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  • The Rev. Barbara Ballenger

Rector’s Note: Sunday Morning Prayer-8.24.23

My first spiritual director was an Episcopal laywoman named Virginia La Dare Cox. She went by the name Dare, which I thought was a great name for a person who would help me begin the multi-decade journey from Catholic to Episcopalian, and from lay person to ordained. When I asked her what the difference was between the Catholic and Episcopal traditions, she said that Episcopalians pray what they believe, and if you wanted to get a sense of what that meant, look in the Book of Common Prayer. All the Episcopal liturgy and communal prayer, as well as a good dose of explanation about the Episcopal Spiritual life, could be found there.


When I finally did crack that book open many years later as I was formally investigating joining the church, I discovered the truth in her words. Nothing was hidden away in special books that had to be borrowed from a priest. The prayer life of the church was there for all to consult, study and practice. It was indeed Common Prayer, meant to be accessible to all the people, not just a privileged few.


That’s why I love the Prayer Book’s services of Morning and Evening prayer, also called the Daily Offices. When I served at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, I became intimately familiar with Morning Prayer, as it became our go-to form of worship both on mornings and on Sundays during the early days of COVID, when it was not clear whether it was safe to distribute Eucharist. Even after we returned to full Eucharist on Sundays, St Martin’s continued its practice of Morning Prayer every morning on Zoom. Often it was led by lay people, and we clergy simply participated along with everyone else.


Morning Prayer gathered us, centered us, and immersed us in both communal prayer and a continued reading of Scripture during challenging times.


Praying communally every morning is an ancient practice originating in our Hebrew past and taking many shapes in Christian practice over 2,000 years. Its most popular forms came from the monastic Divine office of regular collective prayer throughout the day. When Thomas Cranmer was devising the Church of England’s first Book of Common Prayer, he crafted daily liturgies of morning and evening that drew from and consolidated those Monastic practices, but would also be open to all, prayed in the common language, and filled with Scriptures that people had not had much exposure to.


Those who have been Episcopalian far longer than I will remember a time when Morning Prayer was the primary liturgy of Sunday morning. Among Anglicans, that practice started in the 16th century with the Reformation when the taste for Eucharistic declined, prompted by the insistence that people be free from sin in order to receive, and that they had to make a public personal confession to get that status. When the Prayerbook was revised in 1979 the Eucharist was restored as the central liturgy of the church, the collective prayer of confession delivered people from the feeling that they weren’t worthy to receive, and the whole liturgy was revised to ensure that it was communal, welcoming and accessible.


Morning Prayer remains as a beautiful collective or individual worship of praise and Word, meant to be prayed daily by clergy and lay people alike. Its rhythms pulse gently through the church seasons, and its Scripture readings take the regular adherent on a continuous exploration of the psalms and the Old and New Testaments. It is complemented by daily Evening Prayer, which I understand became St. Peter’s go-to worship on weeknights during COVID.


And it still has a place on Sunday morning when clergy aren’t available as it can be led by a lay person or a deacon. It allows participants to feast on the Word and to pray in praise and thanksgiving in a way that is a bit different from the shape of Sunday’s Eucharistic liturgy. This summer we have turned to Morning Prayer three times, twice when I had taken a Sunday off, and once when I came down with COVID.

Some may wonder why I didn’t simply bring in a visiting priest to preside at a Eucharist service when I took a Sunday off. As one who deeply loves Eucharist and values it as our primary liturgy for our regular communal gathering, that is my preference for Sundays as well. But the reality is that the number of clergy available to fill in has decreased significantly. I am planning to take another Sunday off in September and have had a request out for months for a clergy member to step in to assist. I’m still looking.


At the same time, it helps to know that we have several parishioners who are experienced with Morning Prayer and able to step in on those Sundays when we simply don’t have clergy to lead us in worship. It allows lay people’s gifts of liturgical leadership and preaching to come forward on a Sunday morning, which is a rare treat and a valuable asset in a church that must be ever more flexible in its ability to pray and worship together.


The liturgy of Morning Prayer in both traditional (Rite 1) and contemporary (Rite 2) language can be found in the Book of Common Prayer, pages 37 to 102. You’ll also find daily prayer for noonday, evening and Compline after that. Find the online Book of Common Prayer here.


Additionally, a downloadable ap called The Mission Saint Clare provides all the prayers and scriptures for the day’s Morning Prayer already laid out. (In the Book of Common Prayer there are often choices to be made and scriptures must be looked up). Access its download page here.


I hope you find it a rich liturgy to visit daily or on an occasional Sunday, as the case may be.


Blessings,

Rev. Barb


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