« Three Holy Years: 1963 – 1965 | Main | Independence Day 2013: Piety and the Unfinished Work »

Benedictine spirituality and the parish church

Parish churches get healthier when they begin to live into their own true self.

One part of that is local and particular. I’ve been talking with a friend whose parish sees itself as “warm and welcoming.” In one sense it’s a useless descriptor. Parishes that are not adequately “warm and welcoming” are usually doomed. Few parishes strive to be “cold and hostile.” Though we all know some achieve it while still claiming the “warm and welcoming” title.

Anyhow, back to my friend’s parish. They see themselves as warm and welcoming. I have no reason to doubt their sincerity or their behavior around that. So, the appropriate intervention would be appreciative—how can you build upon, grow and expand what you already are and know how to do?

Same thing with a friend whose parish sees itself as Anglo-Catholic. Its liturgy is amazing. It is a beautiful act of wonder and adoration. It is to the glory of God and the formation of the People of God. It’s a five star parish with a five star liturgy.

However ….

There is some unraveling taking place and a few emerging trends that could cause difficulties in the years ahead. Some servers need brushing up on their liturgical presence. Because there’s been a lot of membership growth there are a number of people that have picked up the habits of liturgical reverence without really understanding what they are doing as part of a liturgical tradition. In the terms of organizational culture, they have the artifacts down but lack the espoused values and deeper underlying assumptions.

That also lends itself to an appreciative approach.

The other part

The other part of getting healthier as we live into our own true self is by grounding the parish in something larger and more ancient.

One aspect of that for Episcopalians is the tradition of Benedictine spirituality.

Benedictine spirituality is part of our Anglican DNA. It’s the way of the Prayer Book and is embedded in much of the way we function as parish communities.

For example:

-The Book of Common Prayer is rooted in Benedictine spirituality with its focus on the Eucharist and the Daily Office.

-Our inclination to have parishes of a size that allows the priest and people to know one another. It gives us a domestic and relational climate.  

-A tradition of hospitality that affirms that in receiving visitors we meet Christ.

There is also an assumption that people are shaped by being part of the parish church. Christian formation takes place as we absorb the customs and habits of the parish’s life. As parishes better live and express those habits and attitudes people better experience what it is to be a Christian within this tradition.

It’s especially so with worship.

Common Prayer

There’s a leaflet that was put out by the Diocese of Texas that confused the nature of daily prayer. It included in the Q & A section the question, “Can I make up my own prayers?” The answer was, “The Book of Common Prayer is meant to complement daily individual prayers, not to replace them.”


The Anglican approach is more that people can, of course, always pray on their own and phrase those prayers as they want. But that’s secondary.[i]

Our belief is that the Sunday Eucharist and the Daily Office shapes our minds and hearts so that our individual reflections and prayers are grounded in the broader and more ancient ways of God's church. We enter into the mind of God through common prayer. Our participation in common prayer is a participation in the truest and deepest form of prayer. The Book of Common Prayer isn’t meant to complement personal prayers. It is in fact the reverse. Personal devotions are meant to complement Common Prayer. In fact they are to rise out of Common Prayer.

Our common prayer, done as corporate worship or as individuals, is the foundation orienting us to a right relationship with God, one another, self and creation. Common prayer teaches is how to live in God.[ii] 

Worship comes before all other things

In the early 70’s I worked for Metropolitan Associates of Philadelphia (MAP), an industrial mission. It was an ecumenical church agency that researched how lay people could be effective; faithful change agents in the workplace. There was a staff of about 10 people-someone focused on government, another on business, there was a person working with medical people and so on. At one point I was the only Episcopalian. All the others were American Baptist or another form of Protestant.

On one Monday morning another MAP staffer arrived for a meeting that included a number of Episcopalians. He was excited, bouncing up and down with pleasure. His American Baptist church had canceled worship services on Sunday so everyone could participate in a meeting about housing discrimination. The other Protestants in the room joined in his excitement. Wasn’t it wonderful how they could set aside the rituals in favor of dealing with something important? The Episcopalians were silent, looking at one another, mostly confused.

It didn’t make any sense to us. How could you not engage in common prayer on Sunday?

We may not have said it, or even had it in our awareness that moment, but we had this Benedictine set of assumptions about common prayer. We shared Evelyn Underhill’s assumption that “One’s first duty is adoration, and one’s second duty is awe and only one’s third duty is service. And that for those three things and nothing else, addressed to God and no one else, you and I and all other countless human creatures evolved upon the surface of this planet were created.” They were all bound up together. And we assumed that worship comes before other things. We assumed that common prayer was the ground upon which rested faithful community, reflection and service.[iii]

Common Prayer comes first --  In Benedict’s Rule it says,

At the hour for the Divine Office,
as soon as the signal is heard,
let them abandon whatever they may have in hand
and hasten with the greatest speed,


Most of our parishes seem to intuitively understand that there are a set of practices that go along with keeping worship first and as the ground for all other things.

