Ad Fontes

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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Ancient & Modern: a review

Ancient & Modern: Hymns and Songs for Refreshing Worship (2013).

My copy of Ancient & Modern: Hymns and Songs for Refreshing Worship (2013) has just arrived. It is the ninth edition of what is the most enduring and popular lineage of hymnals in the Church of England. We currently use Common Praise (2000, the eighth edition of A&M), in the College Chapel. My former churches have used Sing Glory (1999), Ancient & Modern New Standard Edition (1983) and New English Hymnal (1986) as their main hymnbooks, which is progress of sorts! Unlike some churches, the Church of England has never had an official hymnbook, but the Ancient & Modern stable comes closest to a standard.

For some background and a couple of thoughts about hymnals in the 21st century, see Ancient & Modern: history and future.

Ancient & Modern has 847 items: the largest inventory in this hymnbook’s history, beating the 779 hymns of the Standard Edition (1916 & 1920). Not all of these are hymns, some are liturgical songs and ‘short chants’. It is not too much of a surprise that this is an increase on the 628 hymns of Common Praise. However, seeing that the intermediate supplement Sing Praise (2010) has 330 entries, there has been a bit of a cull. I guestimate that around 150 hymns in Common Praise have been cut (inexplicably, the cloying ‘In a world where people walk in darkness’ (CP 476, AM9 677) has survived!). I confess to some alarm that so many hymns that were thought necessary of inclusion 13 years ago have proved disposable. It makes me wonder how many of the current volume will last as long. The proprietors actually suggest that those who already have Common Praise should make the lesser investment in Sing Praise rather than switching directly to the new edition. I believe, though, that would mean that there would be around fifty or more items in the ninth edition that those with the two previous volumes would be missing.

Physically, the full-music editions of the two hymnals, eighth and ninth editions, are about the same size. Although this is perhaps due to my old Common Praise being stretched with use, the paper used for the ninth edition is clearly thinner, yet this has not lead to a reduction in print quality. Unlike some poorly produced editions of Hymns Old & New (nothing to do with Ancient & Modern), verso print does not obviously show through on the recto, and vice versa. The same typesetter and music engraver, the laudable Andrew Parker, worked on the two editions, yet there has been progress toward a brighter, clearer printing. Music and textual credits have been moved to the bottom of the page, into space, allowing for a little more information to be given. For the three translations of Phos hilaron are given their Greek title in Greek script: a nicely revived tradition that flatters the singer. These three are John Keble’s text set to John Stainer’s Sebaste at 17, Christopher Idle’s more recent offering at 18 and Robert Bridges’s at 20, with the latter being the preferred translation of the rival English Hymnal tradition.

It would take 2½ years to sing through all 847 items without repeating one, given four hymns every Sunday morning and three in the evening. Of course, there are always going to be some hymns that are not to the taste of clergy, musicians and congregations, and others that are repeat favourites. Some of the liturgical items might be used week in, week out, or not at all.

The arrangement of the hymns follows the tried and tested pattern of the A&M stable: the diurnal of morning and evening, the seasons of the church year, saints’ days, a few service themes and the lucky dip of ‘Hymns throughout the Year’ (the odd name of the category used in Common Praise) or ‘General’ (the more sensible title in the ninth edition). The ninth edition’s categories are a joy: after the saints’ days, there are decent selections of hymns for Christian initiation, marriage, and funerals and the departed. Then there are selections of hymns chosen for use in a generalised sequence of sections of church services: gathering, penitence, the word of God, canticles and affirmations of faith, prayer and intercession, Holy Communion, and sending out. These mix hymns with liturgical texts, like the three modern Kyries (370–2) in the penitence category; the first is that from James MacMillan’s Mass of the Blessed John Henry Newman. The word category begins with the traditional sixth-mode Alleluia (374), and goes on to provide an Alleluia setting by Bernadette Farrell (376) and James Walsh’s Pilgrim’s Alleluia (377) — I am left to wonder why the Stanbrook Abbey hymn ‘Bright as fire in darkness’ intrudes at 375. There is also a Marty Haugen song that can be used as an Alleluia at 385, demonstrating the problem that items are arranged mainly in alphabetical order within categories rather then rational groupings. Thankfully the metrical Magnificats and other canticles are grouped together. The category for prayer and intercession includes a number of simple, modern chants that can be used as sung responses to supplications. It is not necessarily obvious, but four metrical settings of Gloria in excelsis Deo (413–16) are in the Holy Communion category, followed by two settings of Sanctus (417, 418) and one Agnus Dei (419). The 61 items in this category could really have done with a finer level of grouping within the category.

