Serious Christianity: a review of the St Stephen’s House Office Book

It is impossible for me to hear or sing the stunningly simple Peregrine Tone of Gregorian chant without thinking of Holy Trinity church in Winchester. There, as an undergraduate in the mid 1980’s, Julian Chilcott-Monk taught me to sing plainsong from Procter and Frere’s A Manual of Plainsong. The Peregrine, the ‘wandering’ tone is the simplest of all the tones and hauntingly beautiful.

The recovery of Plainsong in Anglican liturgy in the nineteenth century was an essential part of the the Catholic-Revival. Wherever I have introduced some sort of chant liturgy it has brought young adults to church. A ‘Compline Choir’ I ran once sang only the music of Compline week after week ending with drinks in a local pub. Everyone that came was between 20 and 30 years old.

There is a profoundly contemplative quality to chant. It demands our attention to text and music and draws us away from our own mental roundabouts.

Many, like me have spent years collecting books of chant from second-hand bookshops and clergy clearing their libraries at retirement. This is interesting. Often there are so many variations in editions that it is impossible to use multiple copies with a group.

I am, therefore, deeply grateful to St Stephen’s House, the Anglo-Catholic theological college in Oxford for publishing their Office book. It is a great contribution to the much needed new revival of catholic Anglicanism and I hope that it will be well used and much bought. There are still, I am told, plenty of copies left but it was a limited print and there will be no re-print. Please email officebook@ssho.ox.ac.uk to order.

The Office book was compiled by Fr Kyle McNeil and is a superb piece of work. He deserves much congratulation and thanks. There is a fine foreword by the Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, who draws attention to the obligation on the clergy to pray the Office, the value of a physical book which “locates us in the material world of specific things, such as time and place, that are themselves part of the scandalous immediacy of encounter with God.” Bishop Martin continues:

“The book’s location in a stall or similar place of prayer in church calls us daily onto the threshold of sacred space, not only does the journey there witness to a habit of prayer, it also opens up the possibility that we might invite and inspire others to join us in the routine of prayer.”

There is also a fine introduction which places the praying of the Office in the context of the priestly life and gives practical information for the praying of this book. This is fundamentally a ‘Prayer Book Office’ but makes use of the 1963 Revised Psalter which lightly adapts the Prayer Book psalms to accord with better scholarship on the Hebrew text, and intelligibility to the modern reader. It loses none of the beauty. It is assumed that the contemporary liturgical year and calendar of Common Worship is being followed but enriched with some additional material for saints and a few other celebrations.

All psalms and canticles are pointed to be sung to the traditional plainsong/Gregorian tones. A complete collection of Office hymns for Morning and Evening Prayer is also provided each with the traditional Sarum (rather than Roman) form of the plainsong music. For many of us some of these hymn melodies will be too complex to sing either alone or with a small group but it is good to see these ‘authentic’ melodies present and other, simpler melodies in the book could generally, be used in their place.

The texts of antiphons for the Benedictus and Magnificat for the entire liturgical year are also provided and these are pointed for simple tones. The canticles are given in Solemn and Simple tones and the Venite and Gospel Canticles are given in four sets of tones to be used a week at a time over a four-week cycle.

No other reference is made to lectionary provision other than to state:

“The Church of England’s lectionary is highly complex … It should be consulted separately, or an alternative lectionary employed.”

A sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. As I have written on this blog recently.

For those wanting to pray a ‘traditional language’ office the provision of Collects in one place is extremely helpful and very usefully enriched by some collects not provided for in any form in Common Worship. Today’s Memoria of Saint John Bosco being a very good example. These are translated into traditional language liturgical English. These are generally well done although a smile of amusement might be needed on occasion. For St John Bosco “young men and maidens” certainly caused me to smile.

Innovations in the book are the provision of a set of Old Testament Canticles for use at Matins in place of the Benedicte which is reserved for Feasts and Solemnities. I am a great fan of the Benedicite with its creation emphasis and the repetition of it and the Te Deum don’t worry me, but I know that this is an issue for many people. However, it does mean that only one setting of Benedicite is given which seems very light. For Evensong a set of New Testament Canticles (as used in the Roman Office) is given in traditional language so that those who pray Compline every day can reserve the Nunc Dimittis for that. Both of these provisions are very helpful.

The Te Deum is reserved for its traditional Roman / western place, at the end of the Morning Office on Feasts and Solemnities, rather than the Anglican practice between the readings. It is provided in just one setting.

The traditional anthems to the Blessed Virgin Mary are provided in Latin with their Versicles and Responses and collects.

For those using the book outside of Oxford notes are given to adapt the rank of various Oxford specific celebrations.

I have very few criticisms of this book, it is an outstanding piece of work, handsomely produced. I would have liked to see provision for the Circumcision of Christ on January 1st in accord with Anglican and long-standing western custom, rather than an additional feast of Our Lady. It would have been useful to have the Prayer Book Collects in their traditional order and form as an appendix. But these are minor quibbles.

I am especially happy to see provision made for the Interior Life of Our Lord (on January 19th) and The Interior Life of Our Lady (on October 22nd). These are often seen as precursor devotions to the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts but in fact they reflect something rather more about the imitation of Christ and his mother.

These commemorations of the interior lives are important because they emphasise the inner conversion that is at the heart of the Christian life. They also relate to the Sulpician tradition of training priests that has its origins in the French school of spirituality of Bérulle and Fr Olier. His beautiful prayer is an important part of the Manual of the Sodality and is worth praying by any ordained person. I know that it is a prayer much loved by Fr Robin, Principal at St Stephen’s House and many of the fine priests trained there in his time as Principal.

I hope that the SSH Office Book will be much prayed and form a significant part of the seriousness needed for a revival of the catholic stream in the Church of England:

O Jesus, living in Mary,

come and live in thy servants,

in the spirit of thy holiness,

in the fullness of thy might,

in the truth of thy virtues,

in the perfection of thy ways,

in the communion of thy mysteries.

Subdue every hostile power in thy Spirit,

for the glory of the Father.

Amen.

Jean Jacques Olier

2 thoughts on “Serious Christianity: a review of the St Stephen’s House Office Book

  1. An excellent review – one copy ordered, Father.

    Please note, the email address in the blog is correct, but if viewed and copied from the email text it lacks the ox bit and will thus bounce back.

    Thank you as ever for your stimulating writing.

    Crispin Pemberton

    Like

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