Anglican Spirituality: Prayers

At the end of June we looked at how Anglicans read the Bible, and the different methods employed: particularly the week-by-week topical style of the Scripture readings at Eucharist services, and the continuous chapter-by-chapter style in the Daily Office.  Today we’re exploring the context for that Scripture reading: the prayers of the Daily Office.  After all, while Anglicanism is an evangelical tradition (very focused on reading the Bible), it is different from most other evangelical churches in that simply doing a “Bible study” is not something our spirituality pushes for.  Rather, the daily reading of Scripture is set into a context: an intentional framework of prayer that teaches us to worship God in the midst of our Scripture reading.

The daily office of Morning and Evening Prayer contains a consistent and logical progression of prayer.  It begins with a call to worship, followed by a confession and invitatory, and expanded upon with psalmody.  Only then does it bring us to Scripture readings and canticles, capped off with the Apostles’ Creed.  Then it goes through various set prayers and concludes with a blessing.  Let’s walk through each of these pieces in turn, using Morning Prayer as our specific example.

Call to Worship / “Opening Sentence”

The most important thing about a call to worship is that it reminds us of the reality that it is God who calls us to himself to worship him.  Worship begins with God, not with man.  If we think that worship is a grassroots, spontaneous thing that we are bringing to God, we are deceiving ourselves.  If there is every any impulse within us to reach out to God and offer him worship, that is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives!

There are two possible responses to a call to worship: praise & confession or confession & praise.  Both are biblical models.  The impulse to begin with praise and then move to penitence is like in Isaiah 6, in which Isaiah is caught up in the heavenly worship of God before realizing that he was “a man of unclean lips” in need of cleansing.  The other model is like in Psalm 24 which declares that the only people who may “ascend God’s holy hill” to worship him are those who are “of a pure heart” – confession is a prerequisite to proper worship.  Although both models are biblical, it is the second that is favored in Catholic and Anglican piety, and so confession is what comes next.

Confession & Absolution/Assurance

In the prayer of confession we bring to God our unworthiness and sin.  As we call ourselves out, God takes our sin out.  The very prayer of confession reorients us toward God as we ask for the grace to “now live a godly, righteous, and sober life.”  Nevertheless, the prayer of confession is followed by a declaration of absolution by a priest (as Jesus instructed his disciples to do in Matthew 18:18), or an assurance of pardon by a lay person (as Jesus encourages all Christians to do in Luke 24:47).

The ACNA draft liturgy for Morning and Evening Prayer uses the classic Anglican prayer of confession, surviving in the 1979 Prayer Book only in Rite I (traditional language).  Here it is brought into contemporary language, giving us both traditional Anglicanism and modern English language.  This is generally what the ACNA liturgical taskforce has been aiming to do in everything it’s producing thus far.  The reasoning is that there are plenty of good orthodox Anglican traditional-language resources out there already; there is no need to reduplicate those books.  What is needed today are modern-language versions of those liturgical treasures!

Invitatory

With our sins acknowledged and put aside, now we’re ready to call ourselves forward in a sort of second call to worship.  This time it’s us inviting one another to worship God, complementing God’s initial call to worship at the beginning.  Psalm 95 is like the archetype of all calls to worship.  Often known as the Venite, because that’s its first word in Latin, Psalm 95 beautifully calls upon God’s people to sing praises to him, come before our great God, and praise him.

At least, the first seven verses do.  All of a sudden, and without warning, however, it takes a nasty turn: “Today, if you hear my voice, harden not your hearts… as your fathers put me to the test though they had seen my works.  For forty years I loathed that generation… they shall not enter my rest!”  This harsh warning against such faithless turning away from God back to sin rudely interrupts the beautiful praiseful call to worship of the first seven verses.  As a result many Prayer Books since the original have omitted this part of Psalm 95, preferring to leave the doom and gloom to the previous prayer of confession.  Some people may view that as a “softening” of the doctrine of God’s wrath, other may view it as an attempt to “clean up” the liturgy of Morning Prayer.  It isn’t a big deal either way, however, considering that what follows the Invitatory is the day’s readings from the Psalms, which could just easily be something happy and praiseful or something gloomy and penitential.

By way of an aside, the 1979 Prayer Book added in the Pascha Nostrum – an ancient Christian hymn made up of three New Testament passages.  It is recommended to be used in Easter Week, and is often also continued to be used throughout the Easter season.

