Three-fold Rule of Christian Worship

Lately I’ve become aware of the concept of the three-fold Rule of worship in Christian Spirituality.  I’ve been aware of these three things for a long time, but I never really knew they were “a thing,” so to speak.  The three pieces are Office, Eucharist, and personal devotion.  The main thing I learned, just from seeing these three distinguished, is that the Daily Office is not meant to be a personal devotion.  Although I find the Office very personal, and consider it a staple of my own spirituality, it makes more sense to me now to distinguish it from purely personal devotions.

My natural inclination to describe these three things would be to make a table and compare them to each other, but since such formatting would be rather disastrous on this blog (and this blogger’s) capabilities, I’ll proceed with ordered sets instead.

What’s the focus of each?

  • Eucharist: to exercise our communal relationship with God.
  • Office: to exercise our communal relationship with each other.
  • Personal: to exercise our personal relationship with God.

What’s the purpose of each?

  • Eucharist: to become one with God – communion.
  • Office: to become one with the Body – unity.
  • Personal: to become ourselves in Christ – habitual recollection.

What are the pre-Christian Hebrew forms?

  • Eucharist: the festivals, feasts, fasts, and especially sacrifices.
  • Office: Teffillah, or daily synagogue services every morning & evening.
  • Personal: reciting the shema, the benedictions, or other private prayers.

What are some Christian forms?

  • Eucharist: Holy Communion, be it monthly, weekly, or daily.
  • Office: the seven-fold monastic offices, the Anglican morning & evening offices, the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary, etc.
  • Personal: individual meditation, Bible study, prayer, making confessions, receiving spiritual direction.

What aspects of God are most reflected in each?

  • Eucharist: the Word made flesh – God the Son.
  • Office: transcendence, otherness – God the Father.
  • Personal: immanence, indwelling – God the Spirit.

What’s a good catch-phrase for each?

  • Eucharist: “offer to God a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”
  • Office: “our religious duty and devotion”
  • Personal: “practice the presence of God”

How might the Bible reveal each?

  • Eucharist: “do this, as often as you drink it” – I Cor. 11:25
  • Office: “this is how you should pray…” – Matthew 6:9
  • Personal: “pray without ceasing” – 1 Thess. 5:17

What are the general content of each?

  • Eucharist: various types of prayer, Scripture reading, preaching, and the Sacrament of Holy Communion
  • Office: a “balanced diet” of prayer, Scripture reading, sometimes preaching
  • Personal: whatever an individual needs in order to live Christianly and to grow

Where can I find some examples of the Apostles and early Church doing these?

What happens if any of these are over-emphasized at the expense of the others?

  • Eucharist: develop a belief in “cheap grace,” less personal relationship with God
  • Office: rigorist spirituality, legalism, Pharisaical attitude
  • Personal: relativism, faith becomes subjective

What happens if any of these are under-emphasized in favor of the others?

  • Eucharist: Pelagianism, God’s grace is taken for granted and we focus on ourselves
  • Office: undisciplined spiritual life, constant need for “revival”
  • Personal: individual faith and responsibilities are shirked

So what’s the ideal here?  I’m not sure there’s any one answer; cultural demands and the spiritual condition of the Church probably call for different plans at different times.  A quick survey of Church history can yield some glaringly obvious imbalances: in the medieval Church the Office got taken over by the monasteries too much, in some traditions today there’s a distinct lack of personal devotion, in other traditions today there’s a rejection of the Eucharist in all but its simplest level of meaning.

Rather than going for a blanket-statement approach to how to balance the three-fold Rule, a functional approach is probably the better way.  The Eucharist needs to be celebrated often enough for each local congregation to gather and receive God’s grace corporately.  Weekly is a good average, especially as that was the pattern of worship which God mandated in the Old Covenant based on the Sabbath days.

The Office, by definition, is to be celebrated daily by everyone who can possibly manage it.  The key to getting this part figured out is that it needs to be a good base from which personal devotions can be inspired.  If people are very disciplined to read the Bible regularly on their own, then there’s less need for a coordinated lectionary in the Office.  If people are very faithful about confessing their sins, then the Office doesn’t need to be strongly penitential.  So the Office should be flexible to fit the spiritual needs of the congregation or region.  But it ought to contain a healthy diet nevertheless – it is instructive for young Christians, formative for growing Christians, and a comfortable companion for mature Christians.

Personal devotion, however, is where individuality and flexibility are to be encouraged.  Spontaneity, too, is a welcome feature of personal devotions, as it’s all about continuing spiritual devotion through the course of the day.  Not that order and discipline are out of place here; some people relish that.  Although personal devotion is not necessarily the primary habitat for set prayers, individuals who really appreciate certain set prayers should feel free to make full use of them.  The only catch here is the fact although personal devotion ought indeed to be personal, there is nevertheless great value in having a spiritual director.  Just like a child needs role models, advice, and instruction in growing up, so to do we need similar mentoring for our growth in Christian spirituality.

There you have it; three distinct areas of worship, each with their different purposes and benefits.  Let’s hope the Church today can figure out how to balance these properly in our current contexts!  I’ll certainly try my hardest to keep these in mind for my own life, my family, and whatever congregation(s) I serve in future.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about spiritual formation, theology, biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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4 Responses to Three-fold Rule of Christian Worship

  1. Thank you for a very thought-provoking post!

  2. Pingback: Three-fold Rule of Christian Worship (revisited) | Leorningcnihtes boc

  3. Pingback: the Essentials of a Life of Worship | Leorningcnihtes boc

  4. Pingback: Basics of Anglican Spirituality | Leorningcnihtes boc

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