The Daily Office holds a special place in the Anglican and Episcopal tradition. From our founding in the religious and political upheaval of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Europe, daily prayer in the form of Morning and Evening Prayer has been one of our tradition’s main structural supports.
The first Book of Common Prayer was a revolution at the time it was published. By that time in the Church’s history, the number of books it took to celebrate the Offices had expanded dramatically. You needed a book with the prayers, a book with all the commemorations of the Saints for reference, a book with the listed readings, a Bible, and so on. To add to the weight of the books, they were expensive and in Latin. This was a time when there was not a lot of disposable money, and most people were not literate in their first language, much less in Latin. It was at least highly technical, and at worst exasperating, trying to celebrate the Offices liturgically. Then came the Book of Common Prayer. All of the materials one needed to liturgically mark the day with prayer were now in one volume. Add a Bible and you were ready for the Daily Office. Since 1549, the Daily Office has endured as a beloved piece of the Anglican ethos. That love and reverence was passed down from the Church of England to the Episcopal Church.
Historically, Morning and Evening Prayer were the primary acts of worship for Anglicans. Until the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century, Morning Prayer was the principle service in almost all Churches in the Episcopal Church, and it was not until the liturgical revival of the early twentieth century that weekly Eucharists almost completely replaced Sunday Morning Prayer. Choral evensong –especially as practiced in the Cathedral choir system of men and boys, later joined by women and girls, – was, and in many places still is, a mainstay of devotion. The Daily Office was the foundation for generations of Episcopalians.
Yet, the importance of the Daily Office is not just historical. In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer 1979, the high standing of daily prayer is made clear by its position in the book: on page 13, in a section titled “Concerning the Service of the Church,” we read that the Eucharist is the principle act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day (that is, Sunday) and, together with Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, these services are the “regular services appointed” for worship in this Church. Our Episcopal community proclaims that daily, liturgical prayer is of the same value as regular Eucharist. We consider the Daily Office so valuable that they are the first services set forth in the BCP. Before Baptism, the Eucharist, Reconciliation, before anything, there is the Office. Rite One begins on page 37 and Rite Two on page 75. Our placement of the Daily Office shows that our commitment to a relationship with God in prayer is paramount.
We set daily prayer at the beginning of our relationship with God because we know relationships take work, and that includes our relationship with God. As a community gathered by God, through the person of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we set the Offices first as a way of commending to each other the practice of taking some time out of every day to be with God, to meet God, and to see God at work in the world around us.
We meet God in many ways in prayer, but there are three ways in which I see God most clearly during the Daily Office. The first two were brought to my attention in a book called Liturgy for Living from the Church Teaching Series, written by Charles Price and Louis Weil. The first way we meet God in the Office is face-to-face. By taking some time out of every day, and out of the every-day, I make room in a busy and crowded life to look for God. I become habituated to looking for the face of Christ in my neighbors, to finding ways I can serve a world in deep need with the hands of Christ, and I begin to love with the heart of Christ. I see the light of God in others, and the Psalmist reminds us that in God’s light we see light.
The second way I meet God in the Office is through the reading of Scripture. Through regular reading of the Word of God, I begin to become obedient to the voice of God. I become obedient, not by simply doing what I’m told, but by getting to the root of the word obedient. It means “to listen deeply.” I stop hearing words and begin hearing God’s loving intention for my life. Even in the parts of Scripture that make me nervous or uncomfortable I can hear God calling me to be sensitive and discerning to the things that make me nervous and uncomfortable in my life. We begin to incarnate the Word of God to others.
The third place I see God most clearly in the Office is in those with whom I am celebrating the Offices. In my time at the Monastery as an intern, it became very clear to me that God joins us wherever we are in our day and in whoever is with us. At first I found encouragement in seeing the faces of the Brothers and the assembly that gathered to pray, but as I’ve prayed the Office alone on the Sabbath, on retreat, and since I left, I’ve found that I am still strengthened and encouraged even when I pray alone. I carry the community with me. I am in solidarity with others praying at the same time in different places. I am always joining my voice to that of the Communion of Saints, past, present, and yet to come. And they are always witnessing to me the Presence of God, active in my life and in our communal life. We are always together.
So I invite you to join in the practice of the Daily Office. Take some time out of the every-day. Take a little time to meet God where you are. Take a little time to bring God into the world and to bring the world into God. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore.