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Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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Liturgy bits: a spotter’s guide to Evensong

Old picture of the author wearing Anglican choir habit.

Old picture of the author wearing Anglican choir habit.

Evensong is a peculiar Anglican creature. It is the liturgy that has become the most distinctively Anglican, and has become a treasured bulwark of tradition. This article is a little, geeky exploration of what is Evensong and its sub-species.

The word ‘Evensong’ is first documented by the OED in the Old English of the Canons of Ælfric (c. 1000) as æfen-sang. Until the Reformation, this English word was used to describe the office of Vespers, the seventh of the round of eight daily offices, said just before sunset.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer produced two drafts of how the reformed Church of England should pray each day. The first, more radical plan was to consolidate the eight offices down to two. When, eventually, Henry Tudor junior died, Cranmer was free to produce the first Book of Common Prayer, published 1549. Its two daily offices were named ‘Matins’ and ‘Evensong’ (the former being the name of the first of the pre-Reformation offices, which also had the colourful Old English name uht-sang, which persisted as ‘Oughtensong’ in Middle English). With Cranmer’s revised Prayer Book of 1552, the quaint (or poetic) names of the two offices were officially replaced with the more robust (or prosaic) ‘Morning and Evening Prayer’. Yet the old names continued to live on, to the extent that it is rather daft to speak of ‘Choral Evening Prayer’.

Because of the pressures on Sunday mornings, especially with the restoration of the Parish Eucharist as the main Sunday mid-morning service, major celebrations of Matins have become rather few and far between. However, in twilight isolation Evensong has remained strong. In the nineteenth century, the ‘Fully Choral Service’ became a sign of aspirational excellence in neo-gothic, middle-class churches, aping cathedrals with their processions and besurpliced choirs. I believe that movement has skewed our understanding of  Evensong to assume that only a proper Choral Evensong will do, when we have forgotten how to do a good — liturgically and musically — Evensong that is suited to a church that cannot really cope with the demanding choral repertoire.

What about those sub-species? Continue reading


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Benediction

BenedictionTwo weeks ago, at the feast of St Luke, I officiated at a solemn evensong with benediction of the blessed Sacrament. It was the first benediction I had officiated at. I remember attending benediction for the first time as an undergrad at Durham and being moved by the experience, but without the theological literacy to unpack the experience. A few years later I attended another benediction in Cardiff. It was one of those ‘precious’ high churches, with bevies of ordinands trying to out do each other in the laciness of their cottas, and the smartness of their genuflections. That event put me off benediction for over a decade.

Personal experience must be at the heart of religious faith. One bad experience made me theologize that the efficacy of the eucharistic Sacrament is in the eating and drinking, leaving benediction high and dry from sacramental grace. I think this is the mainstream Protestant view of benediction. However, my recent experience, on the other side of the humeral veil, put me back in touch with my first, positive experience of benediction. Continue reading