“Some Pastoral Thoughts on Revision of the Office”

By MARTIN THORNTON
Prism (April 1961): 3-7.
Transcribed by Matthew Dallman

The ideal of revision set forth in the Preface to the Book of Common Prayer is a synthesis of orthodox tradition and particular pastoral needs, and this ideal is closely linked with the ancient, if but recently rediscovered axiom that liturgy must evolve from the experience of the worshipping community, which is itself living tradition. The most important of all factors, therefore, tacitly but not explicitly recognized by Anglican revisers, is to discover not what this liturgical or that parish priest would like to do, but what the faithful are in fact doing. This actual pastoral practice must then be subjected to the tests of scholarship and pastoral needs theologically expressed. Now what an increasing number of the faithful are doing is this: they are beginning to understand the value of the daily Office both as an expression of their membership of the corporate Body and as a support to their personal prayers. Some are joining in the public recitation of the Office in their parish churches whenever possible, but because of the contingencies of modern life, they are much more often reciting it privately. They find the present Offices far too complex, far too long and thus out of proportion in their total Christian lives, so they begin with the Versicle “O Lord Open . . . ,” end with the third collect, and omit the lessons, which, since the laity are under no canonical obligation to say the daily Office at all, they have every right to do. How, then, does this practice stand up to the tests of tradition and true pastoral theology? I submit the view that it stands up far better than the 1662 scheme plus the current Lectionary. But of all aspects of Common Prayer, it is the daily Office which most needs the stamp of uniformity and authority.

Let us first consider the objections to the present position which this state of affairs presupposes. The overall fact against which the faithful are subconsciously rebelling is the old inability of official Anglicanism to make up its mind what the daily Office is supposed to be for. All with agree that, in the total Christian life, we must confess our sins, say our prayers, make our petitions and thanksgiving, read, study and meditate on the Scriptures, and offer our corporate praise to God Almighty as members of Christ. But you cannot do all that at once, you cannot get it all into one “service,” and even if you could—by some supreme feat of spiritual gymnastics—it would only accentuate the error that Christianity is something that happens at set times in church instead of being an integrated life based on a foundation of prayer, of which the Office is an essential part.

But if Anglicanism cannot decide what the Office is, tradition is quite firm upon the point: it is the daily, objective, corporate offering of praise to God the Father through Jesus Christ, it is a partaking in the eternal praise of the Church Triumphant by the Church Militant, and its unchanging, and I should say unchangeable, basis is the Psalter. In pastoral terms the Office thus becomes the practical expression of our unity in Christ of which the Eucharist is the ontological basis. Pastoral history and pastoral tradition teaches that this unity within the Church Militant must find expression, thus the departmentalism of the medieval, and modern Roman Church, is offset by the universality of the Rosary. For it is the Rosary, authorized by a long series of Popes, which alone forges a unity between prelate, priest and peasant; which attempts to heal the divisions between monks, friars, clerics and laity all doing different things out of a conglomeration of missals, breviaries, primers, mass-books and diurnals. But the Anglican expression of pastoral unity is not the Rosary but the Book of Common Prayer; we believe in a totally united Church without a clerical caste saying different prayers from the laity; we believe the bond of unity to be the fundamental pattern of the Catholic Church which does not need to be artificially glued together by popular devotions, however valuable they may be as such.

If it is admitted that, because of canonical requirements, the daily Office is really a priestly thing and does not concern the layman at all, then we have overthrown one of the most creative of all Reformation principles, and all is lost: we cannot even fall back on the Rosary. But if, by bold and sensible revision, we encouraged more and more laity to use the daily Office, I believe we would regain that vital spiritual solidity through which it pleases God to work his miracles. Here would be a living unity against which divergences of ceremonial, vesture and church decoration would sink into insignificance. But, as we have plainly seen, “revision” is barely necessary, all we need is rather authorization and re-arrangement, which boils down to no more than an official acceptance of pastoral facts as they are.

Under authorization it need only be said, plainly, that the Office begins where we all begin it and ends with the third collect, and it would be an advantage either to eliminate the alternative canticles or to give clear direction as to when each is to be used: in the Offices, of all things, loyal Churchmen do not want to be bothered with personal choice. We need, in fact, exactly to reverse the catholic policy of 1928.

