The first and foremost distinction of the role of the Psalms, not only in the Daily Office, nor even in the Prayer Book generally, but in the entire history of Christian worship, is that the Psalms are to be sung or prayed. They are distinct from the rest of the Bible in this regard; they are not provided for in the lectionaries; the Psalms are prayers, not lessons. Indeed, just like the rest of the Scriptures the Psalms are useful for edification and instruction, but the manner in which they do so is not through proclamatory reading but through prayer. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously put it, the Psalms are the Prayer Book of the Bible. They are, therefore, naturally, the heart of the Prayer Book. Those who are new to the liturgical tradition often find this one of the most fundamental shifts in their understanding both of the Psalms and of worship.
The Prayer Book pattern of praying the Psalms set out by Archbishop Cranmer since 1549 is a methodical advance, cover to cover, through all 150 Psalms in thirty days. They are divided about as evenly as possible into Morning and Evening groupings for each of those thirty days, though every Psalm except the inordinately long 119th is kept intact. Thus the monthly sequential praying of the Psalms mirrors the annual sequential reading of the Bible, in the course of the Lessons that follow.
Just as different readings of Scripture teach the hearer different things at different times, so too do the various Psalms lead the worshiper through different tones and moods and subjects – and all this regardless of the individual’s condition or circumstance. This is one of the greatest roles of liturgy, calling individuals out of themselves and into a common worship and a common prayer. And if only one portion of the Daily Office could be considered absolutely essential, it would be the praying of the Psalms. From these 150, and the Lord’s Prayer, all Christian worship is extrapolated.
Our Prayer Book offers a sixty-day Psalter as an alternative to the Cranmerian pattern. This is not new; the 1979 Prayer Book’s daily lectionary provides a roughly-seven-week pattern of Psalmody (though omitting a few), and the 1928 Prayer Book’s daily lectionary throughout the year offers highlights of the Psalter ranging from four to seven weeks in length. These alternatives are best offered for the young and the beginner to praying the Psalms.