For example when the Eucharist is being celebrated or the Office said:

-We don't keep the parish office open

-We don't prepare the coffee hour or Sunday brunch

-We don't have a meeting at the same time.


We “continue in…in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.”

Common Prayer is not a matter of mood or feelings. It is about God. And as we worship God we may be blessed with a sense of wonder, awe and adoration. Common Prayer is about our need to love and praise God, and in so doing to find out truest and fullest selves. If we worship only when we feel like it or when it is convenient, we will never know what worship is really for. We will never know the slow, gradual, long-term sanctification that reorients and transforms life.

A few things the parish can do

-Equip people to say the Daily Office. Train and coach them.  Work at it so 80% of the Sacramental Christians know that there is such a thing as the Daily Office (who knows, someday they may find themselves doing it) and 20% of those in the pews most Sundays say it regularly.

-Instruct them about Benedict, the Rule, what it suggests about life in community.

- Teach them about the part of our ethos having to do with open-mindedness, practicality, and comprehensiveness and about the domestic and pastoral ideal and orientation of most parishes.

-Give them a copy of the Book of Common Prayer to have at home.

 For more on this see Chapter Three "The Benedictine Promise" in Fill All Things


A parish revitalization strategy

Parish churches get healthier when they begin to live into their own true self. That “true self” consists of elements that are already strong and valuable.  Often there are other elements that are of the larger and wider tradition that the parish has lost connection with.

Both the “warm and welcoming” parish and the Anglo Catholic parish need an appreciative strategy for what they already do well. They require an enriching strategy with lots of experiential training and hands on coaching so they might ground themselves in a more Benedictine spirituality. Affirm and build upon the particular, introduce and import the more universal and ancient.


I was saddened to see that in “Holy Women, Holy Men” for the Feast of Saint Benedict it was all history and little about current ascetical and pastoral theology. The one nod was this -  “In the Anglican Communion today, the rule of many religious orders are influenced by Benedict’s rule.” In the next revision let’s hope they also say, “We also see that influence in the Book of Common Prayer being 2/3 given to the Eucharist and the Daily Office and in our Anglican temperament of open-mindedness, practicality, and comprehensiveness.” 



Feast of Saint Benedict


A List of All Postings

[i] My own thinking has evolved about the nature of “personal devotions.” Our world needs people who are grounded in common prayer (Eucharist and Office) and are reflective about their lives. That reflection, alone and in community, is the connection between worship and the action. If—saying a blessing over food, offering a prayer as an ambulance passes, or offering daily intercession—better connects the life of God to our daily life, that’s wonderful. But many people no longer find those acts useful as part of their spiritual discipline. My advice is to let go of any lingering guilt about that and focus on Common Prayer and reflectiveness.

[ii] From Fill All Things: The Spiritual Dynamics of the Parish Church

Our worship tradition as Episcopalians is based on a three-part structure. Michael Ramsey, the one-hundredth Archbishop of Canterbury, referred to it as the “Benedictine triangle.” Martin Thornton called it the “Catholic Threefold Rule of Prayer.” It is the Prayer Book’s way of prayer. The three elements, Eucharist, Daily Office, and Personal Devotions, comprise the fundamentals of a disciplined Christian spirituality in the Anglican tradition.

The use of this pattern can help individuals and parishes move away from the attempt to base our prayer life on a self-made, unintegrated list of "rules" toward an integrated Rule grounded in The Book of Common Prayer. It is as a parish, as a local expression of the Body of Christ, that we may fully participate in and offer this threefold pattern. As individuals we will at times participate in this pattern, carrying others in prayer. At other times we will be carried.

Protestantism deviates from this Benedictine-Anglican pattern. So do many of what we use to call Low Church parishes and all the three-star Prayer Book Catholic parishes that haven’t fully entered into their own abundance. Of course there is more use of the Office than ever and more Protestants are recovering the disciplines of the daily prayer of the church along with a pattern of more frequent celebration of the Eucharist.

Roman Catholic parish spirituality has also generally departed from the Benedictine pattern with a focus on extra-liturgical devotions such as the Rosary and Benediction. Many Anglo Catholic parishes followed that path. Both have tended toward a daily mass practice rather than the pattern of Sunday and Feast Day Eucharist and Daily Office. Thankfully the Roman Catholic Church has for some time been encouraging lay people in saying the Liturgy of the Hours.

[iii] See the In Your Holy Spirit books for more on this model for pastoral theology. Here’s a PDF of the model