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Votive Offices

Votive Offices are hours of prayer that are not connected into the Daily Office’s integration with liturgical time. If the purpose of the Daily Office is to provide a praise-bound passage through Scripture (and I’d suggest that’s how it is best understood), then the votive offices are more interested in focusing on a single theme, concept, or person for the kindling of Christian devotion.

A Historical Drive-By

Votive offices began to appear towards the end of the early medieval period. The Roman Catholic Victorian liturgist Edmund Bishop connects their rise with Benedict of Aniane but this is only supposition. As Bishop correctly notes, though, most movements of popular devotion have their origins in the religious orders and that what begin as supplementary devotions there become primary devotions for the laity.

In the eleventh century, quite a variety of hours or offices were circulating around Western Europe—the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Dead, the Holy Cross, All Saints, the Incarnation, the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit, etc. (Note the absence of a votive to the Blessed Sacrament. Devotion to the sacrament was a feature of high medieval, not early medieval, piety.) In monastic practice, these offices were strictly curtailed liturgies that followed the basic patterns of the three main offices, Vespers, Matins, and Lauds, and which were recited after them on ferial (non-feast) days. So, in one sequence, Vespers of the Dead was said right after the canonical Office of Vespers, then after canonical Compline came Matins of the Dead, and after canonical Lauds in the morning came the Lauds of the Dead.

There came a great simplification of devotion in the movement that spawned the twelfth century monastic reforms. Monastic thinkers called “too much” and the various additions to the offices were abolished in order to return to the canonical Hours as the heart of the monastic project and giving time once devoted to the liturgy back to manual labor. Despite this trimming, some of the votive offices survived—it’s instructive to note which ways the major reform groups went. The Cistercians preserved the daily Office of the Dead; the Premonstratensians preserved the daily Office of the BVM. The Augustinians were more relaxed and permissive, and allowed the Hours of the Dead, the BVM, and All Saints.

Through these channels, the hours filtered their way into lay piety and, in the high medieval period, into the Books of Hours that became the chief liturgical book for the laity. Thus, in the Books of Hours will be found a full cursus of the Hours of the BVM. These are versions of the all eight canonical offices but containing reduced, fixed psalmody and readings. There are remarkably few elements that mark the passage of the liturgical year. Additionally, Books of Hours contained the Vespers, Matins, and Lauds of the Dead. Some also contained the hours of the Holy Cross or the Hours of the Passion as well. (There are more items that the Books of Hours contained as well, but that would take us further off-topic than we’re already in danger of going).

In the time leading up to the Reformation, England was awash with Books of Hours (as the Latin editions were called) or prymers (which designates and English language version thereof). By “awash,” I mean that we can tell from wills that middle-class people often owned multiple copies that had to be distinguished one from another when handing them out among the family. That kind of penetration of a single class of book in the pre-printing era conveys its importance.

Because prymers were both familiar and common, they became a major battleground during the Reformation. The religiously and devotionally conservative Henry VIII set forth an official prymer but only after prymers with thoroughly protestant contents had already been printed (the “Marshall” prymers).

With the publication of the Books of Common Prayer, prymers were brought out that stood in relation to the BCPS in the reigns of both Edward and Elizabeth.In the “Private Prayers” of Elizabeth’s reign, the Hours are a mashup of the prymer and breviary offices. Bishop Cosin, he who had such a large hand in the revision of the 1662 BCP, also produced a prymer in 1637 which was popular for many years and which was the first set of offices to be printed after the initial success of the Oxford Movement.

So—in the Anglican period, prymers moved away from votive offices proper and looked back towards the canonical hours of the breviary for their inspiration. The result was a hybrid: they presented prymer-ized forms of the breviary’s Little Hours to serve as moments of liturgical prayer for which the official public prayer book had not provided.

Votive Offices and the ’79 BCP

As this brief, off-the-cuff sketch shows, when it comes time to compile votive offices for current use in relation to the ’79 BCP, there are a couple of directions in which one could go.

The first decision to make is this: what is the function of a votive office? Is it, as in its monastic origins, an extension of the canonical offices that occurs after and beyond a main office but focusing on a particular theme? Is it, as in the later Anglican prymers, a supplement to the BCP offering hours for which none are officially legislated? Or is it a replacement for the main canonical offices?

There is, of course, no “official” guidance on this question; the BCP does not anticipate the use of votive offices (although it does votive masses). The only guidance that we have concerning the mind of the ’79 editors comes from Howard Galley. Tucked in his Prayer Book Office, after the “Eves of Apostles” are two apparent votive offices: one for the Dead, the other for the Blessed Sacrament.

Now—I’m not thoroughly familiar with his book. There may be notes that I have missed or perhaps even an oral tradition that others may know that I do not. However, I note four things: first, these are placed after but in connection with Proper Days for the church year. Second, the order is Blessed Sacrament, then the Dead. Third, there is a First Vesper appointed for the Blessed Sacrament where as there is not one for the Dead. Fourth, there is no Office of the BVM which, if these were intended as votives, is a glaring omission.

Unless I significantly miss my guess, I believe that these two items were not intended as votives, per se, and instead were intended as proper office liturgies for the Feast of Corpus Christi and the observence of All Souls—neither of which are granted a Proper liturgy in the ’79 prayer book tradition. This explanation accounts for both the ordering of the two, the lack of a First Vespers for the Dead, and the absence of anything for the BVM as she already has Propers for her feasts earlier in the book.

On the other hand, observances for the Dead would not necessarily merit a First Vespers whereas the Sacrament is a more festal item. Galley leaves the door open here. These could be used as votives—but I don’t think that was his primary intention.

The second decision to make is dependent upon the first: what is the structure of the votive to be? As we’ve seen, the original votive offices were a cut-down version of the canonical pattern. However, our current BCP offices do not follow the same patterns as the medieval offices upon which the hours were structured. Is it better to follow the BCP pattern for the construction of votive offices or to leave them in their original form which follows the medieval pattern? I’d suggest that the way we answer the question goes back again to the question of use—do the votives extend, supplement, or replace the canonical offices?

The popular Anglo-Catholic supplement The English Office offers an Office of the Dead that chooses to replace the canonical offices. Thus, it follows the current canonical pattern (1662 in its case), and inserts readings and material (canticles and a replacement for the suffrages) drawn from traditional material.

Votive Offices for the St Bede’s Breviary

The guiding principle of the St Bede’s Breviary is a variety of options that follow the rubrics and intentions of the ’79 BCP. The only guidance given that could relate to votive offices in the BCP is the notice in the directions for the Daily Office Lectionary on page 935 stating: “On Special Occasions, the officiant may select suitable Psalms and Readings.”  The use of “Special” indicates to me that this should not be a daily occurrence —probably not even a weekly occurrence. However, a monthly Office for the Dead would certainly seem to qualify absent a specific definition of “Special.” Thus, this does seem to give permission for a replacement votive office as long as it remains Special.

Given that there are different options that can be legitimately argued that don’t conflict with the rubrics, I intend to offer both kinds of votives:

  • a replacement option that will give votives for the Dead, the BVM, and the Blessed Sacrament according to the form of the offices in the ’79 BCP
  • a supplementary option to be be used either as an extension or a supplement that will give votives for the Dead and the BVM following the traditional forms
Categories: theory
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  1. November 11, 2011 at 11:38 pm

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