Morning Prayer and the Eucharist

by the Rev. Jane Sigloh

The “new” Prayer Book (1979) provides not only daily Morning and Evening Prayer but also Noonday Prayer, Compline, and Daily Devotions for individuals and families. These services have deep roots in traditional Jewish practice which required one to recite the Shema (“Hear O Israel: the Lord your God is one God . . .”) when rising in the morning and retiring at night. Subsequently, members of the early Christian Church consecrated the first and last hours of the day to prayer, and with the rise of monasticism, it became corporate in nature. After the Reformation, these offices (called Matins and Vespers in England) became regular services appointed for public worship (in addition to the Eucharist).

Although the contemporary Church finds it difficult to make a place for these services in its liturgical life, they are intended to form a devotional framework for ordinary Christians. Often they are said alone (without the presence of a priest) just the way they were in the homes of early Christians. Yet those who pray in private join a choir of Christians throughout the Anglican Communion who recite the same words at focal points in their day. This thought has often supported persons who find themselves isolated from the fellowship of other Christians.

But how did these “daily” devotions replace the traditional Sunday Eucharist? We know that the early church set aside Sunday – the first day of the week – as the Lord’s Day. On that day the resurrection was celebrated with all the joy of “welcome happy morning.” And because Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me” they did it – in glad obedience. As Dom Gregory Dix wrote in one of the truly great passages of 20th century liturgical literature, “At the heart of it all is the Eucharistic action, a thing of absolute simplicity – the taking, blessing, breaking, and giving of bread and the taking, blessing, and giving of a cup of wine, as these were first done by a young Jew before and after supper with his friends on the night before he died. He told his friends to do this henceforward. . . . and they have done it ever since. . . week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly across all the parishes of Christendom.”

But for years after the Reformation the Church of England struggled with its “Catholicism.” And when the American Prayer Book of 1789 was written, the name “Protestant Episcopal” was used in the title, making it clear that the American version of the Anglican Church was NON-Roman Catholic. By 1892, when yet another edition of the prayer book was approved, preaching had become very important in other mainline churches, so to conform to what they did, the Episcopal Church decided to put less emphasis on her sacramental heritage and work a sermon into Morning Prayer (although the service had never been designed to accommodate this). The sermons lasted twenty to thirty minutes.

However, with the liturgical renewal at the turn of the 20th century, people began to learn more about our heritage and were anxious to re-establish our unique (if often confusing) identity as a church that lifts up BOTH the Word and the Sacrament in a via media between Roman Catholicism and Protestant sectarianism. In so doing, they felt it was important to restore the ancient, traditional worship for Sunday – the Lord’s Day – as a celebration of God’s culminating act of salvation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (Also – they were no longer afraid of being identified with Rome!)

Parishes all across the country experimented with the “zebra” liturgy and the “green” liturgy amid great gnashing of teeth. Over a ten-year period and with a vote at three successive General Conventions (required for a change in the prayer book) the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was approved by clergy and laity alike. During the trial years many had reflected on the preface to the first American Book of Common Prayer which said, that the services “by common consent and authority, may be altered, abridged, enlarged, amended, or otherwise disposed of, as may seem most convenient for the edification of the people, according to the various exigencies of times and occasions.”

Although we may not like all that has been amended, abridged, etc. the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the authorized version, and as Episcopalians – experiencing corporate worship as one body with “one hope in God’s call to us” – we are bound by its rubrics. The rubrics say that the Eucharist is the principle service of worship on the Lord’s Day. (page 13, BCP)

The transition from a Sunday pattern of Morning Prayer to the Eucharist needed to be handled with pastoral sensitivity and deep respect for the devotional needs of those who – over the course of a lifetime – had faithfully attended Morning Prayer in their local churches. A number of steps were taken to ease the transition. 1) The Eucharist was designed to be celebrated within an hour’s time (except on major feast days). Prior to 1979 people experienced “Communion Sunday” as interminable! 2) Morning Prayer was restored as part of the weekday practice of the Church, said in a common assembly or in the solitude of one’s home. 3) Some of the beloved canticles were used in place of the Gloria at the Eucharist. Those canticles provided the echo of a much loved liturgy.

It was the hope of the Standing Liturgical Commission that the changes instituted would deepen and strengthen our encounter with Christ and make it possible, with an ever increasing conviction to say with St. Ambrose, “You have shown your face to me, O Christ. I have met you in your sacraments.”