In praise of the Daily Office

by

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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22 Responses to "In praise of the Daily Office"
  1. I belong to the Ecunet group - Daily Office Scripture Study - and also have a listserve with yahoogroups where I offer my thoughts on the Daily Office - it is a discipline that I find meaningful. Lately I have been a slacker about doing it daily - thanks for getting me going again. I wonder if I would go to the offices if they were offered in the local church.

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  2. I'm surprised you did not mention the best source of the Daily Office online from Josh Thomas at daily.office.org or here with beautiful photos and easy to read text.

    This is an extaordinary ministry, one that serves many people, not just Episcopalians. One doesn't need a church building to observe the Daily Office.

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  3. I first came to the Episcopal Church in part because a parish near me held public Morning Prayer every weekday. It became a habit while I was in college, and I was ultimately confirmed there. The priest who led it would show up in her workout clothes as often as not. During the summer, we'd rotate leadership-- a very easy way for a newcomer to get involved, I might add!

    I don't like the Office as much for private use-- it feels repetitive in that setting. But with other people, it's just lovely.

    --Chris Ashley

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  4. Kathryn, you're absolutely right! Omitting Josh's wonderful site was an oversight I'm glad you caught.

    Certainly the Office can be done alone. That's often how I pray it--and I'm not against that. I also pray it with my family when my schedule aligns with my wife's (which is regrettably rarely) and we use the short version of Compline on p. 140 of the BCP for bedtime prayers with the girls. However, I find it most meaningful when I can pray it within the gathered church community. Even if only a few attend, the fact that an Episcopal church would hold public services of morning and evening prayer says something important about who we are as a faith community--that we take our daily faith seriously, that we understand these liturgies to be an important expression of Christian spirituality and formation, and that the unceasing worship of God continues in my local community even when I can't be there or can't pray the Office on any given day. That having been said, I recognize that there are practical, logistical, and ecclesial-cultural obstacles to this vision. I just wonder how we could begin overcoming them...

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  5. I regularly say two Offices a day - usually Morning Prayer, and Compline, using the Evening Prayer lessons - but, then, I'm a regular guy (all right, perhaps that pun's too obscure). As an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, the Offices are part of my rule. They are a part of my wife's life as a Sister of the Worker Sisters of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, it's hard for us to get our schedules together, and we end up saying the offices alone.

    I think we might teach that the Christian life is expected to be a life under a Rule. I'm aware of the demographic changes of the past two generations (think about it: in our own families, that recently most folks lived in the same time, and many within walking distance of where they worshipped), but I do agree some community expressions could be developed, which could be seed experiences for folks to say the Offices at home. As with so much, it's really about formation.

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  6. It would be wonderful if churches were open daily for any kind of service -- Daily Office or the Eucharist. My parish offers several daily masses (12:10 p.m. T-Wed-Th-F Sept-June -- Wednesdays sometimes 3x a day, 7:30 a.m., 12:10 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.) as well as two on Sundays and special days (occasional Evensongs and, of course, Stations during Lent and all the rest during Holy Week), although we are not a large parish and make do with one full-time priest and one retired priest associate. We made a special point of keeping the building open and advertising service times right after 9/11/01 since we are nearby government office buildings. While some came in the first few weeks, thereafter there hasn't been much interest in attendance, either from members of the parish or others dropping by, though there are a few faithful. Unfortunately, it's not the custom for Episcopalians, especially if they are not of an Anglo-Catholic background, to seek out churches mid-week (and sometimes not even all summer!). We certainly would do well if we could change this because, as you say, our tradition provides such riches, but it's a lot for clergy to keep up with so few in attendance.

    I would like to see at least the Cathedrals for each diocese offer more services since they often have more staff available. In the meantime, I'm so happy to have discovered the Daily Office online.

    (my oops also on the last name above)

    Kathryn Jensen

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  7. Ah--but that's one of my points, Kathryn. We *don't need* clergy for these services; any properly trained layperson can lead them.