The later categories of themes — the church’s ministry and mission, wholeness and healing, sorrow and lament, creation and the environment, justice and peace, and national and remembrance — are welcome, if still slightly thin. Even with all of these categories, there are still 246 ‘general’ hymns (29 % of the inventory). Still, this is an improvement on the like category of 265 hymns in Common Praise (42 %). There are hymnals, like Mission Praise, Sing Glory and Hymns Old & New, that take the unimaginative approach of arranging all their entries in alphabetical order of their textual incipits (though I do remember some old copies of Mission Praise took a unique approach to the alphabet!). Given a decent index, and the ninth edition has indexes aplenty (read on if you, like me, sadly spend more time in hymn indexes than with the hymns themselves), it makes sense to organise things by sensible categories and relationally. Thus, I am sure the compilers saw the need to keep the lucky dip to a minimum, recognising it as a sign of methodological laxity. A rough grouping of these hymns by theological themes would have been a welcome change, alongside better grouping of items within the other categories. The group of 17 ‘short chants’ at the end, mostly from Taizé and Iona, alongside some in other categories, will be a welcome addition in many churches.

The indexes include the now standard and practical parade of biblical index, hymn suggestions for each Sunday and major feast, alphabetical index of tunes, metrical index of tunes, index of composers, index of authors, and the index of first lines and tunes. Alongside these there is a list of hymns ‘suitable for all-age worship’ that some might use, but also a particularly handy thematic index that lists hymn numbers appropriate to a wide range of theological and other themes. Some of these (e.g. marriage) exactly reproduces a category, adding the belt to the braces. Yet this extra index shows an appropriate response to the problem of categories: what to do with those items that fit multiple categories. It also allows for themes that are too vague to have been categories (e.g. water).

The influence of Hymns Old & New (first Anglican Edition in 1986, with the popular New Anglican Edition a decade later, now superseded by others) can be seen in the ninth edition. Although Hymns Old & New has had major flaws in its musical arrangements and production quality, it brought together favourite hymns with choruses, praise songs and chants. Its coup was to provide what many churches wanted. Starting with Sing Praise, the Ancient & Modern tradition began to incorporate this wider repertoire, and the ninth edition includes symbols for guitar chords above the music for some items, thankfully not following Hymns Old & New in providing them for all items, even where they conflict with the musical arrangement.

For controversialists, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty‘s ‘In Christ alone my hope is found’ is included (678), with its words ‘the wrath of God was satisfied’ in the second verse. Whereas some have rewritten the line, Getty has, understandably, refused to allow it to be used with an altered text. While American Presbyterians have recently decided to omit the hymn because of that line, it now makes Ancient & Modern look doctrinally brave/timid for including it.

For some background and a couple of thoughts about hymnals in the 21st century, see Ancient & Modern: history and future.


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Liturgy bits: let us pray the collect

The collect (stress on first syllable: KOL-ekt) is a traditional, formal short prayer of Western Christianity. The Latin missal simply calls it oratio (‘prayer’). However, the Gregorian Sacramentary has oratio ad collectam, and then, in two places, simply collecta. In the earlier Gallican use, the term is first collectio, before becoming collecta. The term remained in popular use among churchgoers while missals chose oratio. Perhaps it is no surprise that the Book of Common Prayer chose the popular vernacular name ‘collect’, but more surprising that the new translation of the Catholic missal has opted for ‘collect’ where its predecessor had a prosaic ‘opening prayer‘. The collects of the Church of England and the Catholic Church preserve many old Latin models.

The structure of collects are widely discussed and well known — being

  1. invocation, e.g. Almighty God
  2. divine attribute (quiclause), e.g. unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid
  3. petition, e.g. cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit
  4. consequence (ut-clause), e.g. that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name
  5. doxology, e.g. through Christ our Lord

The major division of the collect is between clauses 1–2 and 3–4, often marked with a semicolon. In collects for saints, the second clause says something about the saint in question rather than describing a divine attribute. Rather wonderfully, this shows the holy life as a glimpse of divine revelation. Most collects address God the Father, and so the doxology (which is often not written out in full) declares that our prayer is made through (per) Christ (or ‘the same’ Christ if he is mentioned in the body of the collect), and may add the unity of the Holy Spirit too.

Some have remarked that the quality of the collect is frame for our petitionary prayer which should flow from an understanding of God’s nature. It is a snapshot of how lex orandi models lex credendi, or, put another way, how doctrine should feed into our spiritual life.

At the eucharist, the praying of the collect concludes the gathering rite, the first part of the liturgy, and thus herald the Bible readings. The placing of collects for Sundays and holy days together with the epistles and gospels in the Book of Common Prayer (which makes sense, because one reads the collect, epistle and gospel in order) has led to some Anglicans, particularly evangelicals, to desire collects that reflect the readings or themes of the day. I think this is wrong, seeing as the collects are designed succinctly to draw divine qualities into our daily lives, and so belong to our gathering and preparation rather than an introduction to the readings. The gathering rite at its simplest (and ’tis a joy to be simple) has just a liturgical greeting (The Lord be with you) and a collect, although prayers of penitence usually occur between the two.

