The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Common prayer

Benedict of Nursia

Benedict of Nursia
His monastic rule shaped English common prayer

Historically, and in keeping with Christian tradition from the beginning, Anglican spirituality takes root in the prayer of the community of faith, our common prayer. We say “from the beginning” with reference to the traditional narrative in Acts of the Apostles, which describes followers of the Way (the term “Christian” hadn’t been invented yet) gathered in community (“shared by all”) around the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread (Eucharist) and the prayers. (Acts 2.42) Common prayer is the matrix within which personal prayer and spirituality occur. Anglican spirituality understands that we can’t be Christians by ourselves, even though we certainly are called into personal relationship with God in Christ. Spiritually, our individual, personal identity draws its meaning from within the community, the Spirit-filled Body of Christ. It’s our chosen standpoint (by faith, through baptism) in relationship with God among many other possible standpoints — Buddhism, for example, Islam, Judaism or Hinduism. Just as in the African saying that it takes a village to raise a child, so it takes a community of faith within which children of God in Christ flourish as Christians gifted and called to serve.

None of which is meant to imply that we have no commerce with other religious traditions; quite the contrary, we learn a great deal from other religions — their spirituality if not their specific teachings — that not only informs but confirms our own spiritual experience and practices. (The 20th-century Roman Catholic mystic Thomas Merton, for example, was engaged in deep dialogue with Buddhist monastics just before his untimely death in 1968.) As Anglicans, we believe from experience that there is much beneath the surface differences among world religions that resonates with all human spirituality.

Christian history in the British Isles has been profoundly shaped by the practice of common prayer, from fifth- and sixth-century Celtic and Benedictine monastic settings through the medieval cathedral system to the Book of Common Prayer, which in many ways, even though it was a document of the English Reformation, bore the mark of 17 centuries of Christian corporate worship, prayer and spiritual theology. Though revised many times since 1549, the “BCP” has continued to be a repository of both ancient practice and contemporary insight; moreover, because it accompanied British colonialists, the BCP has been a worldwide phenomenon such that, in a sense, just as the sun once never set on the British Empire, the sun to this day never sets on Anglican prayer. Many of these prayer books have been revised to reflect indigenous national churches, especially since the mid-20th century, but their core values continue to be informed by two millennia of Christian tradition mediated through Anglican history and spiritual sensibility.

The basic shape of Anglican common prayer, as reflected in the Book of Common Prayer, is that of a sacramental, corporate rule of life rooted in daily prayer and Holy Eucharist founded upon promises made at baptism — to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. (BCP, p. 304) The prayer book is not just a collection of orders for public worship but a way of common prayer into which we may pour our most personal yearning for fellowship with God in Christ. It is the matrix for our common prayer but also the springboard, as it were, for personal reflection, growth and the spiritual journey upon which all humanity is embarked in one way or another.

Liturgy of the hours

Benedictine spirituality
Ora et labora, prayer and work

Holy Eucharist is the central act of Christian corporate worship, stemming from the last meal Jesus of Nazareth shared with his inner circle the night before he was arrested and then crucified. The earliest account of that meal comes not from the gospels but from a letter of apostle Paul: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11.23-26) The shape of the liturgy that incorporates this remembrance is one that links the forms of daily prayer — psalm-praise, scripture, prayer and intercession, Creed — with the breaking of bread, the utterly unique worship of Christianity that, we believe, brings us body and soul into profound communion with God in Christ.

Late third-century documents show that regular daily prayer several times a day was customary for Christian congregations. These services were built around gospel accounts of the Passion – third, sixth and ninth hours (9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m.) – and the customary morning and evening prayers inherited from Judaism. Later monastic daily prayer cycles added bedtime prayers (“Compline” in the Benedictine rule) and, in some cases, a midnight or very early morning office (“Nocturnes” in the Benedictine rule) in response to two verses in the psalms: 119.62, “At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous ordinances,” and 119.164, “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances,” both of which are cited in the Benedictine rule. Monastic communities tended to retain the ancient practice, which fell into disuse as the church became more established and conventional. Cathedral chapters of clergy and their congregations, meanwhile, tended to continue the ancient model, gathering several times a day for these “prayer offices” (from the Latin, “officium,” or “service”), which were heavily influenced by monastic rules. Over time, the daily prayer offices came to be regarded as the special obligation of the clergy and monastic communities. Laity were not excluded, but neither was their participation encouraged.

One way that the Reformation emphasis on “de-clericalization” of the church’s ministry took shape in England was fundamental reform of the daily prayer offices understood as being a common practice of the whole church, not just ordained ministers. Typically, however, English reformers hewed to ancient practices even as they condensed the traditional seven offices of the Benedictine rule into two – Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. This table indicates how this was accomplished.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer
Architect of English church reform
and the Book of Common Prayer

The “Salisbury rite” was the daily prayer practice of Salisbury Cathedral, which was based on the Benedictine rule. Note that there are eight offices, but Matins and Lauds customarily ran together as one service in both cathedral and monastic use. The so-called “little offices” of Terce, Sext and None were abolished as being redundant and “monkish,” in reformers’ minds, while elements of Matins, Lauds and Prime were combined to form the BCP service of Morning Prayer, and elements of Vespers and Compline were combined to compose Evening Prayer. The ancient canticles were retained and the use of the Psalter. A major reform was the daily office lectionary, in-course scripture lessons at every service, with passages of Jewish and Christian scripture assigned to be read every day of the year. This was an expression of Protestant insistence that the word of God in scripture be integral to the church’s worship. Scripture lessons always had been part of daily prayer offices, but the number of lessons had been reduced and readings radically shortened so as to be memorized easily in a virtually illiterate society. Overall, reform of the daily office was intended to return the church’s ministry of regular daily prayer to the people by making it more intelligible and accessible. Above all, these services were in English, not Latin.

The English prayer book was a masterpiece of liturgical reform, but it was also a political instrument intended to impose conformity on the clergy and laity of the Church of England. The Reformation period was a perilous and tumultuous era. Monarchs everywhere, not just England, sought to control the religious passions of their populations by imposing practical standards for public worship; moreover, they required oaths of allegiance contrived to weed out the disloyal. In England, because the monarch was also head of the church, conformity in religion was an outward and visible sign of loyalty to the state.

The prayer book was a compromise reform document, but many English Protestants believed it did not go far enough while English Catholics believed it went too far. That’s simplification of a very complex period of history, but it is a true image of how Anglicans have historically sought a “middle way” between totally Protestant and totally Roman Catholic understanding of Christian tradition and theology. There were many factors that contributed to that typically Anglican standpoint – history and politics as well as the desire for theological truth – but it finally boiled down to a method wherein the church assays its understanding by means of tradition, scripture and reason. Anglicanism, as a blend of Roman Catholic and Protestant tradition, was willing to jettison the “magisterium” of Catholicism, by which the church hierarchy claimed all teaching authority for itself, but not the structure of sacramental ministry vested in bishops, deacons and presbyters. Anglicanism was and is willing to make scripture central to our theological reflection but not to jettison 2,000 years of Christian tradition consistent with scripture but not based upon it. Anglicanism affirms that Christianity has nothing to fear from a free and open encounter with reason and scientific inquiry, and that this continuing conversation must occur if theology is to remain relevant to human life experience.


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