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  8. Of course, you're right, Derek -- it doesn't require a priest. It's just that a lot of folks (not you!), once they think of a good idea about what the church needs, go to the rector or vestry and think in terms of "They" should be doing such and so, which more often than not boils down to the rector, either doing it him or herself or at least seeing that it gets done and takes care of all the practicalities (such as seeing that the building is open, locked again when necessary, etc). And if the priest ends up having to be there anyway, some may prefer that it be a Eucharist (though one parish I attended had Morning Prayer followed by the Eucharist a couple weekdays).

    Nevertheless, I certainly do agree it's a great idea to try to develop a team of parishioners to read the Office. Hope your article inspires such action.

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  9. Derek,

    You have hit the nail on the head on two points.

    A shift in religious culture. Not too long ago the office was more common as a regular service as least on Sundays.

    And why not have a rota of trained lay persons to lead morning and evening prayer in a parish?

    I wish I could pop on over to a parish before or after work and join others in prayer. This "cathedral" option as it was once labelelled, though we can't strain the "monastic" and the "cathedral" developments too far as wholly separate (though their intent was somewhat different), was meant for all Christians--all were to have their hearts singularly focused on God and the best way to do so is to begin and end the day in thanksgiving and praise, bringing all of the world before God in prayer.

    I would also suggest that in our tradition, Daily Office is the regular catechesis (including in the home), just as for Lutherans, the reading of the Small Catechism was so. And I say "WAS" because we all seem to be falling down with regard to catechesis in our respective traditions, and falling down in our tradition starts by stopping those practices which shape us. Or at least, that's my observation from seminary.

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  10. For fifty years, in every parish I've served, there was Morning and Evening Prayer and Eucharist daily - sometimes with Eucharist at different hours, so everyone in the parish could come at least once.

    The Daily Office not only defined the main life and purpose of the parish, but kept my own life in "order" - and when I unavoidably couldn't be there, trained lay people officiated.

    As a monk, I've been spiritual director to dozens of people, and I always begin: "If you want to live a serious spiritual life, begin with the daily Office for a month, and then come and see me!" The daily Office is the skeleton of serious spiritual growth -- mainly because it is a DISCIPLINE, and doesn't require that one "feel like it".

    In my last full-time rectorate, I introduced daily Office and Mass to a parish which had never had it, and in my eight years, there were only 6 days when no one was there for Mass! And even if they couldn't come (for good reason), they KNEW the prayer was going on on their behalf.

    Finally, daily Office publicly announced and in the church is a fantastic ministry the elderly and retired can offer a parish!

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  11. I've been saying Morning Prayer/Evening Prayer (depending on work schedule) daily at home for several years. I would LOVE to worship with the Body more often. I am a licensed Lay Reader in the Diocese of Wyoming and have led Morning Prayer with a congregation of 2 on Wednesday and 60 on Sunday... it is a beautiful service and a great Discipline. I hope our parish adds it to our "tool box" of evanglism in our community.

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  12. I also choose to fulfill part of my Rule of Life as a Companion to the Oratory of the Good Shepherd by saying the Daily Office. As someone who travel about seventy-five percent of the time for work, this is an extremely valuable anchor to a life otherwise busy with too many things. Having a congregation to worship with would make it even better!

    Jamie McMahon

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  13. Here in Durham, NC, St Joseph's Episcopal Church has been doing Morning and Evening Prayer daily (weekdays) for months on the initiative of a layperson there. For a little while, it was just him and me, and the summer was a little slow, but at this point we're regularly getting five or six every evening. Another TEC parish in the area is considering doing EP a few nights a week, and a third has Noonday Prayer or Eucharist every weekday, depending on whether it's a feast or not.

    I hope to see more parishes doing this kind of thing -- I know for me, as an Independent Catholic (and thus somewhat isolated, since there are very few of us in NC), it's wonderful to have somewhere to say the Office in community. Saying it alone is simply not the same, and I miss my tiny little Office community when I'm away from home.

    Chris Tessone

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  14. I'm the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas. We offer MP at 8 a.m. on weekdays and EP at 5:30 p.m. (except Wednesday when we have Eucharist). Usually 1 to 3 people come for MP. It's led by a single lay person. Teams of 4 lead the EP service which seems to have more attendance.

