In praise of the Daily Office

by Derek Olsen

At six o’clock on a Friday morning the darkened rooms of our seaside vacation condo were filled with the happy shrieks of our fifteen-month old younger daughter, affectionately known as Lil’ H. Dutifully I rolled out of bed, paused long enough to throw some clean clothes on me and fresh diaper on her, lobbed a bottle of milk somewhere in her direction, and strapped her in the stroller; the goal, of course, was to get her out as quickly as I could before she woke my sleeping in-laws or her sister. (My wife was already awake, but I hoped she could catch a little more precious sleep.) By seven-thirty we had strolled the boardwalk several times, visited the playground twice, and had donuts in hand for a light breakfast. As luck would have it—well, okay, maybe it wasn’t just luck—we found ourselves in front of a small Roman Catholic church with a signboard advertising a 7:30 mass. We ducked inside in time for the pre-mass rosary—and left promptly in the middle of the first lesson. Not content to stay in her stroller, Lil’ H insisted on running around as fast as her little legs could go, offering a running commentary on all around her that made up in volume what it lacked in coherence.

That service we left has been on my mind for the past two months now because of what I saw there. That little church, at 7:30 on a Friday morning, in a resort town, had been packed to the gills. The sanctuary that I had expected to be desolate was almost entirely filled. And not all the hair in the place was white either. Certainly the elderly were in attendance but I saw some folks my age, and some a bit older with teen-agers in tow. Some were in beach-wear, others in work-wear; some were clearly vacationers, others seemed to be permanent residents. I was—I am—jealous. Why couldn’t the innards of my church look like that?

The Episcopal church in town was one street over, but was shuttered up and locked down. To be sure we’d been there on Sunday and had been pleased at the size of the congregation and number of children in attendance that seemed to have improved from the year before—but during the week it sat quiet and empty. I would much rather have had Lil’ H run about, gleefully scattering cake donut crumbs (bad choice in retrospect…) in the midst of an Episcopal Morning Prayer service, but it wasn’t an option for us. And I wonder why not. Oh—certainly I understand that there are reasons—but still I wonder…

One of the glories of the prayer book and of its tradition is the retention of the Daily Office. For centuries before the Reformation the Western Church had regarded the eightfold pattern of daily prayer formulated by our monastic ancestors to be the norm for committed Christians—theoretically meaning everybody but practically meaning monastics and clergy. By Archbishop Cranmer’s day, many religious satisfied the obligation of saying the Office by means of aggregation, that is, combining these eight hours into blocks at the beginning, middle, and end of the day. Cranmer—following in the footsteps of a Spanish reformer—sought to restore ancient intention with two aggregated times of prayer, one in the morning and one in the evening that would read most of the Bible through in a year and the Psalms every month. (Don’t believe me? Check out the preface to the first prayer book on page 866 of our current ’79 BCP…) His intention was not to make life easier for the clergy alone but to realize the goal the Church had long sought—to integrate these times of prayer and readings of Scripture into the life of the people.

The Daily Office is one of the things that drew me into the Episcopal Church. Benedictine in spirit, evangelical in nature, the rhythm of psalmody, the constancy of the Scriptures and the experience of the ebb and flow of the liturgical year guided me into a deeper understanding of the Word of God and the way of the cross revealed therein. I can’t pretend I pray the Office every day and every night—but I know I miss it when I don’t or can’t pray it. It has slowly become a part of me, and a central part of what it means for me to be an Anglican, an Episcopalian. The rhythm of the Office punctuated by the Mass on Sundays and feast-days—this is the pattern of Episcopal life as I know it.

I do wonder, though: why isn’t the Office more widely known and practiced in our congregations? Part of the answer, I suspect, is historical and lies with the obligations of the clergy. In former days and in some places still throughout the Anglican Communion clergy were under obligation to say the Office twice daily. (Indeed, I’m told a certain Canadian bishop is known for asking the clergy she meets on her daily rounds of their opinion of the morning’s readings… Are any of our clergy in danger of similar queries?) In such circumstances the priest might as well open up the church and toll the bell to invite others to pray alongside. But this is no longer our way—and I think it’s a shame. Yes, both clergy and laity can and should read the Office on their own, but we as parish communities make an important statement about our beliefs and our values when we take the time and make the effort to pray it together.

I’m told that the reason why Episcopal churches aren’t open in mornings and evenings for the Daily Office is because modern people don’t have an interest in that kind of thing. Really? Then why was the Roman church I stopped in full? One reason I can think of is because of married clergy: morning and evening logistics are far more complex when school, daycare drop-offs, after-school programs, and family dinners rear their heads. I imagine it’s much easier for an unattached Roman priest to roll out of bed for an early morning mass than for an Episcopal priest with a warm lump beside her—and two or three more just down the hall. Another reason is practical: for those hurrying off to work or school an 8:45 or 9:30 service (both of which I’ve seen at some of the few Episcopal Churches that do offer weekday Morning Prayer) simply won’t do.

I have a fantasy about this matter and my fantasy is this: that there would be at least one Episcopal church in a given area that would offer the Office at times when regular people, yes, people who work and have children and all, could attend. I know it’s possible—I think of that full congregation on an early Friday morning, and I think of evenings I stopped at St. Mary the Virgin in New York on my way home in my City days. It may not be easy—but it’s possible.

What stops us? What’s the gap between your average Episcopal congregation and that early morning Roman Catholic crowd? For one thing, it’s a religious culture that sees such observance as the norm rather than the exception. What would it take for us to cultivate that? A recapturing of the rhythm is in order, a recapturing of what Cranmer intended to feed the whole flock—not just the set-apart few. (Clergy, cover your eyes for a second…) The Office isn’t the special province of the ordained, it belongs to us lay people just as much as it does to the clergy. We need to rediscover it and to make it heard. In our homes, in our churches, in our cathedrals. Unlike masses, there’s no part of the prayer book Office that actually requires a priest. If there is no sound of prayer in our churches and in our cathedrals maybe it’s not really their fault; maybe it’s ours…

For those who would like to learn more about the Daily Office, check out pages 75 and following in your Book of Common Prayer (or, if thou wilt, pages 37 and following) or look online at Mission St Clare

Derek Olsen is completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He is an adjunct professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology where he teaches in homiletics, liturgics, and New Testament. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

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