Martin Thornton and the Divine Office

Martin Thornton had many insights in the purpose, nature, and practice of the Divine Office. Of all the topics of corporate spiritual life/journey—broadly speaking, what how Thornton defined “Ascetic”—it is the topic of Divine Office, more broadly Regula, that received the most attention in his work, which was always the fruit of tremendous erudition, insight, and reflection. Thornton’s theology of Regula must be reckoned with today in any writing about the Divine Office; else in my view it is like writing about the theology of the Eucharist and leaving out Aquinas, or writing about the Trinity and leaving out Augustine.

Thornton trod very carefully in his writing on the Offices, knowing that the Cranmerian daily Office functions as the Anglican “third rail”: “Do Not Touch.” Well aware of Cranmer’s ascetical brilliance (see The Function of Theology), in Prayer: A New Encounter, he suggested devout experimentation along the lines of what I have proposed here—the Our Father theologically expanded by means of the Nicene Creed—with our need for regular Scripture immersion satisfied through Lectio Divina (what he called “biblical meditation”) as well as the historic Cranmerian form: patterned reading of the Bible (including consecutive Psalter and lectionaries) with Canticles and Collects within the fellowship of the living Church.

The primary text to consider to begin to grapple with Thornton’s theology of Office/Regula is Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation. This was his second book and set out the theological fundamentals of the remainder of his writing. Secondary texts to consider are Christian Proficiency, The Purple Headed MountainEnglish SpiritualityThe Rock and the River, The Function of Theology, My God, and Prayer: A New Encounter. What follows is a summary of his insights.

(1) The Our Father prayer is the dominical basis for the Divine Office; it establishes its corporate nature, its teleology, its disposition, its paradigm. The Didache confirms its centrality to corporate set prayer. Recourse by other commentators to Ps. 119:164 and the like are important, clarifying, supportive, authoritative, but secondary.

(2) The Divine Office can only be understood theologically within the larger theology of threefold Regula—Divine Office-Mass-Devotion—which is the ascetical application of the doctrine of the Trinity. Divine Office associates with and emphasizes the Father; Mass with the Son, and Devotion with the Spirit. This is not modalism but a framework for our devout yet imperfect ascetical response to the “stupendously rich reality” of God (to quote Baron von Hügel).

(3) Jesus is the source of the threefold Regula:

  1. His meals together, dining together, communing against the conventions of the day: this is the model of the Eucharist;
  2. His adoration and perfect prayer to His Father: this is the model of the Divine Office;
  3. His life lived with people, healing, teaching, listening, leading, breaking open Scripture in fresh ways: this is the model of Devotion.

Incorporated into Him by Baptism, we slowly learn to pray like Him along these three dimensions. The threefold Regula constitutes the repeatable part of Baptism.

Each dimension of the threefold Regula evokes and thereby cultivates a particular psychological/behavioral disposition—Divine Office evokes oblation; Mass, contemplation; Devotion, obedience—that integrated into a threefold whole of prayer manifest the fundamental corporate response to God as well as the more developed answer to the question, “Brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2.37b). Regula presumes baptismal status, the desire for repentance, the actuality of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and builds upon the praxis of Acts 2.42.

(4) The Divine Office, as oblation or complete giving over of oneself to God, enacts objective praise to the Father by the Body of Jesus (Baptized, Saints, Angels) which despite our frailty we join by the help and grace of Christ. Hence, it does not primarily “sanctify the time.” Sanctification of time is by our attentiveness and obedience to the abundant activity of the Holy Spirit to whom we open ourselves not through the Divine Office but through Devotion activities (our “infinitely variable” baptismal ministry rooted in Scripture)—seeking and serving Christ in all persons by means of the Holy Spirit. See Robert Taft’s The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, pp. 357-9; Dix’s “sanctification of time” theology of the Office is devout yet erroneous.

(5) Honest assessment of the pastoral situation today tends to conclude that the reason few people do the Cranmerian form likely stems from massive change in social patterns over the last five hundred years. The authorized Anglican Divine Office used virtually unchanged today was crafted for a late-medieval society still well within Christendom. Further, the vernacular Bible was new and there was real pastoral necessity to have people hear it in English; neither of which pertains today. Hence, the Anglican Divine Office has rightfully endured as a Benedictine inheritance, yet now some kind of modification appears necessary.

(6) Because the Father Almighty is ontological and axiological Other—that is, immutable in all ways—somewhere in the daily life of Prayer must be praise corresponding to this Person, praise that is immutable, strictly invariable. If applied thoroughly, this could mean adding a daily period of strictly objective prayer as an additional Hour of the day, a “little hour” added to the day, the overall architecture of which should still include the historic Cranmerian form.

This means, as a devout experiment rooted in doctrine and pastoral reality, a little hour such as a “Prologue Office of Praise” with no lectionaries, no seasonal antiphons, no consecutive psalter, no optional collects, no permissiveness whatsoever. (All of those are retained in observing the daily Offices scheme, which need not be changed.) With the Prologue Office of Praise, the ideal is memorization and daily witness leading to eucharistic life. Again, the paradigm is “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”: something along the lines of a “pledge of allegiance” to God Almighty.

(Incidentally, he also suggested there was a need for daily contemplative prayer along the lines of what today is called Centering Prayer. Thornton suggested at least two hours per week of silence, or about twenty minutes per day, which is exactly the recommendation for beginners made by advocates of Centering Prayer, Fr Meninger, Fr Keating, Fr Pennington, etc.)