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.
“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.
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.
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
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.