02 October 2014

The Reform of the Daily Office - Part 1

In the latter decades of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, the Daily Office has enjoyed something of a resurgence in popularity among Christians. Long felt to be the duty of monks and the clergy, who were obligated to offer the lengthy prayer offices (in other languages in some traditions), the use of the Offices enjoyed great popular use only in the Church of England and her daughter Churches as both Morning and Evening Prayer became cornerstones of typical parish worship. Often rendered by exquisite choirs, the words of Evensong became melodious companions to generations of the English.

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, fresh revision was made of the Roman Rite's hours. But, in many ways, the Roman Breviary as it exists today still feels more monastic in root and purpose, which is unsurprising, considering the history of Office in western Christian practice.

Anciently, the Western Church's Office was known in two forms - Cathedral and Monastic. The Monastic Office, largely structured after the Rule of Saint Benedict, included a weekly recitation of the complete Psalter, lengthy readings - both Scriptural and Patristic - and eight stops along the journey of the day to offer the Opus Dei, the Work of God. Over time, the Monastic form exerted influence over the prayer life of the clergy in Rome, and from there, the general structure of the Offices took on a distinctly more monastic feel for secular clergy. The transition largely shut the laity out of full, active, and conscious participation of the Office, reducing their presence to mere attendance whilst they focused on their private devotions.

The Cathedral Office, however, was of much simpler form. A smaller corpus of psalmody was used, in order to allow the people to become familiar with at least a few psalms. Since, in the so-called Cathedral Office was intended as corporate prayer for all the people, it made sense for it to bear a mark of noble simplicity, having lavish symbolism to enhance the experience. Large candles were borne in procession as the sun set, incense was burned, and other ritual elements could be added to both teach and enrich.
In the process of the liturgical reforms of the twentieth century, it was often hoped that a Cathedral style Office would be produced, but few firm examples actually surfaced. Several Roman Catholic hymnals produced texts that could be considered Cathedral Offices (GIA and OCP both tend to include something resembling such a form in their publications - at least in their publications up through a decade ago; I have no newer hymnals to examine and see if this is still the practice); but their nature does not, strictly speaking, fulfill the obligation of the clergy to offer the Daily Office, and they are not actual authorized liturgical texts of the Church.

Three notable attempts at Daily Office reform are to be found 'down under' (to us North Americans, anyway) - they are the orders for Daily Service from An Australian Prayer Book (1978), A New Zealand Prayer Book - He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa (1989), and A Prayer Book for Australia (1995). These three texts appear to share a common heritage, and, while I don't know enough about the history of these Offices to know if they were designed with the intention of serving as a Cathedral Office, their simplicity of form and structure ultimately leaves one with the feel that these offerings are well on the way to meeting at least some of the goals of a Cathedral Office in contemporary liturgical use.

Additionally, while not strictly an Office form, I would note that the fourfold Daily Prayer for Individuals and Families published by the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod in Hymnal Supplement 98 and Treasury of Daily Prayer, as well as the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod's Morning, Evening, and General Devotions in the Christian Worship line (not to be confused with the orders for Morning Praise and Evening Prayer) are likewise steps in the right direction.

In order to determine the best way to move forward today in crafting a form of the Office that will truly become a Prayer of the People, several questions need to be asked concerning the keeping of the liturgical hours:

1) What is the purpose of the Office?

2) How many hours are appropriate?

3) How long is too long, and how short is too short?

4) How shall we treat the Psalter?

5) Is the Office a form of Bible Study, a Devotional, or something unique?

6) How much variety is required, and how much is simply a vain attempt to make the Office artificially interesting?
Over the next few weeks, I hope to write several posts covering the six questions I just asked. I hope you'll join me and offer your own feedback and considerations. I also hope you'll consider sharing your experiences with the Daily Office.
Stay tuned... this could get interesting!


liturgy October 4, 2014 at 4:44 AM  

Thanks, Fr Robert.
In the next week or so I'll try and find & present on my website some bullet-point-level history of the NZ Daily Office you point to.



Robert Lyons October 4, 2014 at 2:11 PM  

That would be great, Bosco+!

I'll look forward to it!


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