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Needed: a better book for the daily Office

12 April 2013

A more usable set of material for each day would foster more prayer, argues Robin Vickery

I NEED help with the daily Office. It is not that I need anyone to convince me of its importance: the regular recitation has helped me through some difficult times, and on the rare occasions when I miss it, I feel not so much guilty as deprived.

No, my needs are much simpler. I need an Office book that I can actually use. This may seem odd, considering the variety of prayer books available.

We can take our pick from the Book of Common Prayer; Celebrating Common Prayer and its partner the Franciscan Office Book; Common Worship: Daily Prayer and its younger sibling Celebrating Daily Prayer; the three-volume Liturgy of the Hours, better known as the Roman Breviary, also available in the United States in four volumes, or as a scaled-down single volume - not to mention the various non-traditional versions of the Office, such as those based on the Celtic tradition, or those consisting of a compilation by an individual author.

Having tried several of these, I can honestly say that none of them really meets my needs as a non-stipendiary priest with a nine-to-five job. When saying the Office, a priest needs to be fed from the table of God's word, not served with a bite-size, low-spirituality snack.

For this reason, the Office needs to include the whole psalter, and each psalm in its entirety, without the squeamish censorship that is presumably intended to spare our delicate sensibilities from the cruder but all-too-human sentiments found in some of the psalms. Here the BCP psalter is surely the best of all models.

The psalms should be backed up by a cycle of scriptural readings of realistic length, and ideally printed out in full, as thumbing through a Bible and running a finger down the pages of a lectionary is likely to prove a distraction, even in our more prayerful moments.

There should also be a few canticles, but not page after page of them. "Commons" should be dispensed with, as should antiphons and versicles/responses. Intercessions should be brief and to the point. And collects should be restricted to Sundays, seasons, and important feasts.

If clergy want to pray for world peace, Christian unity, or other godly intentions, they are perfectly capable of doing so without the provision of interminable prayers that will probably never get used. Again, we could learn from the simplicity of the BCP.

The elegant volume Common Worship: Daily Prayer has many of the faults listed above, and a multitude of variations and additional material that is not necessary. With some redesigning and the redrafting of its lectionary, the entire contents, including the readings, could fit comfortably under one cover.

I think that we are nearly there. Produce something about the size of a small Bible, but please don't call it "pocket-size" when it is clearly not. Add a handful of multi-coloured ribbons, a soft cover that makes it good to hold, a sensible title that states clearly what it is without trying to be trendy, and you have an Office book that is both usable and, importantly, portable - and for which I and other priest-workers would be eternally grateful.

CONSIDERING the divisions that there are at present in the Body of Christ, you may think that producing yet another prayer book is not high on the list of the Holy Spirit's priorities, and therefore should not be on ours.

Do we really need another daily Office book? I believe that we do. With all our options and variations, I think we are in danger of losing sight of the fundamental characteristics of the Anglican Office - its austerity and its simplicity.

Perhaps someone out there would be willing to produce a form of the daily Office which meets the needs I have indicated. The Church must pray constantly, and I believe that this responsibility rests especially upon the shoulders of those in holy orders - although I suspect that a more accessible Office would be of interest to lay people as well.

The sense that we are praying together will make the pain of our current divisions much easier to bear. Anything that makes praying easier in practical terms has to be good.

Nothing is to be preferred to the work of God, St Benedict famously said. Those words have inspired and motivated centuries of devotion, and, whenever clergy say their Office, they become part of that living tradition. Why not make it as easy as possible for us to do that?

The Revd Robin Vickery is a priest-worker in the diocese of Southwark.

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