The Saint Helena Breviary – review

A guest post from Fr Paul Barlow originally posted on my former blog: Company of Voices

The Saint Helena Breviary Personal Edition

Church Publishing New York 2006

This book had its beginnings in a conversation in 1998 between two sisters of the Order of Saint Helena, a women’s community within the US Episcopal Church. It began a process of revising the language of the Psalter (i.e. the 1979 US BCP Psalter) and led to the publication of three books. These are the Saint Helena Psalter and two versions of the Saint Helena Breviary: the “Monastic Edition” used by the sisters and the “Personal Edition” intended for any and all who wish to pray the prayer book offices in language that was inclusive and expansive. The story of the Saint Helena Breviary can be found here:

The Personal Edition includes the material used by the sisters laid out in a way that is more flexible. The language of the psalter and canticles was the spur for the book. The sisters’ aim was to revise them in such a way that masculine imagery was replaced by inclusive and expansive terms for God and humanity. Expansive language aims to enlarge the variety of words for God so that none dominates. A number of alternatives replace the names Father and Son, the substitution is not merely mechanical but the result of both scholarship and practice, the practice of singing the new versions until they “feel right”. The Magnificat begins: My soul proclaims your greatness, O God… The Benedictus affirms: This is the oath you swore to Sarah and Abraham…

Whether or not you “like” this book will probably stand or fall on your response to the work the sisters have done on the inclusive and expansive language. I am still getting used to it – I still catch myself saying “Glory to the Father, and to the Son…” and consciously restarting “Glory to the Holy and Undivided Trinity…” For the past years I have used Common Worship Daily Prayer, the CW Psalter is in inclusive language, but is not as radical a recasting as the Saint Helena Psalter. Although I would be an advocate of “horizontal” inclusiveness, i.e. ensuring women are included; I am more ambivalent about the altering/losing Biblical terms for God implied by “vertical” inclusiveness. Nevertheless, I am enjoying using the Saint Helena Breviary and will probably continue to do so.

The Personal Edition is laid out in four daily offices, Matins, Diurnum, Vespers and Compline. These follow the structure of the offices in the US 1979 BCP, which shows a close family resemblance to the structure of the 1662 BCP Morning and Evening Prayer. Matins and Vespers are the more significant offices in terms of material. This pattern suits me as I pray the office in church; ten minutes walk away, so Matins and Vespers as two main offices fit that daily pattern.

The Personal Edition is arranged in the following pattern:

• Matins, Diurnum, Vespers and Compline

• The Seasons of the Church’s year with weekly collects

• Commons of the Saints

• The Collects for Saints’ Days

• The Psalter

• A lectionary (The current US BCP daily prayer lectionary)

Matins begins with the Venite, extended during Lent, or with the Easter Anthems during Eastertide, Vespers begins with Phos Hilaron. The Psalmody follows. There are different first canticles provided for each day of the week for Matins and Vespers, and then different canticles again for each day of the week in seasonal time. Not all the canticles are Biblical, in Advent, the material is adapted from Julian of Norwich and there is also a canticle taken from Hildegard of Bingen. There are also antiphons for the psalms and gospel canticles and office hymns. The hymns provided for ordinary time are all in Long Measure so they can be sung to a well-known tune (even if alone and unaccompanied).

At the end of Matins and Vespers there are suffrages and collects and the ending Let us bless our God. To God the thanks for ever. The Lord’s Prayer is printed in the contemporary language form from the US 1979 BCP, so it ends: Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil, a trip up for those of us on autopilot.

It offers both a family likeness to the 1662 office and the CofI 2004 BCP office, yet gives a much richer variety of material for prayer. I still feel I am praying within the prayer book tradition, yet I am able to feed myself with a more varied and complete diet.

The introduction also offers a guide “How to pray an office” giving instructions on the elements of the office and how to find what you need in the book.

The breviary offers three different cycles for saying the psalms, the lectionary cycle (the Church of Ireland uses the US Episcopal Church daily prayer lectionary), the thirty-day cycle of the original BCP, printed in the Psalter, and the two-week cycle the sisters use. This latter cycle does mean that there is lots of psalmody to get through and it also loads psalmody on the Diurnum at midday and Compline. It is worth noting that I don’t use any of the three! Instead, I use a four-week cycle from the Benedictine sisters at Mount St. Scholastica Abbey, not only does this suit my temperament, but it also shows that flexibility of the book.

The book itself is well turned out, the pages are large, about A5 size and the print is a good size. It is cloth bound and stays open in the hand. It feels like a book to sit and pray with. (The reader can tell that I am not yet persuaded that iPad or Kindle is an acceptable substitute even though it might be possible to marshal all the material for one office into a continuous whole.) I would ask for more, thinner, ribbon markers than the four provided – the Monastic Edition has ten.

Church Publishing publishes the Saint Helena Breviary Personal Edition. Its list price is USD60, and is available direct from them through Cokesbury. Alternatively, it is possible to find it priced in Sterling (at quite variable prices) through an online bookseller such as AbeBooks. Eden in the UK does sell it, but they are out of stock. It is a substantial volume, 616 pages, so postage costs will be significant. The Monastic Edition is only available directly from the sisters, although I have seen a used copy listed on Abe Books. If you are interested in the Psalter, that is also available as a standalone volume.

The Saint Helena Breviary brings great credit to the sisters who worked long and hard to bring it to birth. It draws on strands already alive in the Episcopal Church and recasts the very successful 1979 Psalter for contemporary ears much more attuned to inclusivity. The sisters are rightly proud of their work and the experience of producing a “real book” for their own daily use. I have bought a second copy so I have one to hand at home so I can say the Diurnum and Compline because I’m finding it a fruitful source for daily prayer.

Fr. Paul Barlow


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