Project Canterbury

The Obligation of the Clergy to Recite the Divine Office
By Thomas J. Williams

American Church Quarterly volume 27, 1930
pp 119-124

OUR Lord assured his disciples that he had come, not to destroy, but to fulfil, the Law. It is not surprising, therefore, to find the earliest Christians, notably the Apostles, conforming to the traditional customs of worship of the old Covenant: keeping the Passover, or going up to the Temple to pray at the appointed "Hours of Prayer," or keeping those hours as times of private devotion. Likewise, we find S. Paul, wherever he might be, seeking out the local synagogue on the Sabbath, taking part in its worship and availing himself of its opportunities for teaching. At the same time we find Christians keeping strictly Christian observances, notably the First Day of the Week, with its Eucharistic Breaking of Bread as the distinctive act of worship. Even when the Church had overflowed the bounds of Judaism and was overwhelmingly Gentile in its membership, there was a survival of devotional practices of Jewish origin. Chief among these was the observance of the "Hours of Prayer," as services supplemental to the central Eucharistic Rite. Tertullian, among others, is witness that this survival was not confined to the Christian communities of Palestine. The observance of the Hours was at first a matter of private devotion in Gentile communities, as it continued to be in Rome until a comparatively late period. But with the rise of asceticism, we find outside of Rome the practice of saying the Hours becoming customary in the public assemblies for worship, where it met and coalesced with two other non-eucharistic services, the Vigil preceding Sundays and great festivals, and the daily Lucernarium, or lamp-lighting service, held at night-fall. The material of these services was drawn from the worship of the synagogue and the structure of the Vigil modeled loosely after its pattern. There was psalmody, the reading of other parts of Scripture, and prayer. It is in the union of these two streams of common worship, the monastic, semi-private services of the Hours, and the public Vigil and its prelude, the Lucernarium, that we find the original form of what has long been known in the Church as The Divine Office. The Liturgy proper, the Mass, held its position of supremacy unchallenged and unrivalled. But contemporary writers bear witness to the fact that in the East, in the Fourth Century, the laity, secular and monastic, as well as the clergy, attended these supplemental services in great numbers. That there should be need of regulation was inevitable. By the time such regulation appeared (in the Fourth Century) the fusion of the secular and monastic elements of the Office had become general, and perhaps we may attribute the enactment of legislation on the subject to the cooling of the zeal of not only the secular laity, but of the clergy as well, in the matter of regular and systematic attendance at the offices. Thus we find in The Apostolic Constitutions directions that clergy and laity shall "make prayers early in the morning, and at the Third, Sixth, and Ninth Hour, at eventide, and at cock-crow." There is an additional enactment that, if assembly for service cannot take place in church (on account of persecution, or similar grave cause), the Bishop shall assemble his flock in some private house; but if this is impossible, each one shall discharge this duty either alone, or with one or more of his brethren. (Apost. Const. VIII, xxxiv. Patr. Graec. I, 1135.) In the same century, the Council of Laodicea (A. D. 387) echoes these directions.

Private individual recitation of the Divine Office became obligatory for the clergy in the Fifth Century. In the Sixth Century numerous councils reenforced previous enactments, or inflicted penalties on clergy who failed to say their Office. In 528, Justinian I decreed that "all clerics appointed to churches shall themselves sing the Morning and Evening Office." These regulations, re-enforced by the Quinisext Council in Trullo, still bind the clergy of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Legislation in the West took final shape in the Thirteenth Century, at the Council of the Lateran, in the form of a canon requiring all clerks in Holy Orders to recite the Divine Office each day, either in church or in private. Such obligation had been laid on the clergy of England by the Canons of Aelfric, as early as the Eleventh Century. The legislation of the Lateran Council remains in force in the Roman Catholic Church today, while the requirements of the Canons of Aelfric still bind all Deacons and Priests of the English Church, by virtue of explicit reaffirmation by the Church of England in 1552, 1559, and 1662. The present form of this requirement, as it stands in the Preface to The Book of Common Prayer . . . according to the Use of the Church of England is as follows: "All Priests and Deacons are to say daily the Morning and Evening Prayer, either privately or openly, not being hindered by sickness or some other urgent cause" (Preface Concerning the Service of the Church). The principles and implications underlying the legislation of the Catholic Church, in its various formulations, Eastern, Latin, and English, make it clear that every Priest and Deacon is under grave obligation to say the Divine Office.

