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Pray without ceasing: The Daily Office

Flickr: the prayer continued

Flickr: the prayer continued

The Liturgy Task Force of Faith, Worship, and Ministry is working on revisions to our authorized liturgical texts. In this entry, Task Force member Richard Leggett provides some background on practices of daily prayer, and introduces a new resource for Morning and Evening Prayer.

In one of the earliest documents of the Christmas movement known as the Didache (Gr. ‘teaching’) the writer responds to the question of how often a Christian should pray. ‘Pray three times a day’, the teacher advises, ‘and pray the Lord’s Prayer.’ This simple instruction provides an insight into the essential character of Christian daily prayer: regularity and simplicity.

During the centuries between the writing of the Didache and the English Reformation of the sixteenth century daily prayer underwent considerable expansion. Although the ‘average’ Christian was encouraged to pray two or three times a day, monastic communities, especially the Benedictine movement, drew upon the admonition of Psalm 119.164, ‘Seven times a day do I praise you, because of your righteous judgements.’ The times of prayer in many monastic communities grew to be eight: just before dawn (‘lauds’), dawn (‘matins’), an hour after dawn (‘prime’), three hours after dawn (‘terce’), six hours after dawn (‘sext’), nine hours after dawn (‘none’), sunset (‘vespers’) and bedtime (‘compline’).

The simplicity of reciting the Lord’s Prayer two or three times a day was lost as the custom of the recitation of the Psalms became a feature of daily prayer. Readings from the Scriptures and from early Christian writers, canticles from the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament, responsories and litanies all gained entry into the offices. As a result the Daily Office came to be more and more a ‘professional’ liturgy, undertaken by religious communities on behalf of the laity who often attended monastic services.

Thomas Cranmer, building upon the work of Cardinal Quiñones, sought to restore a degree of simplicity. Eight offices became two: Matins and Vespers. Canticles were reduced and a monthly cycle for the recitation of the Psalms was introduced. Perhaps more importantly, a new Daily Lectionary was introduced that, if followed, would result in reading all of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament in one year. But, as is often true of liturgical revision, Cranmer’s dream was not entirely realized in the practice of the Anglican tradition.

In recent years the ancient practice of disciplined, regular daily prayer has been revived in many Christian traditions such as the Presbyterian, Lutheran and Evangelical communities. Among Anglicans the Society of Saint Francis with its ground-breaking Celebrating Common Prayer has influenced revision of Daily Prayer among Anglicans throughout the Communion.

Here in Canada the Liturgy Task Force has been working on its own revision of the Daily Office. It has long been known that the Daily Office in The Book of Alternative Services has not been used as widely as had been hoped by its creators. The Trial Use Offices, published on the national website, are an attempt to provide Canadian Anglicans with a disciplined form of regular daily prayer that is simpler to use and tied to the seasons of the Christian year.

Christians are a people of prayer, a people called to pray without ceasing. Whatever form that prayer takes, may all of us take up this vocation to hold before God the needs and concerns of the whole of creation.

The Rev’d Dr Richard Geoffrey Leggett

Eileen Scully

About Eileen Scully

I'm serving the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada as Director of Faith, Worship, and Ministry and have a passion for how worship and learning form disciples for God's mission in the world, and how that mission shapes our common prayer.
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