Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Days of Obligation

Thursday, of course, is Ascension Day. Every year this feast, along with others, such as All Saints', brings to mind the whole problem of "days of obligation" in the Anglican tradition. The problem ultimately boils down to this: are there any "days of obligation" in the Anglican tradition? At the outset I should maker clear that I am defining "day of obligation" as a holy day day where the faithful are required to receive make their communions.

That the whole concept of "days of obligation" is a problem within the Anglican tradition became apparent to me years ago when I began noticing different lists of "days of obligation" in classic Anglican devotional texts. The Practice of Religion (Knowles) lists these days as: Christmas, Easter, and Whitsunday. Under the rather ambiguous heading "Other Times of Obligation or Devotion" this same books adds "Holy Days, Saints Days, and Sundays." Another old classic, St. Augustine's Prayer Book, has the days of obligation as being: Sundays, Christmas Day, Circumcision, Ascension, and All Saints'. It adds as "Special Days of Devotion" Annunciation, Corpus Christi, and the Assumption. Besides these two books who knows what other "lists" are out there. So what is one to make of all of this disparity?

In my mind, the only day of obligation in the Anglican tradition - at least for continuing Anglicans who use the 1928 BCP - is Sunday. This is because of what the Prayer Book "Offices of Instruction" says on page 291. So obviously Easter Sunday and Whitsunday, because they are both Sundays, can be considered days of obligation. Other moveable saints' days may also be, perhaps, but only when they fall on a Sunday. Otherwise I can think of no authority within our tradition that declares days such as the Ascension to be "days of obligation." As these are, however, very important days, perhaps it is best to simply refer to them as the Anglican Service Book does: "Principal Feasts."

I suppose if a diocesan bishop were to proclaim some additional days during the year as being days of obligation then that would carry some weight, but I can think of no continuing Anglican diocesan bishop who has done so. And I suppose one could make the argument from tradition that days such as Christmas are days of obligation, but what constitutes "tradition" can easily become rather subjective.

So, in my parish, I do not refer to days such as the Ascension - extremely important though they are - as being "days of obligation" because I simply do not necessarily feel that I have the authority to declare them as such within the strictures of our tradition.

What do you think about this?


  1. A seemingly odd legalistic, almost medieval scholastic, issue? Seems so much more Roman Catholic than Anglican. As if Anglicanism ever had such a detailed, specific, mandatory, and all encompassing canon law. For RCs, the CCC has the obligatory and "very necessary minimum" precepts at paras. 2041-2043. These include: weekly attendance at Sunday liturgy and "holy days of obligation", at least one annual auricular confession to the priest, and communion at least during Pascha season.

    So your definition--"I am defining 'day of obligation' as a holy day day where the faithful are required to receive make their communions"--is more demanding than even Rome's? Rome only forces an annual communion.

    Interestingly, p. 291 of the 1928 BCP appears to indicate that the eucharist is a "great privilege" provided for us by Christ. It may be a "bounden duty...to worship God every Sunday in his Church", but attending liturgy and receiving communion are not necessarily the same thing. Which may be why there is the Exhortation in regard to "the People negligent to come to the Holy Communion" on pgs. 88-89?

    Historically weekly communion wasn't the expected normative service in most Anglican parishes over a long period of time. In his magisterial work, The Lutheran Liturgy (1947 & 1959), Luther Reed points out how Anglicanism had come to neglect weekly communion, relying on Morning Prayer on Sundays for most of the year in so many places. As he wrote in 1959: "The normal service, with sermon, of Anglican congregations is Morning Prayer. Comparatively few attend the early services of Holy Communoin which most parishes provide. ... In a normal Sunday service, the Lutheran still 'goes to Mass' while the Anglican attends Matins." (p. 133)

    The Lutheran scholar Frank Senn, in his Christian Lituryg, discusses how the Reformed came to celebrate communion four times a year, as recommended by Zwingli (and as opposed, in their desire for weekly communion by both Bucer and Calvin), which "was the maximum number of times that the most ardent Christians received communion during the Middle Ages." (p. 363)

    I like what Knowles says, "All Sundays should be days of joy. To neglect worship and remain away from Church on Sunday, except on account of sickness or grave cause, is to desecrate the day." (Instructions, p. 65 (1935 rev. ed.) This should hold true in the daily life of all believing, confessing Christians for all major feasts and festivals. Joyfully worshipping out of love is the opposite of enslavement to obligation?

  2. The faithful of the Roman communion are required to participate in Mass/attend Church on several Days of Obligation including Sundays throughout the year.



    Anglicans do not have such days as far as I can tell except Sundays. Yet there are a number of Anglican clergy who would disagree with me. I, of course, and more than willing to be corrected if necessary on this point, but would be curious to know how they justify it.

    Your last point (or is it a 'question'... I notice that you have a curious habit of ending sentences with question marks) is a very good one! I'll have to use that in a sermon sometime if you don't mind!

  3. Father Anderson, I think you are quite right.

  4. Great question. It falls in the realm of moral theology. Here's what I think. It certainly can be sinful to work on Sundays, but it is not sinful in every case. In evaluating the morality of actions one has to consider the act itself, the circumstances, and the intent of the person committing the act. A law enforcement officer or firefighter working on the occasional Sunday to maintain the common good and keep order in society is quite okay in my opinion. A workaholic however, or someone whose vocation is not strictly necessary to the proper ordering of society, cannot make such a case. Perhaps working retail and food jobs fall into this category, so long as a family is not really and truly dependent on the income derived from such a job. I think for most people it is in sinful to work on Sundays. God established in the order of creation a day of rest. And Jesus came not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. But he also said, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." So what we have to do is honestly and soberly (and prayerfully) look at ourselves and our schedule and evaluate what is right for us in this area. I think if we do that most of us - not in emergency fields - will see that we can get by without working on Sundays. Those who do have to work Sundays or the occasional Sunday should make the effort to have a full day of rest, worship, and family time on another day of the week, as the Church does not necessarily require a specific day to be the day of rest, only that we have one day out of seven for that purpose. That is what I think.