It is unlikely that any of the clergy of the American Church, who recognize the claim of the Anglican Communion to be an organic part of the Catholic Church, would deny the premise above stated. But among our Catholic-minded clergy there is a wide cleavage of opinion as to what form of the Divine Office is binding on the clergy of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Perhaps the majority regard the offices of Daily Morning and Evening Prayer as binding on them as Priests or Deacons of the said Church and as sufficient, though much curtailed forms of the Divine Office. But there is an increasing number who believe that the Prayer-Book Offices are not binding forms of the Office even if they can be considered sufficient. Such clergy consider that they can satisfy the obligation of the Divine Office only (or at least most adequately) by reciting the Breviary Office of the Latin Rite.

Let us consider first the sufficiency of the Prayer-Book Offices, as containing the essential elements of the Divine Office. We have seen that the earliest forms of the Office consisted of two public services, made up of psalmody, Scripture-reading, and prayer; comprising roughly a late evening and a very early morning service. These were supplemented by the private recitation of the Hours, which later (outside of Rome) were recited in church. It was, therefore, a return to the most ancient form of the office, the form that was long prevalent in the churches of the city of Rome, when the Revisers of the English Rite in 1549 discarded the century-old division of the Divine Office into seven Hours of Prayer, in favor of the two-fold division into Morning and Evening Prayer. But even in this two-fold division they preserved the essential features of the Breviary Offices. English Matins retains such distinctive elements of the Night-Office as the opening versicles, "O Lord, open thou our lips"; the Invitatory Psalm, Venite; lessons from Holy Scripture, and Te Deum. Peculiar features of Lauds retained in the English Office are the canticle, Benedicite, and the Benedictus. [It is interesting to note that the last revision of the American Rite follows the revised Roman Breviary in providing, as an alternative to Benedicite, the canticle, Benedictus Es.] The Psalter is the heart of Morning and Evening Prayer, as it is of the Breviary Office. The General Confession and Absolution and the Apostles' Creed are derived from Sunday and ferial Prime. The use of the Lord's Prayer among the versicles is common to all the Hours, on certain days. The Prayer-Book versicles are an abridgement of the preces of Prime. The use of the Collect for the Day is common to all the hours except Prime and Compline. The collect "For Grace" at Morning Prayer is the fixed collect of Prime. Evening Prayer, in spite of monotonous assimilation to the scheme of Morning Prayer, preserves the essential elements of Vespers: the Psalms, the Song of our Lady, and the Collect for the Day. From Compline is derived the Confession and Absolution, the Nunc Dimittis, the Apostles' Creed, the versicles, and (from Sarum Compline) the collect "For Aid against Perils." The second collects at Morning and Evening Prayer are survivals of the Memorials used on Sundays and weekdays after the Collect of the Day. The provision after the Third Collect, "Here followeth the (not an) Anthem," is a survival of the use in the Breviary Office at this point of one of the Anthems of our Lady, according to the season. [It was pointed out in a sermon of the Rev. A. T. Bennett-Haines, published in The American Church Monthly of May, 1929, that the restoration of these ancient anthems in their traditional place in the Office would save us from much poor music and vapid sentimentality.]

