Spacing out the Lessons

Although I grew up a congregationalist, I was blessed to be part of a church that read a pretty good deal of Scripture in the worship service.  As a college student visiting other churches for the first time I was shocked at how often only one reading would be read, and sometimes not until during the sermon, such that the sermon seemed to be controlling the reading, rather than the reading leading to the sermon.

Needless to say, coming into the Anglican tradition was a relief for me on this front, preserving this good practice of reading plenty of Bible stuff during the worship services.  I suppose this background interest and attention paved the way for the amount of time I spent studying lectionaries in the first three-ish years of my priesthood.

But something I hadn’t thought about before was the way we space out the Scripture readings. In my liturgically-influenced congregationalist past, the norm was to hear three readings from the Bible back to back, individually introduced, but responded to as a whole: “This is the word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God for his holy and inspired Word.”  But in the Daily Office we say a Canticle after both lessons, and in the Holy Communion we typically have a psalm and/or a hymn between lessons. Why?

In the case of the Daily Office, the two lessons are not related to each other, so it is valuable to “clear the mind”, as it were, between the two in order to reduce the tendency to try to draw connections that aren’t there.  In the case of the Communion lessons, the traditional thing separating them was a Gradual (or sometimes also Tract or Sequence) which were normally bits of psalms, and actually topically or thematically connected to the other Propers of the day, so they were worshipful expressions in tandem with what was being read.

But John Cosin’s Comments on the Prayer Book provide further insight into this question:

The inferior parts of the soul being vehemently intent about psalms and prayers, and therefore the likelier to be soon spent and wearied; thereupon hath the Church interposed lessons to be read betwixt them, for the higher part of the soul, the understanding, to work upon, that by variety neither may be wearied, and both be an help one to the other.

The sense of his explanation is this: think of worship like physical exercise.  One minute you focus on your triceps, another on your biceps; even from day to day people often have different focuses: leg day, core, and so on.  The point of this is to spread out the stress so you don’t injure yourself.  So with worship: we pray prayers and read canticles, but intersperse them with Scripture so that our hearts and minds can have turns taking the lead within us.

It’s as if our ecclesiastical forebears knew what they were doing, huh? 😉

Kneeling to confess our sins

So wrote John Cosin in the 17th century:

Kneeling is the most fit gesture for humble penitents, and being so, it is strange to see how in most places men are suffered to sit rudely and carelessly on their seats, all the while this confession is read; and others that be in the church are nothing affected with it.  They think it a thing of indifferency forsooth, if the heart be right.

Does this description match your own congregation’s experience?  Are there those who sit instead of kneel during the confession of sins?  Do people assert that their bodily position is irrelevant as long as their heart is truly contrite?  Against such, Cosin makes a comparison to the practice of kneeling to receive Holy Communion:

it is as fit we should have the like order taken, that this following absolution be pronounced to none but those that kneel neither.  For else there will be no excuse for us, nor no reason left us to render the puritans, why our Church should more punish them, or hinder them from the benefit of the Sacrament for not kneeling then, than it doth punish other men, or hinder them of the benefit of absolution, for not kneeling in the time of confession.  It is a like case, and would be better thought on by men of wisdom and authority, whose neglect and carelessness in this kind gives not only cause of great offence and scandal to them that are reverently and well disposed, but withal is a cause of great impiety and scorn of our solemnity in God’s service; and it is objected to us by the puritans, in their Survey, and by the papists….

Apparently the Puritans objected to kneeling, and complained that they were being picked on for refusing to kneel for Communion when a lot more people were already failing to kneel for the confession.  Answering these concerns, Cosin asserts (with the Prayer Book and the Canons of the Church of England) that men must kneel in both instances, and be reproved for their disobedience equally in both cases.

After the confession, note that the priest alone stands up to read and declare the absolution.  This is a part of his divine ministry, per the order of Scripture and the Church, and ought to be received as the word of God himself.  The absolution in the Daily Office specifically states our theology of the ordained ministry performing this function, and the absolution at the Communion service is followed by Comfortable Words that bring God’s Words to bear on that part of the liturgy.

Granted, there are cases today where kneeling can be difficult, especially for the elderly.  There are situations of church architecture where there is nowhere to kneel to receive the Sacrament.  Strictly speaking, the 2019 Prayer Book does not even mandate kneeling for the reception of Holy Communion, and the rubric about kneeling for the confessions may be softened by an Additional Direction that notes that all referencing to standing imply the caveat “as able.”  These are, I think, legitimate pastoral provisions.  But in general, a lot more people can and should be kneeling a lot more regularly than is customary in many places.

The Daily Office is a pastoral work!

In the 1662 Prayer Book, it is stipulated that “all the priests and deacons shall be bound to say daily” the Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer.  Sadly, this instruction was not preserved in the American Prayer Book tradition, and so we have the situation today where we have many clergymen who pray the Offices only sparsely at best.  A challenge and correction to this mentality can be found in the writings of John Cosin, one of the “Caroline Divines”, who survived the Puritan Interregnum and was then Bishop of Durham from 1660 until his death in 1672.  Commenting on this rubric he wrote:

So that we are also bound, as all priests are in the Church of Rome, daily to repeat and say the public prayers of the Church.  And it is a precept the most useful and necessary, of any other that belong to the ministers of God, and such as have cure of other men’s souls, would men regard it, and practise it a little more than they do among us.

We are all for preaching now; and for attending the service and prayers appointed by the Church for God’s worship, and the good of all men, we think that too mean an office for us; and therefore, as if it were not worth our labour, we commonly hire others under us to do it, more to satisfy the law, than to be answerable to our duties.  Here it is a command that binds us every day to say the morning and evening prayer; how many are the men that are noted to do it?  It is well they have a back door for an excuse to come out at here: for, good men ! they are so belaboured with studying of divinity, and preaching the word, that they have no leisure to read these same common prayers; as if this were not the chief part of their office and charge committed unto them.

Certainly, the people whose souls they have care of, reap as great benefit, and more too, by these prayers, which their pastors are daily to make unto God for them, either privately or publicly, as they can do by their preaching: for God is more respective to the prayers which they make for the people, than ever the people are to the sermons which which they make to them.

… Therefore Samuel [the Prophet] professes it openly, to the shame of all others, that he should sin no less in neglecting to pray for the people, than he should in leaving off to teach them the right way of God’s commandments; both which are needful, but to them that are already converted, prayer is more necessary than preaching.  However we are to remember, that we which are priests are called “angeli Domini“* and it is the angel’s office, not only to descend to the people and teach them God’s will, but to ascend also to the presence of God to make intercession for the people, and to carry up the daily prayers of the Church in their behalf, as here they are bound to do.

* see Malachi 2:7, Revelation 2:1, 2:8, 2:12, etc.

This is from John Cosin’s “Notes and Collections” in an interleaved Book of Common Prayer.  The bold is mine for emphasis.

For some this may be a revolutionary way of looking at the Daily Office.  For others this may just be an excellent reminder and encouragement of the gravity of the duty of a priest or deacon.

So if you’re a priest or a deacon, especially if you’re a rector or vicar, or especially especially if you’re a bishop, see that you battle to overcome the apathy of our age and the quiet scorn that we cast at the Church and her Prayer Book every time we choose our own prayers in place of that which has been set forth by authority.  The people need our prayers!  And the prayers that we have are, indeed a divine office.