Psalmody

Classically, the Anglican pattern of reading the Psalms is very simple: we cover all 150 psalms in one month.  If you look at the 1979 Prayer Book, you’ll see at the beginning of the Psalter on page 585, right before Psalm 1, the text “First Day: Morning Prayer.”  This means, quite simply, that on the first day of the month, the psalms for Morning Prayer begins there.  On page 589, right before Psalm 6, you’ll find the words “First Day: Evening Prayer” to indicate where that evening’s psalmody begins.  And so it continues for 30 days of psalms.  (When there’s a 31st day in a month, day 30 is repeated.)  This is the simple genius of Thomas Cranmer, the primary architect of the first two Prayer Books.

Psalms are one of the most important pieces of the Daily Office liturgy.  This is because, as Scripture they’re the words of God to man, and as prayers they’re the words of man to God.  The Psalms are prayers that God has given us to pray back to him!  Especially combined with the fact that Jesus is reported to have prayed a number of psalms in the New Testament, we find incredible value in the book of Psalms as Christians, and treat them as training ground for our own prayer lives both corporate and private.  They cover a wide range of human emotion and a very well-rounded diet of prayer.

As an aside, in the 1979 Prayer Book there is an alternative psalm-reading plan built into its Daily Office lectionary (Bible-reading plan) on pages 936-1001.  This plan covers most (but not all 150) of the psalms, spreading them out over seven weeks.  It’s inferior in that it’s an incomplete representation of the book of Psalms, but it’s a more gentle introduction to the praying of psalms than the rigorous 30-day plan of traditional Anglicanism.

Scriptures & Canticles

For Scripture reading, the original Anglican Daily Office lectionary calls for 1 chapter from the Old Testament and one from the New every morning and evening.  Doing so covered most of the Old Testament & Apocrypha in one year, and the New Testament (minus Revelation) three times a year.  Later revisions to the daily lectionary included Revelation and shortened the daily readings, resulting in more omissions in the Old Testament.  In the 1979 Prayer Book’s revision to the lectionary, even parts of the New Testament have ended up omitted, despite a two-year (instead of one-year) lectionary.  Again, the primary purpose was to make the Office more accessible in a world of busy schedules.

One of the most notable features that distinguishes the Daily Office from the Communion service, however, is that the Scripture readings are followed by canticles.  In a way, it’s an expansion on the classic formula “this is the word of the Lord – thanks be to God.”  Rather than leaving it at that simple affirmation, the reading of the canticle takes that to another level, as if to say “we’ve just heard God’s word to us; let’s celebrate by praising him!”  The original Prayer Books didn’t even have the “word of the Lord” declaration in the Daily Office; you just went straight from the reading to the canticle.

Most of the canticles themselves come from scripture.  The three traditionally given top priority in traditional Christian practice are the three canticles from the beginning of the Gospel of Luke: the Songs of Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon; they are traditionally assigned to the morning, evening, and night offices, respectively, though in Anglican Prayer Book tradition the Song of Simeon is also in Evening Prayer.  (Compline, or Night Prayer, was a later addition of ancient tradition to the prayer books.) Other canticles include the Te Deum (an ancient Christian hymn), the Songs of Azariah and of the Three Young Men (from the Old Testament apocrypha), and in the 1979 prayer book also the Song of Moses and various excerpts from Isaiah and others, all of which have found use throughout Christian liturgical history in various places.

The Apostles’ Creed

Although not a prayer, as such, the reading of the Apostles’ Creed in the Daily Office is a meditative re-affirmation of our faith.  As evidenced by the “amen” at its end, this is something we solemnly declare before God.  Thus it serves both as an intellectual and emotional corrective and balance for us – no matter how we are feeling at the time, this is what we believe.  It is also a sort of lens by which to receive and interpret the Scripture readings just heard.  It is also a reminder of our Baptism, as this is the Creed used in the baptismal liturgy.

