespers: Hostis Herodes impie
LXX Matins: Alleluia piis edite laudibus | Lauds: Almum sidereae iam patriae decus | Vespers: Alleluia dulce carmen
Lent Matins: Clarum deus ieiunii | Lauds: Iesu quadragenariae | Vespers: Audi benigne conditor
Passiontide Matins: Arbora decora | Lauds: Auctor salutis | Vespers: Vexilla Regis
Easter Matins: Iesu nostra redemptio | Lauds: Aurora lucis rutilat | Vespers: Ad cenam Agni prouidi
After Asc Matins: Optatus votis omnium | Lauds: Aeterne rex altissime | Vespers: Hymnum canamus gloriae
Pentecost Matins: Veni creator Spiritus | Lauds: Beata nobis gaudia | Vespers: Iam Christus astra ascenderat
Until Nov 1 Matins: Nocte surgentes | Lauds: Ecce iam noctis | Vespers: Deus creator omnium (Sunday, Lucis creator) | Compline: Te lucis ante terminum

There are a number of commonalities between this list and the other, the chief difference being static hymnody through the week in Ordinary time in this listing… But there are other differences as well. This list comes straight from a 10th century English Benedictine customary (Ælfric’s LME for the OE folk in the crowd)–so it’s pretty darn “traditional” too. But which is more traditional? How do we adjudicate?

If we push it further, though, we find that this isn’t even “the” Office Hymn cycle for 10th century English Benedictines. Rather, there were two different hymnal types in circulation, the Winchester-Worcester type and the Canterbury type, that reflect how continental influences shaped local practice during the Benedictine Revival (the 10th c. rebirth of monasticism in England after the Viking depredations of the previous centuries). This present list, while an important witness of actual(?) use, isn’t even a “pure” form of the Winchester-Worcester type. Furthermore, how we even define “pure” is up in the air–do we consider “pure” to be what is in the majority of the sources that have survived? And if so–we need to consider how representative the books are that have survived…

“Traditional” is simple until you start pushing on it and defining it;”tradition” is one of those things that becomes fuzzier the more you look at it.

Tradition isn’t a static thing and it isn’t a single thing. As any medievalist will tell you, there isn’t a common “medieval” anything. Rather, we can only talk about what certain texts represent about what was happening in certain places at certain times (…and discussions will ensue about whether any of it actually happened as it was represented…). Much of what appears as Anglo-Catholic tradition is a Victorian adjudication about what is properly medieval in light of their construct of the high medieval period as an English golden age. (Which is why the contemporaneous pre-Raphaelite paintings of the Arthurian cycle have the 5th century characters in 14/15th century accoutrements…)

Thoughtful discernment is key here. The answer on the Office Hymns is clearly that both lists—the Anglo-Catholic (presumably Tridentine) one and Ælfric’s one—have a place in the tradition. The one we choose positions us in relation to that tradition. Personally, I like Ælfric’s because it has more static elements and thus fits the peculiarities of my current Office practice. Too, it aligns me with the English Benedictine pre-Scholastic practice which I think most fully and properly illuminates the Anglican way. At the same time, I recognize that it falls outside of what is “traditional” for classic Victorian-inspired (heavily Scholastic) Anglo-Catholicism.

I guess if there’s a note I want to end on, it’s this: “tradition” often gets used in churchy circles as a rhetorical blunt instrument meant to end discussions. It doesn’t have to be. Tradition can also be a way of understanding the fullness of what we have received and understanding how adjudicating among the manifold options makes a difference for how we understand ourselves, our faith, and our practices of faith now.

11 thoughts on ““Traditional” Office Hymns

  1. lukacs

    I feel a little bad for raising this point while you should be dissertating, but hey, if it actually ends up in your chapter 3 then I suppose you owe me beer!

  2. *Christopher


    This is the discussion of “tradition” so often lacking and the historian in me sighs with relief at your discussion here not only of tradition, but of purity–we know better now than to pretend that change wasn’t always happening, that diversity was somehow non-existent, etc.

    My question to you, being more expert at these Medieval practices in England, and we could shape them differently depending on which other place in Europe or Africa or the Middle East we chose, I suppose, would it be possible to provide a Benedictine Morning, Noon, Evening, and Compline listing in the Anglican way utilizing these beautiful hymns for each season? And, how about English translations and a mode/tone given us? I know, I’m asking a lot but I ask because few of us have time to do this shuffling, picking, etc., so regularity (which our ancestors knew was an important part of memorization) is important for we who live our prayer lives in the world often on our way or as we work. I may need to look into the Anglican Breviary, or the short Benedictine one by Max Johnson again. Juggling books is problematic, and I don’t like praying from on-line much.

    I guess, what I long for is a community prayerbook, hymnbook, and psalter in the Benedictine mode within the English Benedictine past for use within the Anglican way in our time. Somehow, I envy the monks of Mt. Angel with their own “use”.

  3. Derek the Ænglican

    It would indeed by possible, *Christopher. Much good work on Anglican Offices in a Benedictine mode has been and is being done by some of our Anglican monastic brethren and sistren. I’m thinking especially of the revised Monastic Diurnal Noted from the Community of St. Mary (in the final proof-reading stages, I hear), the Monastic Breviary from the Order of the Holy Cross, and the Divine Office from the Order of Julian of Norwich (with painstakingly transcribed neumes and fresh translations by Fr. John-Julian who comments here on occasion…).

    That having been said, none of these are specifically hooked into this particular strata of English monasticism. Several of the hymns mentioned here have fallen out of use over the past several centuries and–to the best of my knowledge–are most easily found in Milfull’s Hymns of the Anglo-Saxon Church. Her translation is entirely literal, though; some re-translating would have to be done to have suitable English devotional texts.

    It’s entirely doable–but not until the dissertation gets finished…

    Lukacs–you’re on next time I’m up that way!

  4. Derek the Ænglican

    Thanks for the link lukacs–that’s a *much* better price than I’ve seen anywhere else after a quick check! Hmmm…this seems to have *Father’s Day gift* written all over it… ;-)

  5. *Christopher


    Have you reviewed this one yet?


    I’ve contacted Fr. John-Julian about the Divine Office and I’m looking about for the Monastic Breviary for consideration. One thing is that in a mixed tradition household finding something that is not overly Marian (but not devoid of Mary) is difficult.

  6. Derek the Ænglican

    I’ve heard much about that one but have not yet acquired it.

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