MORNING AND EVENING PRAYER have their roots in synagogue worship, developed across the centuries in Christian services of public worship and private prayer, and were gradually formalized in the eight canonical hours in monasteries. Later they flourished in cathedral choirs and parishes.
Massey Hamilton Shepherd’s classic Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary (New York, 1950) describes in some detail the evolution of the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer of the Episcopal Church from their origins “in the devotional practices of pious Jews at the time of our Lord’s birth” and in their subsequent development. “This elaborate system of daily worship,” says Dr. Shepherd, “which has been fittingly described as ‘the sanctification of time,’ was not designed solely as a means of personal edification for those who were ‘religious’ by profession. It was also viewed as part of the Church’s ‘bounden duty and service’ in continual offering to God of ‘the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.’ . . . It was the genius of the great Reformers, such as Luther and Cranmer, to see the potential advantage to the Church of making the Daily Offices a means of corporate worship for all the faithful, the laity as well as the clergy, and, in particular, a vehicle for the recovery of a knowledge of the Holy Scriptures by all the people of God.”
As a pastor and priest deeply rooted in the traditions of Anglican worship who serves in a modern, 21st century urban and cosmopolitan American parish, I find that the full choral services of Morning and Evening Prayer continue to have a compelling power to shape and to express in corporate worship a distinctively Anglican approach to the values and virtues of Christian life and Christian community. This remains true despite recent trends of so-called liturgical reform that seek to redefine the Holy Eucharist as not the “principal” but rather the “exclusive” service for worship on the Lord’s Day.
Within the Daily Offices the key liturgical and deeper spiritual principle is balance of the elements of worship: penitence and praise, hearing and responding, supplication and thanksgiving. Morning and Evening Prayer in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer tradition first immerse the worshiper in the language, stories, and great themes of Holy Scripture. This was certainly a primary concern of Cranmer and the 16th century reformers and which continues to be a concern and priority for the 21st century Church. In an era when “religion” and “spirituality” have been heavily identified with subjective experience, the Daily Offices have always persistently paired the subjective with the objective, the personal and inward with the corporate and external. Finally, in a contemporary society and world where there is always a sense of a goal, a forward trajectory, a rush into the future, the patterns of symmetry and balance in the Daily Offices promote an attitude and orientation of reasonable stability and order.
From the English Books of Common Prayer of the 16th and 17th centuries through the 1979 American Prayer Book, the Offices begin with a Scriptural Sentence as a Call to Worship, an Exhortation to repentance and amendment of life, a General Confession, and an Absolution. In this way words “from God, to the people” are followed by prayer “from the People, to God. ” Then a word “from God to the people” follows in the Absolution.
The second major section of the Office is the reading or singing of the Psalms, beginning with a responsive prayer (the Preces) and then continuing at Morning Prayer always with Psalm 95, the Venite, and with the extended portion of the Psalter appointed for the day. Following the recitation of the Psalms there are two readings from Holy Scripture, one from the Old Testament and one from the New, each followed, again, as a kind of responsive balance, by the singing of a Biblical canticle or, in the Te Deum at Morning Prayer, a doxological hymn. The congregational recitation of the Apostles’ Creed after the New Testament canticle (Jubilate or Benedictus at Morning Prayer, the Nunc Dimittis at Evensong) then serves as a full response by the congregation to the readings from Scripture.
The third and concluding portion of the Offices begins with a responsive intercession, the Suffrages, and then continues with the Lord’s Prayer, the Kyrie, the Collect of the Day, and the General Collects, which offer intercessions for the church and her members, for the nation, and for the world. An anthem may be sung at this point, understood as a part of the corporate prayer of the congregation, and then particular and more specific intercessions are offered. The General Thanksgiving and the Prayer of St. Chrysostom function as a concluding “bookend” to this section of intercessory prayer, and the Concluding Sentence, the Grace–recollecting the Opening Sentence at the beginning of the service–marks the end of the Office.
Churches where Morning and Evening Prayer are offered as part of the regular Sunday schedule of worship very often extend the service following the Grace with an “addendum,” a Sermon, the receiving of an offering, and a final General Prayer and Benediction. This continues the pattern of receiving and responding as found within the structure of the Office itself. Congregational hymns are also frequently found at the beginning and end of the service and at the point of transition between the Grace and the Sermon. The rubrics permit adding the Holy Eucharist after the Grace by going directly to the Offertory, Sursum Corda, Preface, etc.
Music has been an integral part of daily worship in the Offices from the earliest beginnings of this tradition in the Jewish synagogue and in monastery chapel, cathedral choir, and parish church. In the Anglican tradition music, whether instrumental or choral, whether sung by congregations or by highly trained choirs, will appropriately reflect the liturgical values of the services themselves. They will be modes of clear expression, balance, and symmetry. Hymns are appropriately not the percussive and subjectively introverted works of Victorian romanticism or 20th century pietism, but rather worshipful offerings of Biblical texts of praise and thanksgiving set to the more balanced and orderly hymn tunes of the classical models. Canticles and Psalms are sung, whether by choir alone or by choir and congregation, not in complicated polyphony, but in the clear and uncomplicated music of an unaccompanied plainchant or of an accompanied Anglican Chant tone—with the goal always of a clear communication of the Biblical text.
“Never weather-beaten sail,” by Thomas Campion (1567-1620), masterfully sung by Stile Antico.
Never weather-beaten sail more willing bent to shore.
Never tired pilgrim’s limbs affected slumber more,
Than my wearied sprite now longs to fly out of my troubled breast:
O come quickly, sweetest Lord, and take my soul to rest.
Ever blooming are the joys of Heaven’s high Paradise.
Cold age deafs not there our ears nor vapour dims our eyes:
Glory there the sun outshines whose beams the blessed only see:
O come quickly, glorious Lord, and raise my sprite to thee!