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The Threefold Rule of the Church

The Threefold Rule of the Church

I’d like to take some time in this month’s column to look at traditional Christianity as a complete and straightforward spiritual training system—something which often goes unnoticed. It’s an understanding so basic to the Christian tradition that it should need little explaining, but the truth is, many of us within the Christian world have not received even the basics. Christianity, as it has come down to us, so often feels fragmented and incomplete.

The Christianity of my childhood was Protestant and Pentecostal. It was not rooted in any disciplined spiritual practice, and words like contemplation and mysticism (so essential to historic Christian spirituality) were largely scare-words, if recognized at all. One simply believed in Jesus, attended worship once or twice a week, and perhaps had a very individual and conversational prayer life with God. The tradition presented no coherent system for spiritual practice and transformation. It all seemed to hang together very loosely, and felt, to me, profoundly incomplete.
This is the only Christianity many of us know. But historic Christianity looked very different. From early on, it was rooted in what the tradition calls “Rule,” from the Latin regula. Rule does not mean “rules,” but rather a measured and balanced way of regulating life. The basic threefold Rule of the Church, as Anglican theologian Martin Thornton often summarized it, is “Office, Eucharist, Devotion.” We’ll look at each of these in turn.

Office is perhaps the most critical piece of the puzzle here, because it’s the one most commonly lacking in contemporary Christian life. “The Daily Office” or “the Liturgy of the Hours,” as it’s traditionally known, is the historic Christian system of “fixed-hour prayer.” This basic program is characteristic of all three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—although Islam is perhaps best known today for its five times of daily prayer. Set times of prayer carried over into Christianity directly from Judaism (and Orthodox Jews still generally pray at three set-times a day).

The New Testament Acts of the Apostles speaks of the disciples of Jesus “going up to the temple at the time for prayer” (3:1). These early Christians were simply observing the fixed-hours of worship that were common to Judaism, and the practice continued throughout the life of the early Church. The Psalmist had declared “Seven times a day I praise you” (119:164), and Christians followed suit, offering set prayers anywhere from two to eight times daily. Stopping consciously in this way throughout the day was a way of calling oneself back to awareness and into praise. Never could you “fall asleep” for too long.

Certain prayers for Christians became normative and traditional—the Benedictus, or Song of Zechariah, was sung every morning (“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us”), the Magnificat, or Song of Mary, at sunset (“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord”), the Nunc Dimittis, or Song of Simeon, at night (“Lord, you now have set your servant free, to go in peace as you have promised”). At noon, prayers recalled both Christ’s Passion and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. And so each individual Christian was living always between times of prayer, prayer gradually coming to permeate the whole of one’s day.

Significantly, these prayers were corporate. Not private devotions to be offered in any form or at any time, but set, shared prayers that bound Christians together across distance and through time, as they stopped together to sanctify the day. This rhythm was once so normative as to be taken for granted, but is largely lost among Western, Protestant Christians today—or seen negatively as rote and legalistic. “I can pray to God anytime I want!” is a common Protestant reaction to the concept of fixed-hour prayer.

The Office, however, is the piece of Christian tradition that provides a sense of coherence, daily discipline, and regular formation beyond Sunday worship. Without it, Christianity can begin to feel amorphous and individualistic. The Office takes prayer beyond the whims of the individual ego and provides discipline and stability—as well as an atmosphere of objective praise out of which our own personal prayers are best offered. The basic principle is no different from observing set meal-times in a family, or regular date-nights in a relationship—neither of which anyone would likely object to. Discipline is crucial to healthy relationship—be it with God or another human, with your pet or your garden.

For years, I’ve been drawn to the daily prayers of Islam, for the simple, sacred punctuation they provide the day. And for years I have prayed the Office alongside monastic communities, which have been the stronghold of this prayer-form for much of Christian history. But somehow I believed I was privileged to be praying their prayers, the prayers of monks and nuns. Only recently have I rediscovered the Daily Office for what it is—the corporate prayer of the whole Church, intended to be offered by all Christians, to sanctify time and bind us together in a single body. In some amazing fluke of history, however, Christians of the last few generations have stopped praying the daily prayers. Reclaiming them restores grounding, depth, stability, coherence and sacred rhythm to our tradition.

And so I uplift this practice of fixed-hour prayer to you—whether you are Christian or otherwise, as it can be found in almost any tradition. But if you would like to explore further within the Christian context, you can’t go wrong by picking up a copy of The Book of Common Prayer used within Episcopal churches, as it provides traditional forms for Morning, Noonday, and Evening Prayer, as well as Compline (the “bedtime prayers” of the Church—from the Latin word for completion). Scripture is read daily during the morning and evening Offices, cycling the pray-er through almost the entirety of the Bible every two years, and through the book of Psalms every seven weeks. For a helpful introduction to this practice, try Robert Benson’s excellent In Constant Prayer.

The Office, however, is only one leg of the Church’s Rule, the other two being private devotions and Eucharist. Private devotion is understood in this formula to encompass all personal (i.e., not corporate) spiritual practices (the Office, even when prayed alone, remains essentially corporate), and these practices can be as varied as individual Christians—periods of Centering Prayer, conversation with God, meditative walking, journaling, etc. Eucharist is the weekly (or sometimes daily) celebration of Jesus’ meal of bread and wine, shared in community.

Thornton provided this with a Trinitarian framework: Office is our daily, stable praise to the Father (the transcendent dimension of Divinity), private devotion is our praying through the Holy Spirit (immanent Divinity), and Eucharist is communion with God the Son (Divinity incarnate—binding together the two poles of transcendence and immanence). Transcendence, Immanence, and Incarnation weaving together in a daily and weekly rhythm of prayer. When joined together, these three elements create a balanced spiritual diet, uniting self, community, and Divinity. Private devotion can be seen as connecting the individual self to God; the Office, connecting the individual to a corporate body of prayer; and Eucharist, binding the corporate body as a whole to God.

Often, however, contemporary Christians (and spiritual practitioners in general) only observe one or two of the dimensions of this threefold Rule—only corporate worship, or only private prayer, and rarely ever the Office (or the equivalent thereof). Almost all traditional religious systems, however, offer this integral and balanced system, which so often we only receive fragments of today. And so I commend to you this simple and straightforward approach to spiritual life, itself the traditional Christian way. May it bring you balance and stability, sanctifying your days, weeks, and years, binding you to the body of all faithful people, and all of us to God. Amen.

Matthew Wright
Matthew Wright

The Rev. Matthew Wright is an Episcopal priest working to renew the Christian Wisdom tradition within a wider interspiritual framework. Alongside his practice of Christianity, he draws deeply from the sacred worlds of Islamic Sufism and Vedanta. Matthew serves as priest-in-charge at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Woodstock, NY and lives with his wife, Yanick, alongside the brothers of Holy Cross Monastery.