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The Variability of Office Elements

Variability of the elements within the Daily Office as influenced by liturgical seasons and occasions has historically been one of the great liturgical battlegrounds between catholic and protestant, traditionalist and reforming movements, within the Western Liturgical Tradition. Archbishop Cranmer’s preface to the first Book of Common Prayer, drawn originally from his revision of the Offices, remains one of the great Anglican manifestos on the topic.  We’ll address the specifics of Cranmer’s objections as we move into the specifics of the Office.

The place to begin is with the identification of three major groups of elements within the Office. They are the Ordinaries, the Essential Propers and the Accidental Propers.

The Ordinaries are those elements that are completely static; they do not change. Historically, a large portion of the Anglican Daily Offices has been Ordinary. The ’79 BCP made some departures from this by introducing more material, and by rendering some historically required material optional. Functionally, the introduction of options makes the use of the texts Proper while keeping the texts themselves Ordinary. Furthermore, the BCP introduces some texts as Ordinary, but leaves open the option of utilizing other texts enabling them, again, to function as Propers if so desired.

The Essential Propers are those Propers that relate to the heart of the purpose of the Offices. The term “Essential” is based in its Aristotelian use and reflects the central nature of these texts. The central function of the Daily Office is catechesis; it seeks to saturate the liturgical community in the biblical text, and of the biblical texts, the Psalms take first place. The Daily Office Lectionary is the engine that drives the Essential Propers. In connection, whatever scheme is used for repeating the Psalter also belongs this category—whether that scheme be the Daily Office lectionary or not.

This is the category that brought Archbishop Cranmer to the barricades—and a number of other notables over the years, including John Mason Neale. Coming from the early monastic ideal of Ordo XIII which prescribing reading through the whole Bible each year in the Daily Office, Cranmer attacked the Offices of his day:

But these many years passed, this godly and decent order of the ancient fathers hath been so altered, broken, and neglected, by planting in uncertain stories, Legends, Responds, Verses, vain repetitions, Commemorations, and Synodals, that commonly when any book of the Bible was begun, before three or four Chapters were read out, all the rest were unread. And in this sort the book of Isaiah was begun in Advent, and the book of Genesis in Septuagesima; but they were only begun, and never read through. After a like sort were other books of holy Scripture used.

In a similar fashion, John Mason Neale (among others) critiqued the practice of using occasions or devotions to interrupt the repetition of the psalter to the degree where less than half of the psalms were being sung/read each week. Following these complaints and the logic driving them, the Essential Propers are driven by Calendar Categories 1 through 3. To clarify, the Daily Office Lectionary naturally incorporates the Principal Feasts and Sundays in its structure; Holy Days are the only items that interrupt the continuous reading of Scripture in the weekly pattern. (Although, from a Scripture perspective, both Principal Feasts and Sundays introduce discontinuities of their own.) Days of Optional Observance, Calendar Category 5,  have no effect on the Essential Propers.

The Accidental Propers also use the Aristotelian sense of the term “Accidental”; no liturgical elements should be “accidents” in the conventional use of the term! This use reflects the fact that these elements are the outward aspects (the decorative aspects, even) that may be changed without touching on the central elements, the essentials. Most reformations and simplifications of the Office have concerned these Accidental Propers, generally by way of pruning them back or removing them altogether. Indeed, Cranmer’s 1549 BCP had only one element that could be considered an Accidental Proper (the first Canticle because it changed at Lent).

Since the start of the Liturgical Renewal Movement, though, official prayer books have moved towards including more Accidental Propers. The American 1928 BCP made the radical step of introducing that which Cranmer explicitly forbade in the 1549 BCP: the invitatory antiphon. The current BCP allows the restoration of a full set of  propers, allowing for hymns, psalm antiphons, and gospel canticle antiphons provided that the last two are drawn from Scripture.

The Accidental Propers are the most changeable of the elements and, variously, may change due to the season, the effect of Days of Optional Observance, or the day of the week.

This chart breaks the elements of the Office into their categories; elements in italics are not provided in the BCP, items that are bolded are required:


Essential Propers

Accidental Propers


Opening Sentence
Confession of Sin


Opening Dialogue
Invitatory Antiphon
Psalm Antiphons

The Lessons

1st Reading
Canticle 1
2nd Reading
Gospel Antiphon
Canticle 2
Apostles’ Creed

The Prayers

The Lord’s Prayer
The Suffrages
Collect of the Day
Weekday Collect
Prayer for Mission
Concluding Prayers
Concluding Blessing
Marian Anthem

* The inviatory is required at Morning Prayer but the corresponding text at Evening Prayer (the Phos Hilaron) is not officially required.

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