One point of curiosity in Prayer Book history is the line declaring that Jesus “descended into hell.”  Translated from the Latin descendit ad infernum, this has sometimes been rendered “descended to the dead” by many Christians since the Reformation.  The issue here is that many people, then and now, imagine hell as the apocalyptic lake of fire.  But that is not what the words hell, infernum, hades, or sheol refer to.  Those words collectively refer to the place where the souls of the departed go.  When, in current popular parlance, we say that unrepentant sinners go to hell, we’re actually being biblically inaccurate – the various words in Scripture for “hell” invariably refer to the place of the dead before the resurrection and judgment at the end of this age.  I preached and wrote more about this on Good Friday this year, so I won’t pursue this any further right now.  Suffice it to say that the Anglican traditional has always, carefully, tried its best to stick with the biblically-correct language “descended into hell” despite its popular misconceptions.

The Prayers

The 1979 Prayer Book calls this next section of the Office “the prayers” which is a little misleading since the entire Office is a sequence of prayer (and in a way even a single unified act of prayer).  But to be fair, this section is the most exclusively prayer-focused part of the Office.  Our ACNA draft liturgy brings back the Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy) at the beginning of the section, followed by the Lord’s Prayer, which was originally at the beginning of the entire Office, but has since been moved to this section to reinforce the focus of prayer in this latter half of the liturgy.  (I’m not an expert on this, but I’ve gotten the impression from Roman Catholic resources that this placement of the Lord’s Prayer may be more in keeping with pre-Reformation practice.)

Next comes the suffrage.  In the 1979 Prayer Book there were two options: Suffrage A was a collection of bits of Psalms woven together into a nice call-and-response set of prayers, and was largely based on the traditional Anglican suffrage at this point in the Office liturgy.  The ACNA draft has re-modified this suffrage back closer to its original form.  Suffrage B in the 1979 Prayer Book was formerly the last third of the Te Deum, and has been restored to that position in the ACNA draft liturgy.

Next come what was traditionally three collects.  The original prayer books called for first the Collect of the Day (meaning the proper collect from the most recent Sunday or the current Holy Day), and then two other collects.  In the 1979 Prayer Book five other collects were added alongside the original two, allowing for a great variety.  In addition to that the 1979 book added three collects for mission, introducing a new practice of prayer focusing beyond the church walls – almost undoubtedly an example of good revisionism!  The ACNA draft liturgy has retained the variety and choice of the 1979 Prayer Book in this section, but has cleaned it up such that it more clearly reflects the traditional format of having three collects beginning with the Collect of the Day.  (This was possible all along in the 1979 book, but was not explicitly suggested.)  The three collects could now be conceptualized as the Collect of the (latest) Holy Day, the Collect of the Weekday, and the Collect for Mission.

Additional Prayers

The earliest prayer books neither prescribed nor recommended any additional prayers between the three collects and the blessing at the end of the Office.  The 1662 Prayer Book offered two suggestions: the General Thanksgiving and the Prayer of St. John Chrysostom.  To this day, those two prayers have been included at the end of Morning and Evening Prayer, yet noted as optional.  They do indeed make an excellent closing to the Daily Office together, but they’ve never had to occupy this space alone.

It seems that every Prayer Book revision through history has added more and more additional prayers in a section right after the Daily Office.  The great thing about the 1979 Prayer Book is that there are now up to 81 such additional prayers to make use of.  The bad thing about the 1979 Prayer Book, though, is that those prayers on pages 810-841 way in the back where most people never find them!  It remains to be seen how the future ACNA prayer book will handle this, but for now I encourage you to explore those prayers in the back; there are many underappreciated gems there!  (And a few duds, but hey, it was the ‘70s.)

And, of course, there is explicitly-stated room for free prayer at this point of the Daily Office too.  Part of the reason that it comes so late in the liturgy is that we have all the preceding components to shape, guide, and prepare our hearts and minds in a healthy and balanced way such that when we finally get to the point where we can add in something of ourselves, we are (hopefully) better-prepared to do so.

Blessing

The Daily Office ends, quite brilliantly, with a two-way farewell.  First there is the exchange “Let us bless the Lord – Thanks be to God.”  We are blessing (praising) God.  Then there is the closing sentence from 2 Corinthians 13:14, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ… be with us all evermore.”  God is blessing us.  First we say good-bye to God, and then God to us.  The symmetry is beautiful, and the ACNA draft liturgy highlights that dynamic first by retaining the “bless the Lord” exchange introduced by the 1979 Prayer Book and second by eliminating the 1979 Prayer Book’s other two suggested closing sentences (Romans 15:13 and Ephesians 3:20-21).  I think this is an excellent example of the current ACNA draft taking something old and something new, and making something beautiful and good from them.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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