Morning and Evening Prayer: The Heart of it All

The center and heart of Morning and Evening Prayer is Scripture. Here are two fundamental Anglican practices. First, the Scripture readings are designed so that the books of the Bible are read in large portions that continue from day to day. If, for instance, the first lesson today is from the prophet Jeremiah, one will expect the first lesson tomorrow to pick up in Jeremiah more or less where today’s leaves off. Second, the two lessons are always from different Testaments, with the first from the Old and the second from the New.

(The 1979 BCP allows variation in the number of lessons, from one to three. Nonetheless and despite this innovation, it does specify that the first lesson, if there are more than one, is always to be from the OT, and it lays out how to select the OT for the evening; see p. 934.)

In the course of a year, most (but not all) of the Bible is read. A couple of early exceptions to continuity are of interest. The 1662 Book noted that while the rest of the NT was read thrice in the year, this was not true of the book of Revelation, which was read only on certain “divers Feasts.” The 1549 Book, for another example, skips Genesis ch. 10. Unfortunately, there are many more gaps in the 1979 lectionary (starting on p. 936), some of which seem incomprehensible (for instance, skipping Genesis 38 altogether; Tamar is a foremother of David, and of Christ!). Fortunately, a rubric allows for the lengthening of any lesson if desired, and I encourage doing so to include skipped-over passages.

What is the point of this required reading, day in and day out, of what we might well call the scriptural story, the biblical narrative? It is this: Anglicans trust that the daily hearing of the Bible will be formative for a Christian people. We want to have Christian people who know the Bible story, who are familiar with its characters, its events, its themes, its problems, and so forth. Indeed, in A.D. 2020 as in A.D. 1520, we could say that a general problem that the Church has is that we don’t know the story.

The Anglican prescription for biblical illiteracy is simple: Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

The center of Morning and Evening Prayer is, literally, the Bible. Not a sermon — there is no sermon; not a Bible study or commentary — that could happen in a class or alone afterwards; but the written Word itself. Anglicans trust the unmediated, daily, continuous exposure to the Bible to be God’s means for shaping his people into a godly people. Anglicans trust that the Holy Spirit will work in MP and EP just as they are. Sermons can help and Bible studies can help, but the principal thing is the office itself — Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

But we need also to add: It is the entire Bible that Anglicans trust, both Old and New Testaments. Our tradition is for both to be read, not only one. Our tradition is never to have a single Scripture lesson, but to hear Scripture in stereo (as it were), Old and New Testaments side-by-side. A fundamental Anglican principle is that the Bible interprets the Bible: that no part of God’s written Word should be construed in a way that is repugnant to the sense of other parts of Scripture; that we are to aim as much as possible at grasping the entire Bible in a comprehending life of faithfulness.

A canticle follows each Scripture lesson. Traditionally these are the Te Deum and Benedictus at Morning Prayer and the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis at Evening, although the morning canticles have varied. The canticles are scriptural song-pieces of response to God’s action, with the Magnificat as perhaps the greatest of all: “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” Mary says with Jesus in her womb. We hear the Word of God in the Scripture lessons, and the Word takes up residence within us. This is the heart of Morning and Evening Prayer.
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    On the Web. This week’s post is taken from my essay in the October 4 issue of The Living Church. If you are not a subscriber, why not fix that? https://www.cambeywest.com/subscribe2/?p=LCM&f=paid
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    Out & About. This Sunday I continue a three-week online class at Incarnation in Dallas, at 10:20 a.m.: “Three Things God Didn’t Want but He Got Used To: cities, politics, and sacrifice.” This Sunday’s topic is politics. You can sign up for the Zoom class here. Note that there are a limited number of in-person seats available (if you’re in Dallas, it would be lovely to see you!). Last week, there was a bit of technical difficulty at the first—if you were on Zoom, you couldn’t hear me—but we fixed that about 10 minutes in, and I believe it is fixed for future classes as well.

The fall theology lecture will be Sunday, October 25: “What’s Special about Anglicanism?” This will be live-streamed on Facebook, the “IncarnationDFW” page. There will also be a limited number of in-person seats available (in the Ascension Chapel). The lecture is at 6 p.m. Bishop Sumner will engage with me in Q&A also: should be fun. I hope you join us, one way or the other.

