By Ben Christenson
In 2018, I went on a trip with my fellow students to Canterbury Cathedral. For us stateside Anglicans, the Church of England holds a unique place. It is not a dogmatic seat of authority like the Vatican. Yet, it is not simply a historically significant site like Geneva or Worms. Instead, the priest leading the trip emphasized that Canterbury Cathedral stands in the Anglican Communion as a place of over 1,400 years of nearly uninterrupted prayer.
We spent a week on the cathedral grounds attending daily services. The pace of those services was deliberate. At each response in the psalm, the pause before speaking felt necessary rather than perfunctory. There was no sense of “getting through” the service to get on to the important work. At Canterbury, the prayer is the important work.
The conversation that’s stuck with me from that trip was with a young vicar at the cathedral. He looked to be in his mid-30s, and I thought, “What gifts he must have or strings he must have pulled to get this gig!” When I spoke with him, I was not dazzled or disappointed but rather surprised by what he said: “When I went to seminary, I thought, ‘Okay, now I’ll learn about all the lofty theories that will take my Christianity to another level.’ But I’ve found praying morning and evening prayer since uni[versity] has changed me more than intellectual development. The more I learn, the more I focus on the simple.”
This struck me as an odd approach. Growing up among conservative evangelicals in the U.S., I was accustomed to seeing Christianity as an ideology under siege that needed sophisticated apologetics. Frankly, my priest calling Canterbury a place of unbroken prayer sounded to me like a dodge, another instance of the Episcopal Church being a bit wishy-washy.
In the years since, however, I’ve seen how seldom I think my way to God and how often epiphanies come unexpectedly and intuitively. The real work is tilling the soil for God to sow in, not setting the course to the perfect Christian life. I’m more a farmer than a skipper.
Thus, I’ve been delighted with the Church of England’s new Daily Prayer app. It lays out a script for morning, evening, and night prayer from the daily office with an accompanying audio for morning and evening prayer. The Daily Prayer app makes accessible two of the great heritages of the Anglican tradition: the prayer book and choral music. What follows is less a detailed review of pros and cons and more a spiritual farmer raving about a new technology.
First, the interface of Daily Prayer is dead simple. When you open the app, it automatically skips to the day’s readings, even to the correct office, based on the time of day. You can scroll down to see all the text, or simply press play at the top of the page to start the service. You can swipe left and right to move between days if there’s a piece you particularly enjoyed on a past day that you’d like to revisit. This is frictionless design at its best. You get into the daily office quickly without distraction.
Now, the app itself could certainly be used as a script, and it is helpful for that. Following the daily office rubrics can be tricky, so having all the canticles and readings provided does streamline the process.
But I find the audio most compelling and unique. The spoken parts are led by the Rev. Catherine Williams at Tewkesbury Abbey, while the choral music is recorded separately by St. Martin’s Voices, an ensemble from the famous St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London.
This combination addresses some of the shortcomings of my solo daily office. First, performing both the celebrant and congregation duties can feel strange. Should I speak aloud both parts, neither, or some mix? Hearing a group do the call and response with Williams makes the service feel less awkward. Second, hearing multiple voices makes me feel like I’m part of a community, not a lonely user of the office. Finally, St. Martin’s Voices exposes me to and reminds me of the riches of the Anglican choral tradition, constantly renewing my appreciation for sacred music.
One of the gifts of visiting Canterbury was the immersion into a praying community. The “cloud of witnesses” and the Anglican Communion feel less abstract when the Ancestors of Christ stained glass is above you, the prayers sound familiar even thousands of miles from home, and the choral music is historic yet still moving. I felt that I was part of something that stretched around the world and back through time.
C.S. Lewis used the analogy of a coal in a fire when describing how a church community strengthens a Christian. Remove the coal from the fire, and it soon goes out. As the pandemic and its consequent isolation lingers, I’m grateful for the Daily Prayer app. Hearing those delightful British accents pray my familiar prayers and sing the songs of my tradition reminds me, as I learned when I visited Canterbury, that I am part of a fire that’s both large and beautiful.
It’s strange to open an app and press play — such mundane actions — and then encounter such a sublime service. Hearing such beautiful music and prayers as you drive your familiar commute or putter around your familiar home lets, as Rowan Williams put it, “the wonder of God’s love knock sideways your ordinary habits, so that God comes through.”
Available on Google Play: Daily Prayer: from the CofE – Apps on Google Play
Available for IOS: Daily Prayer on the App Store (apple.com)
For more information: Daily Prayer app and podcast | The Church of England
Ben Christenson is an aspirant in the Diocese of Virginia and a member of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Sterling, VA
The app is great!! Morning prayers with Dean Robert in Canterbury gardens each day on YouTube is also a gift from the Kingdom of God.