In 2008 Phyllis Tickle made the important observation that about every 500 years, a significant transformation takes place in the Church. She points to the arrival of Jesus in the first century, the collapse of the Roman empire five-hundred years later in the late 5th century, the Great Schism five-hundred years after that in 1054, and finally the Reformation that began five-hundred years later in the early 16th century.
Five-hundred years after the Reformation, we seem to be walking through another period of significant transformation. It’s not hard to survey both our Church and broader cultural landscape and acknowledge that something important is indeed happening. If we’re an ocean liner cruising through the course of history, we’ve hit a patch of stormy waters.
It can be a bit disorienting (okay… a lot disorienting!) to navigate these turbulent waters. But one way that we can keep our footing is by learning from history. Though the circumstances may be different, this isn’t the first time the Church has navigated unstable times!
Looking Back: Learning from Thomas Cranmer
One such tumultuous time in the history of the Church was the 16th century. Five-hundred years later, we see almost exclusively the beautiful innovations and vital reformations of that period. It can be easy to forget that those transformations resulted from decades of often painful (even deadly!) circumstances and efforts.
Imagine life for the people of God in the day-to-day 16th-century. Consider the instability, impatience, fear, and frustration they must have constantly experienced. While very different than our own day, we can certainly relate. Their day was surely a scary time too!
One of the significant innovations of this time, particularly from the Reformation in England, was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s cultivation of common prayer amongst the English people. Parishioners would gather twice per day to pray and hear the Scripture read aloud. This was literally a revolutionary idea. It’s hard for our modern minds to understand just how remarkable this seemingly simple practice was. Just remember how many people were killed for working for a Bible in the common language!
The prevailing practice prior to Cranmer’s innovations was for the Church to corporately read Scripture at weekly services in Latin, a language the layperson could not understand. The result was that “they heard with their ears only, and their hearts, spirit, and mind have not been edified” (Cranmer’s Preface to the first Book of Common Prayer).
Cranmer envisioned a people shaped by hearing Scripture daily, in a language they could understand. Such a practice should not be reserved for clergy and monastics. All of God’s people should have the opportunity to hear Scripture each and every day. According to Cranmer, through hearing the Bible read aloud each day in the common language, the people “should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion.”
These revolutionary ideas form the backbone of the Daily Office: Morning and Evening Prayer, daily services which have been a central feature of Anglican spirituality in the centuries since Cranmer’s efforts. This simple rhythm of connecting with God has helped God’s people grow for centuries. The written prayers have provided comfort in the midst of hardships and stability amid instability. It’s no surprise that countless Christians today are experiencing the “allure of liturgy”!
The Daily Office in the Twenty-First Century
Despite all this, there’s one consequential way that modern Anglicans have moved away from Thomas Cranmer’s original vision for common prayer. Morning and Evening Prayer was originally intended to be corporate services rather than private devotions (though the Daily Office offers a powerful opportunity to pray with others, even when you’re praying alone!).
While Cranmer envisioned the daily shared experience of the Daily Office, daily prayer and Bible reading in our modern age have become a private practice. Of course, there are tons of valid cultural reasons why this is true. But it’s true nonetheless. And while it’s essential that Christians regularly connect with God one-on-one through his word, we cannot overlook the formative (or de-formative) effect of the hyper-individualization of daily prayer and Bible reading.
Just think about the “read-the-Bible-in-a-year” plans swirling around the Internet around the turn of a new year. The emphasis is on reading the Bible (and that’s a good thing!). But there’s no guidance on how we read the Bible. If there is, it’s geared towards private Bible reading. We’re programmed to read Scripture alone. The idea of reading large sections of Scripture together in community sounds like a totally foreign concept to our modern Christian imagination!
I experienced this personally when I journeyed into the Anglican tradition while living in a city of more than 1 million people and more than 2,000 churches. When I learned about the Daily Office and the revolutionary concept of reading God’s word with God’s people, I eagerly searched for a Morning or Evening Prayer service that I could attend. But my search proved unfruitful. Based on my personal experience, we have indeed moved away from Cranmer’s vision for God’s people to pray and read Scripture together!
Innovations for the Twenty-First Century: Recapturing Cranmer’s Vision
In these days of social distancing, it’s encouraging to see the Church connecting in creative ways. One of the innovations I’m most encouraged by is churches utilizing technology to recapture Cranmer’s vision for reading Scripture together through corporate participation in the Daily Office.
The Anglican Diocese of the South hosts daily prayer via Facebook Live (Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, and Compline).
Church of the Ascension posts Morning Prayer every day led by various parishioners.
Tons of Anglican churches around our Province are hosting Daily Office services on platforms like Zoom for parishioners to participate in.
While many of them may be virtual, it’s no longer difficult to find countless Daily Office services to attend. Cranmer’s vision for God’s people gathering together daily to pray and read Scripture was unfortunately on the verge of becoming a cultural artifact due to lots of societal shifts over the centuries. However, in a season of increased isolation, Christians are finding comfort in re-discovering Cranmer’s pattern of regular corporate prayer, praise, and Bible reading. In these uncertain times, we search for anything to moor us. What better anchor than reading God’s word with God’s people!
As we lean into this rich Anglican tradition more and more, may we experience Cranmer’s hope that “the people (by the daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church) should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion” (Preface to the first BCP).