If you are an Okie, I hope you can join me at All Souls’ Church in Oklahoma City. I will be the preacher on All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, their patronal feast. Then Monday through Wednesday I will offer two classes. At the noon hour, “Up with Leviticus” (yes!), and at 6 p.m., on friendship. These classes will also be on their website www.allsoulsokc.com.

 

Morning and Evening Prayer: The Anglican Genius

   It’s special to Anglicanism — daily Morning Prayer and daily Evening Prayer, the two “offices.” We urge all Christian people to pray according to a given form, twice a day. That is to say, we expect it to be said in our churches, in public — in common. Morning and Evening Prayer are not complicated obligations laid on religious “professionals” (clergy) that they must fulfill by themselves. Rather, this Anglican tradition is a public thing, simplified into two daily services, with a fixed form, suitable for every day of the year.
    This blog post, with two more to follow, attempts to speak to the big picture. It is not a technical guide to the details of saying the office but rather a look at its overall shape and a digging into some of its key presuppositions.
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    “Common prayer” is, first of all, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. These services come first in the Book of Common Prayer, preceding both Holy Communion and baptism. (The 1979 Book of Common Prayer moved up baptism to place it before the Eucharist, which makes sense in terms of the structure of the Christian life. Earlier prayer books put Holy Communion right after Morning and Evening Prayer and the Litany, since those were the services used regularly.) For about five centuries now, Morning and Evening Prayer have been the principal worship of Anglicans day in and day out.
    They have a simple, tripartite structure of psalms, Scripture lessons, and prayers.
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    The psalms are read in their entirety (if one includes the optional verses) roughly every seven weeks, or about seven times a year. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer also allows an older way of reading the psalms that was established with the first book (1549) and continued until 1979. This older way is to read through the psalms in order every month. (Note, for instance, the words “First Day: Morning Prayer” on p. 585; Morning Prayer on the first of any given month would include Psalm 1 through Psalm 5; Evening Prayer on the first day of the month starts with Psalm 6 (see p. 589); and so it continues.)
    Reading the psalms puts Morning and Evening Prayer on a footing of praise. The opening versicle of Morning Prayer establishes the point: “O Lord, open thou our lips. And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.” The Christian day begins with praise of God who has given us lips and mouth to praise him.
    There are other features of the opening, which have varied over the centuries. The first book of 1549 did not open with a confession of sin, for instance; all the books until 1979 opened with the Lord’s Prayer. In the 1979 book, some alternatives are introduced (most notably, the alternative ways of reading the psalms).
    Nonetheless it is clear: the constant is to read a large portion of the psalter, not merely a few verses but generally more like 25 to 50, and not to read selectively, but to read it all. The psalms are the ancient hymns of God’s people. They include complaints, repentance, sometimes abandonment, sometimes joy, and often come around to trust in God that is expressed amid concrete need. And all these forms are wrapped up in praise.
    We may also note: While the Scripture readings to follow may be read from any authorized version of the Bible, the psalms are printed within the prayer book and are to be read in that translation. It was the translation of Miles Coverdale, which antedated the King James Version by a half-century. Subsequently, numerous small edits were made to Coverdale’s psalms, until the 1979 book provided a thorough revision. Still the 1979 psalter is in the Coverdale tradition. And it is intrinsically poetic. To see the poetry, compare the opening of Psalm 62:
    “For God alone my soul in silence waits” — 1979 book
    “For God alone my soul waits in silence” — Revised Standard Version
That quality — I don’t know what else to call it, save “poetic” — is an Anglican distinctive.
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    On the Web. This week’s post is taken from my essay in the October 4 issue of The Living Church. If you are not a subscriber, you can fix that easily: https://www.cambeywest.com/subscribe2/?p=LCM&f=paid
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    Out & About. This Sunday I begin a three-week online class at Incarnation in Dallas, at 10:15 a.m.: “Three Things God Didn’t Want but He Got Used To: cities, politics, and sacrifice.” This Sunday’s topic is cities.
    The fall theology lecture will be Sunday, October 25: “What’s Special about Anglicanism?” This will be live-streamed on Incarnation's Facebook page.

 

 

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."