The services of daily Morning and Evening Prayer contain, it is evident, the essential component parts of the Divine Office--the Psalter, lessons from Holy Scripture, the Gospel Canticles, "Our Father" and "I believe," and the Collect of the Day. The latter links the Office to the Liturgy. [The foolish and unintelligent direction of the American rubrics as to the omission of the Collect, when Mass immediately follows Matins, destroys this link. A similar unhappy provision of that age of liturgical ignorance which gave us our first revision was the omission of the Lord's Prayer from its climactic position after the Evangelical Canticles. Fortunately the Revision of 1928 permits its restoration to its rightful place.] One may question the wisdom, the liturgical taste or correctness, the devotional fitness of sundry arrangements of the Prayer-Book offices, especially some of the permitted abbreviations of the American Rite. One may prefer the weekly reading of the Psalter to its monthly recitation. We certainly miss the richness and variety provided by the hymns, antiphons, and responds of the Breviary. The Scripture-lessons are no doubt over-long, compared to the shorter, if more numerous, lections of the Night Office, or the brief, pointed "Little Chapters " of the Hours. But the essentials of the Divine Office are contained in the orders of Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, which the Church of England and the churches in communion with her have set forth as their authorized Office.

That the Churches of the English Rite have not acted ultra vires in substituting the two-fold for the seven-fold form of office, no one can deny who grants the authority claimed in Article XXXIV, Of the Traditions of the Church, for "every particular or national Church ... to ordain and change . . . Rites of the Church ordained only by man's authority"; nor can one who concedes their right to revise the Liturgy and Offices, refuse to acknowledge the right of the Churches of the Anglican Communion to impose them as of obligation on their clergy. Just as for the clergy of the Roman obedience, the obligatory form of the Divine Office is that set forth in Breviarium Romanum, or in local and monastic Breviaries approved by the Holy See; so the form of the Divine Office binding on the clergy of the Anglican Communion is the form of Morning and Evening Prayer set forth in the Book of Common Prayer according to the use of the respective Churches of the said Communion. One's private preference for another form of Office can no more affect his obligation as a cleric of the Anglican Rite to recite the Divine Office according to that rite, than a similar preference on the part of a cleric of the Latin Rite for the Uniate or Orthodox Office affects his obligation to recite the Office of the Roman Breviary, and none other.

We are now faced with the contention of those who admit that the Prayer-Book Offices are of obligation for Priests and Deacons of the Church in England, by force of explicit enactment; but who claim that the failure of the American Church, in 1790, to repeat the requirement of the English Prayer-Book in explicit terms, abrogates for the clergy of the American Church the specific obligation of reciting Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, leaving us free to choose the form or rite we shall use in fulfilling our obligation as Catholic Priests to say the Divine Office. This contention is based on the argument from silence--an argument that can cut like a two edged sword, and has been known to cut both ways. It is freely granted that the revisers of 1790 did not explicitly reenact or refer directly to the requirement of the English Prayer-Book that the clergy shall recite the Divine Office each day. But the designation of the offices in the American Prayer-Book, since its first ratification in 1790, as "The Order of Daily Morning Prayer" and "The Order of Daily Evening Prayer," is to be interpreted in the light of the statement of the Preface to the American Prayer-Book, that "this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship." The requirement of daily recitation by the clergy of the Divine Office is certainly an essential point of discipline and worship, inasmuch as all clerks in Holy Orders, of whatever Communion of the Holy Catholic Church, are obligated to such recitation. No one will deny that the clergy of the Roman Communion are under strict obligation to use the offices of the Roman, or other authorized, Breviary--and none other. It should be equally clear that all Priests and Deacons of the American Church are under obligation to say the Divine Office, as set forth in the Order of Daily Morning and Evening Prayer; and have no right to substitute for these authorized offices the Roman Breviary or the Orthodox Horologion.

It has been the practice of an almost unbroken line of Anglican clergy, from the Reformation to the present, to supplement the Prayer-Book Office by reciting the little hours of the old office. Such practice does not admit of question or challenge, for this has always been a matter of private devotion. Entirely different is the practice of substituting the entire Breviary for the Prayer-Book Office. Whatever an individual priest, or a community of priests, may find helpful as a matter of individual or community devotion, this can in no wise affect the obligation resting on every Priest and Deacon of the Anglican Rite, as such, to recite the Divine Office according to the authorized form set forth by authority--The Order of Daily Morning and Evening Prayer.

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