Under re-arrangement I suggest that Scripture reading be taken out of the Office altogether and put in its proper place with the Christian life, which is when you have half-an-hour to spare, not when you have to catch a bus. If, in spite of the fact that this is what the Church is doing, this proposal is considered too revolutionary for formal authorization, I still maintain that it stands up to the tests of ascetical theology and common sense. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the laity were generally illiterate and books rare and expensive, there was a good deal to be said for reading the Bible to them. But the modern laity are growing up, they can read for themselves, and with advanced education, plus the critical Biblical upheaval of the last century, they are no longer content merely to read. The modern need is for serious study and meditation which is quite incompatible with listening to six or eight isolated episodes from both Testaments in three minutes. If something like the current Lectionary is needed at all, some official scheme akin to those offered by the Bible Reading Fellowship would be much more compatible with modern needs. From the lay point of view, the consecutive lectionary has been long since redundant; and because of it the Office itself has been neglected. For the priest it is an infuriating burden. Were it decided that any priest or laic should be canonically obliged to follow an official daily scheme of Biblical study, then let them recite the Office worthily and pursue their canonical studies at some more suitable time. Nothing would be lost and a good deal gained.

Allow me to attempt to forestall three obvious objections to this scheme which are bound to arise. First, certain of my Evangelical brethren will tell me that the consecutive daily reading of the Scriptures is the whole purpose of Morning and Evening Prayer, which are not “Offices” in the sense I assume; that the psalms and canticles are little more than a frame to contain the lessons. I reply that if that is the case are not the psalms and canticles rather a nuisance? would it not be better simply to read, expound and meditate of the Scriptures?—which is exactly what I have suggested. But in all charity I am inclined to the view that, in the type of parish I have in mind, loyal daily attendance for this purpose seems a little remote. I hope I am wrong.

Secondly, I will be told that I am thinking only of a faithful, and possibly eccentric, minority—of the Remnant—and that I have no thought at all for the “ordinary congregation” or for “evangelism.” To this I reply that I am not thinking of the Office of the Remnant but of the Office of the Church, and if the expanding Remnant is the only body at present loyal to the Prayer Book scheme, then that is both regrettable yet encouraging. And I can only repeat that the one channel of creative evangelism is the Church being true to itself. So far as the “ordinary congregation” is concerned, these proposals need in no way to conflict with present practice. They need in no way interfere with “Sunday Evensong” except in so far as they regard the Office as what the Prayer Book plainly says it is: two-fold, morning and evening, daily throughout the year. The fatal error here, blatantly made in the 1928 revision, is to think of a “Sunday service” which can be modified for weekdays, instead of thinking of a daily Office which might be elaborated for Sundays. It is thinking in terms of an isolated congregation instead of an ever-living Church. On Sundays the Office could be said or sung, after which the Scriptures could be read, preached, expounded and prayed about, all of which seems a much more logical sequence.

If, to the cause of “evangelism,” a parish needed mission services, then let us by all means have them, but not at the expense of prostituting the Office of the Church. By no possible stretch of imagination can the Office be converted into such a service, and I fail to see any great value in anyone saying one Office out of every fourteen. If the present daily pattern fails by trying to do four different things at once, little can be gained on Sunday evenings by trying to do seven things at once.

The third objection is that the Office, by its very nature, ought to be said in common, and not recited privately. That is surely the ideal, but to stretch a point here on the grounds of pastoral need is trivial compared with the alternative of throwing over the whole idea of the common Office of the one Church. And, indeed, there may even be advantages. Admitting the ideal, there is much to be said for the Church’s Office as the only truly worthwhile form of “family prayer,” and when we are so constantly exhorted to “relate religion with life,” or to “carry the Church into the world,” recitation on trains, buses and in the tea break, could be more subtly pervasive than we imagine. What we lost in the choir we would gain on the underground.

To return to the fundamental point that nobody can just “revise” an Office with regard to the pastoral facts, without noting what is actually happening; the fundamental point that is, that liturgy must evolve; one single, simple step is all that is immediately required. Let authority plainly state that all that is now said daily is to continue to be said daily, but that the lessons may be read at any convenient time. The canonical position of the priesthood would be much the same, except that the Scriptures could be read more intelligently and the daily Office of praise offered more worthily. The laity would be encouraged to use the Office to the glory of God and to their own spiritual advantage, but without feeling that they were not doing the thing quite properly. For this is their present position which accentuates that priest-lay gulf which is the bane of other communions, and which traditional Anglicanism has ever been at pains to avoid.