Article: The Reform of the Breviary and Its Lessons

The Reformation of the Breviary and Its Lessons: A Very Brief Survey

Rev. Matthew Fenn

There are many choices for Lutherans, and indeed all Christians, for daily prayer. Choosing a book or form of daily prayer has often been left to the whims and fancies of the one praying. However, as Christians within the Reformation tradition, and as Lutherans in particular, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. There are principles which governed the reform of the Medieval Breviary and that can be instructive to us today.  What follows here are some what I perceive to be the general principles which should colour our choices.

By the late Middle Ages the Breviary had become overloaded and was a burden to pray. Additionally, the focus of the Breviary was the sanctoral calendar and its complex system of ranking feasts. Besides the Psalter, there was precious little scripture being read. Additionally, if anyone has tried to pray all eight hours of the Breviary consistently you know what always happens: the hours get smushed together for convenience. So, Matins, Lauds, and sometimes Prime were said all at once. The day hours sometimes were said all together. It is also not surprising that the Breviary, bring a pre-reformation document, was very focused around the intercession and invocation of the saints and sought to administer their merits on our behalf.

So, a Lutheran reform of the daily office followed. Matins and Lauds naturally were combined. Vespers was retained. These were held as public services for the reading of scripture, preaching, and catechesis. The reading of Scripture was done in a more or less lectio continua fashion, which was especially useful to compliment the Sunday Eucharistic lectionary. Collects, hymns, and antiphons containing invocation and intercession of saints were revised or removed all together.

This is the tradition which Cranmer explicitly drew from when revising the Breviary for the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and the subsequent revisions. The services were simplified greatly into Mattins and Evensong. These services feature the structure of the daily offices from the Lutheran church orders.  Appointed at each service was a continuous reading from a section of both the Old and New Testaments with the traditional Canticles after each reading. Cranmer’s original daily lectionary was based around the civil calendar and made virtually no provision for feats or the church year. The approved revision of the daily lectionary in 1922 sought to correct this deficiency.

The weekly psalter of the Breviary was rearranged into a monthly psalter distributed over Mattins and Evensong. This was an important move because according to the Breviary, most feasts used the same Selection of festive psalms repeated on all but Ferial and Semi-double days. Going through the entire psalter became an important goal of the reformation of the Breviary. 

Missing however from Cranmer’s revision were the readings from the fathers. In the Breviary these often commented on a scripture lesson which was read. Instead, Cranmer opted for a path of total Scriptural immersion, whereby four chapters were read each day. The Breviary on the other hand focused upon the interpretation of what little Scripture it had through the Fathers and celebration of the saints. Between these, the Lutheran tradition used Matins and Vespers as an opportunity to preach on texts not included in the Sunday Lectionary.

In the ancient church, clergy were expected to hold services at the regular hours of prayer. These service times had a direct correlation to the regular hours of prayer in Second Temple Judaism and were adopted by the Apostles. The early councils enjoin that clergy should offer services of prayer at these hours. Thus, it eventually became obligatory for clergy to recite the hours either in public or in private. By the early Middle Ages this obligation was the norm in most places. Cranmer, seeing this obligation especially in the early legislation in England, reduced the obligation to Mattins and Evensong.

A problem for Lutherans is the lack of uniformity. Every hymnal is slightly different. We have no common or authoritative daily lectionary. Usages vary widely. one could argue that the lack of uniformity is a good thing. Or, put differently, that variety is the spice of life. Certainly there is no necessity for uniformity. But that doesn’t mean there are not benefits to it. I believe having a common daily lectionary and a common pattern of daily prayer far outweighs any benefit of variety. As it stands, everyone does what is right in their own eyes. I think more benefit can be had by some level of uniformity. That’ll never happen of course. 

It is not that the Anglican tradition today is uniform either. Some churches use the 1979  BCP. Some the 1928 American BCP. Some the 1662 BCP. There’s even a new 2019 BCP!  Most use any one of a dozen of modern books of alternative services with varying levels of liberalism. However, they have a common tradition to appeal to, which was authoritative, and which most books are inspired by. We lack even that. Cranmer sought to achieve a common prayer, and for awhile this was the case. A similar thought is given by Luther who encourages there to be a single catechism translation. Luther also seeks a common prayer in a way. So, when approaching prayer and forms of prayer and canticles in the English language, it is best to use forms which have the most common usage, which have stood the test of time, and are reflective of the English tradition. 

From this brief discussion I draw the following principles:

(1) For most secular clergy, especially those who are bi-vocational or married with children, praying the entire Breviary is impractical and nearly impossible. For these the reforms of Cranmer and the Lutheran reformation make sense.

(2) clergy should strive at the least to pray Matins and Vespers/Evensong. There should be the ability to translate this into parish services.

(3) an immersive and continuous reading of scripture should be a priority, with both Old and New Testaments at each service. The goal should be to cover as much of the canonical scriptures in a year as is feasible.

(4) this daily lectionary should take into consideration the church year and the sactoral calendar, but without being overburdened with the saints and feasts.

(5) some guidance from the fathers of the church should be supplemented.

(6) many Breviaries contain a non Lutheran view of the saints and should be handled with discernment or avoided.

(7) There should be some effort at uniformity.

(8) Forms should be chosen which are traditional and common to English usage, language, and tradition. And which have stood the test of time. 

At this point I should reveal where I think these principles have been best implemented. It is my conviction that Cranmer’s revision of the Daily Offices represents a Lutheran reform of the Breviary, and best fulfils these principles. Lutherans should have no fear of praying Mattins and Evensong from the Book of Common Prayer. These services, down to their very form and structure were drawn from Lutheran examples. They have long-standing usage with English speaking Christians and have become timeless classics of the English language. Mattins and Evensong as found in the Book of Common Prayer have earned the pride of place as the traditional daily offices for public use in the English praying Church. These principles have already been implemented and English speaking Christians within the Reformation tradition should honour that form which was used from the sixteenth century until the late twentieth century,  and even today remains in use. We should honour that form which has enjoyed constant use in the English-praying Church, worldwide, and which was drawn from the Lutheran Reformation. In any matter, these principles should assist Christians in their efforts to chose prayer books that reflect Reformation convictions.


Luther D. Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy: A Study of the Common Liturgy of the Lutheran Church in America, revised edition  (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1947), 388-449. 

Edward Craddock Ratcliff, “The Choir Offices” in Liturgy and Worship: A Companion to the Prayer Books of the Anglican Communion, W. K. Lowther Clarke ed. (London: SPCK, 1936), 257-295.

Thomas J. Williams, “The Obligation of the Clergy to Recite the Divine Office” in American Church Quarterly 27 (1930), 119-124. 

Henry Eyster Jacobs, The Lutheran Movement in England during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI and Its Literary Monuments, revised (Philadelphia, PA: G. W. Frederick, 1894), 218-282. 

John T. Pless, “Daily Prayer” in Lutheran Worship: History and Practice, Fred L. Precht, ed. (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1993), 440-470. 

Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, Edward Yarnold, Paul Bradshaw, eds., The Study of the Liturgy, revised edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 101-111, 399-454. 

Published by revfenn

Canadian. Confessional Lutheran pastor. Loci Communicant. Husband. Dad. Bach enthusiast. Middle-Earthling. Nerdy interests on the whole.

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