    For several years I've journaled a reflection after reading MP, and a few years ago I started sending them on an email list to parishioners who wanted to subscribe. (An idea from seminary classmate Barbara Crafton) Since then it's grown to 1000+ and a blog so folks can straighten me out. Being responsive to others for my own discipline is helpful.

    Lowell Grisham

    (to check out my reflections, lowellsblog.blogspot.com)

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  15. You can't compare daily Mass to the daily office. It's MASS. It's the gathered community bound together in the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood.

    Given that, the office is a lovely service. Our church has been offering daily Evening Prayer for several years. No one attends but the assigned layperson leading the office for the day. I don't know why, but they don't. We are currently trying to decide what to do about the service. I love that there is daily prayer in the church. I feel bad that we are running out of interested layfolks to read/lead it and interested layfolks to attend/pray it.

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  16. Kit --

    They're not really meant to be compared -- they're both meant to be celebrated in the parishes, ideally every day. But the Office is something more than a lovely service, IMHO -- Catholicism isn't Catholicism without it, right alongside the Mass. I'm very happy to see it popping up in more and more places, and I hope the trend continues (not only in Anglicanism, but in Lutheranism, Independent Catholicism, and a lesser renewal, it seems, in the Roman Catholic Church).

    Fr Chris Tessone

    (Apologies for not signing my whole name last time!)

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  17. Kit+, I'm going to have to disagree with you along the same lines as Fr. Tessone. I'm a both/and kinda guy and if I had my druthers would experience both Daily Offices and daily Mass. But if I really had to choose...I'd go with the public Daily Offices and Mass on Sundays and Holy Days. Daily Mass forms one in certain ways--but so does the Office in ways that I believe are complementary to the Mass. If you pushed me to say exactly what the difference is, I'd say that it's the Psalms. The formative discipline of psalmody is an essential part of the monastic spirituality that we have inherited in our prayer books.

    Christopher--I wonder why it would let you post; I'll check on that...

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  18. Partly what I meant was for Catholics, it's MASS that matters, and it calls and speaks to them in ways that our daily offices do not call and speak to us. So I would not be surprised to find any weekday mass in an RC church attended by a selection of folks.

    Also, we have never instilled that same sense of "you OUGHT to do this" that RCs have instilled in their members about regular attendance at mass.

    You know Episcopalians are the only ones God trusts enough to excuse from church!

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  19. Hi, Kit+! I was one of the original officiants and cantors who started EP at your parish. Basically, the choirmaster (Nixon) said we're going to do this, and set up a rota to cover the week. Ideally there was an officiant and a cantor for each day, and every day but Friday we chanted as much of the office as possible with the hymnal and the Plainsong Psalter. Lots of book-juggling? You bet! But the regular attenders (a few) caught on surprisingly quickly.

    I'd say there will never be a big regular crowd for EP, and I'd hope it could continue...not enough officiants is more of a problem, though, of course. We did have a crowd of 40 one evening, but that was because Bp. Wood was there with his exec council entourage. I threw in the hymn "The day thou gavest," expecting awesome four-part singing, and I was right.

    I'm now at Ascension, Chicago, which has kept up the MP-Mass-EP pattern daily for years, and I'm often alone as officiant on Monday evenings. Aside from the usual PR tactics, an open door with a sandwich board on the sidewalk welcoming people in, or scheduling events directly to follow (and of course talking it up around the parish), it'll be a two-or-three gathered together sort of thing. It was when I was there. Wasn't a big draw, and I did get the sense that it was regarded by some as "that service that group of people puts on every evening," which hurt, because it was supposed to be the parish daily office, not that of a small group.

    I'm an idealist, so I'd say I hope it could continue just because it's one of the things a church is for. And it's a little something extra that the parish does that other parishes in the area don't.

    Congratulations and blessings (belated!) on your becoming rector there! The parish is very fortunate to have you there.

    And Derek's post here is absolutely on target.

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