Mike: Let’s talk about the Daily Office of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. In the first English Prayer Books, Matins (the ancient name for Morning Prayer) began on page one. Morning Prayer is where we start, again and again, the liturgical tradition. The services in the Anglican tradition are a simplification and combination of the early morning services and the later evening services of monastic communities. Such a simplification hopes to bring the rhythm of prayer out of specialized communities of monks and nuns, and into the daily lives of common people.
Jason: The monastic community is exclusive by design. The Prayer book was created to widen access to this rhythm of life shaped by prayer and Scripture. Yet it doesn’t lose the communal aspect of the monastic tradition. It’s design is still for a community praying and dwelling on Scripture together. This doesn’t mean it can’t be used by individuals, but it is by design a book for a community.
Mike: Exactly, The Daily Office names that we’re not in the praying business alone. Jason, you may find it interesting that Morning Prayer was the most common service on Sunday Morning in Anglican Churches until about the end of the 19th century. Weekly Eucharist is relatively new in Anglicanism. Even today many of the Episcopalians who consider themselves evangelicals (yes, there are Episcopalians who enthusiastically embrace the label) often celebrate Morning Prayer, rather than Eucharist, most Sunday mornings. I think this is because Morning Prayer keeps Scripture at the center of our liturgical life.
Jason: Even a Eucharistic service has a lot of Scripture in it! We’ll get into the mechanics of the Eucharist later. Still, it’s worth noting that many evangelicals would be surprised to find how much Scripture is read during a liturgical service!
Mike: More than anything, The Daily Office is about Scripture. Morning and Evening Prayer facilitate a regular reading of The Bible. The Offices are designed especially around the Book of Psalms. The Daily Office lectionary (calendar for readings) of The Episcopal Church includes psalms to be read at Morning and Evening Prayer, and takes us through the whole book of psalms every seven weeks. Likewise the Lectionary follows a calendar for Scripture readings. Often whole books of the Bible are broken up over several weeks. Sometimes particular readings appropriate to a specific season or feast are provided.
Jason: For those of us that come from other Christian traditions, the reverence shown for the Book of Common Prayer by Episcopalians can be a bit creepy at first. We already have the Old and New Testament. Why do we need another text? This line of critique is often warranted when no one can explain the use of the book or when a Bible cannot be found in a church, only prayer books.
Mike: The Book of Common Prayer, especially in the Daily Offices, can really be seen as a guide to praying our way through Scripture. Many of the prayers in the BCP come directly from Scripture, others quote scripture. No service in the Book of Common Prayer does not include the reading of at least a little Scripture. We may not put Bibles in pews in all of our churches, but our liturgy helps us to read the Bible together. One of the gifts of the lectionary is that liturgical Christians tend to be reading the same scripture. I can turn to another Episcopalian who prays the daily office and say, “Did you read that bit of 2nd Samuel today? What were they thinking?” It’s a bit like a group of friends who all watch “The Walking Dead,” except, you know, with The Bible..
Jason: Studies on congregational health have found that biblical literacy is a key to spiritual growth for Christians. There are lots of tools for studying the Bible out there and a whole industry devoted to churning these out. What I love about the prayer book and lectionary is that these books are ancient tools for doing just this: reading and meditating on Scripture year-round. But they are not designed just for gathering information about the Bible. Rather, they are prayerful–they’re design is for reflection and life-integration of Scripture. Mike, can you explain how this actually works?
Mike: I find that the wisdom of nuns and monks becomes important when I pray Morning Prayer by myself. Because I spent a lot of time in classrooms studying the Bible, I can get distracted, wanting to look up some interpretation or translation of Scripture. The monastics knew this temptation and teach “Lectio Divina” (Divine Reading), a method to keep us from pulling out our Greek dictionaries. Tools like Lectio Divina, help us remember that we read Scripture in The Daily Office for devotion not for academic analysis. (For a great set of methods, check out this post by Sharon Ely Pearson.) The Daily Office itself helps us to keep to this method, because we respond to the readings of Scripture with praise. More on that and the other pieces of the Daily Office in the next post.