A sermon at Evensong at SMV, Feast of St Barnabas (24 August) 2008
When I was a student in theological college over a decade ago, there was a regular question raised in the Friday “community time” as to the contemporary spiritual value of the daily offices of morning and evening prayer. Some – including myself – said we found it not merely helpful, but an essential part of keeping sane in the wake of the quite manic program of study and work we were required to undertake. Some others, however, said they found its rigid formality stifling of prayer, and argued for much less highly structured forms of daily worship and reflection.
Perhaps the most helpful intervention in the debate came from someone, I can’t remember who, who suggested that the issue here was no so much the substance but the form. What some were finding helpful and others difficult was the form of the service, and its rigidity. No-one, however, was seriously questioning the substantive idea that as priests in training we ought to read the Scriptures daily in a prayerful way, and ideally in community rather than as an individual devotional exercise.
The daily office remained on the college agenda, and it still does, but I at least, when in more recent years I was preparing candidates for ordination in that same college, used to teach that, if you find the office unbearably dry or desolate, then when you leave college abandon it by all means, but make sure you replace it with some other form of daily prayer that includes at least some reflective reading of the Scriptural text. How sure is the advice of the author of Ecclesiasticus when he tells us of the one who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High:
He seeks out the wisdom of all the ancients,
and is concerned with prophecies;
he preserves the sayings of the famous
and penetrates the subtleties of parables;
he seeks out the hidden meanings of proverbs
and is at home with the obscurities of parables.
And we can be none of those things if we don’t constantly engage the text in prayer.
The reading, hearing, study and prayer of the Scriptures is at the heart of Christian discipleship. When we let go of the central texts of our faith; when we dismiss them, or fail to regard them as programmatic not only for our faith but for our lives, we move into a dangerous place further from God than we might otherwise be.
As a priest it is my job to pray the Scriptures, and to encourage others to do the same. This is what Cranmer had in mind when he constructed the dual services of Mattins and Evensong in his first prayer book of 1549, the ancestors of the daily office we were arguing over in college. It was Cranmer’s intention that the daily mass should be replaced with the daily public prayer of the major offices, in which the clergy would read and, ideally, expound the Word in daily sermons. And these were to be substantial chunks of text – often a full chapter from each of the Old and New Testaments. Anglican prayer life was to be Bible-driven, and the Scriptures were to be placed at the heart of both popular and clerical piety.
The exhortation to prospective priests in the Ordinal of 1662 says:
And seeing that ye cannot by any other means compass the doing of so weighty a work, pertaining to the salvation of man, but with doctrine and exhortation taken out of the Holy Scriptures, and with a life agreeable to the same; consider how studious ye ought to be in reading and learning the Scriptures, and in framing the manners both of yourselves, and of them that specially pertain unto you, according to the rule of the same Scriptures; and for this self-same cause, how ye ought to forsake and set aside, as much as ye may, all worldly cares and studies.
Indeed, one of the Ordinal’s questions to the priests is:
WILL you be diligent in Prayers, and in reading the Holy Scriptures, and in such studies as help to the knowledge of the same, laying aside the study of the world and the flesh?
Diligence in prayer, in Scriptural reading and study, is a primary calling for the Anglican minister. And we must always to take care to affirm that what we do in the world we do in that light. The danger for liberal Christianity, and for myself – of moving too far from the text in our desire to be open to other ideas and sources of inspiration – is most readily avoided by constantly engaging with it. The daily office is one way to do this, but it is not the only one, and for some it may not be the best by any means. But however we do it, reading, studying and praying the Scriptures remains the Anglican path to engagement with the world.