The Catholic Church developed a series of other collect-like presidential prayers: the prayer over the gifts and the post-communion prayer. Common Worship has fully embraced post-communion prayers, gathering them with the collects proper, and it suggests some ‘prayers at the preparation of the table’ that cover some elements of the traditional offertory prayers.

In daily prayer, the collect comes at the end of the intercession. In the Book of Common Prayer, three collects (or four during Advent and Lent) follow the preces toward the formal conclusion of matins and evensong. Common Worship has followed the modern practice of retaining just one collect where a series of such had previously been used. However, its structural framework means that an unchanging ‘opening prayer’ is also used.

Let us pray, and its praxis

Modern liturgical sensibility around the collect can be summarised

  1. The bidding ‘Let us pray’ (oremus) is important
  2. The use of silence between bidding and collect is important
  3. The collect should be prayed deliberately: it is important
  4. The congregational ‘Amen’ is important

It has taken fifteen years of ministry for me to begin to internalise and practise this. It is not as simple as it sounds. I might bid ‘Let us pray’, but it was as if I were saying ‘I shall now read a prayer out of the book’. There is still the problem that some hear those words as a direction to get on their knees, but there are some relics of an instruction flectamus genua for the silence with levate for the collect. Knowing that oremus could be expanded into a fuller bidding, I would sometimes select a bon mot from the collect and say something like ‘Let us pray that God might cleanse our hearts that we may worship him’. It was a good idea, but it ended up like a liturgical wink: ‘see what I did there? I can read ahead!’

The silence proved a problem too. How long should it be? If it were too long, people would fidget, or think that I had forgotten the book of collects. The fundamental problem with my praxis was that is was superficial, skin-deep. The bidding, even if it be the simple ‘Let us pray’, should convey a call to deep, heartfelt prayer. As Romans 8.26–27 has it

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

If the bidding can convey the merest sense of those verses, then the silence just works. The bidding then is not an introduction to the collect, but to the silence. The collect then is a voicing of an aspect of the heartfelt silent prayer. A good trigger that works for me is a simple bidding like ‘Let us pray deeply’ or ‘From the depths of our hearts, let us pray’. Words alone are not enough; as a priest I need to model this deep prayer. I must not be looking at the book or looking around, but I must pray with bowed head. Whether the silence is ten or twenty seconds, or more, does not matter, as quantity of silence is replaced by quality. In a church full of people who want to be led in prayer, this works well. However, at weddings, funerals and baptisms, among those who may not be regular churchgoers, and who may not be focused mainly on spiritual things, the collect becomes transformative. There is a witty saying when people see me in a cassock — ‘Say one for me’ — and this is ‘Say one with me: it’s deep within you, and you want to pray’.

The celebrant faces the people squarely during all this in modern rites. Hands are folded for the bidding and silence. The arms are raised to the orans position for praying the collect. At the doxology, the hands are folded once more. The orans position is somewhat Y-shaped. The hands are raised upward, but no higher than the shoulder. The expansion of the gesture should be determined by whatever looks natural (not too tight and Tridentine, not too large and theatrical) and the space (it can be larger at a high altar, smaller in a cozy chapel).


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Christmas present

Japanese Mary and Jesus

Japanese Mary and Jesus

Happy Christmas one and all, God bless!

It’s now evening on the feast of St Stephen, the second day of Christmas, and, being a Sunday this year, the end of a long run of Christmas services. This Japanese picture of Mary and Jesus was my Christmas card picture this year. Being interested in the history of Christianity in Asia, I was looking for a similar image to last year’s card.

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Richard Dawkins: devil’s advocate or phantom menace?

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

I’ve just watched Richard Dawkins The God Delusion on the Mo’ Fo’ channel. Last week we had his Faith School Menace; he’s on a roll!

As a Christian in the liberal tradition I believe we need Dawkins. We may often accuse fundamentalists and biblical-literalists of shoddy thinking, but Dawkins is consistent in demanding reasoned answers for all of religion’s claims. In the same way that the traditional process of declaring a person a saint in Catholicism has used a devil’s advocate to ask hard questions to cut through the wishful thinking and groupthink, Dawkins, rather than being feared or scorned, should be appreciated as one who splashes some cold water on the face of sleep-walking religion.

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To fast too furious?

Iftar (berbuka puasa)

Iftar (berbuka puasa or fast breaking) at Mesjid Raya al-Mansun (Mansun's Great Mosque) in Medan, Sumatera.

A blessed Ramadan to all!

Depending on which authority you follow, based on the observation of the first crescent of the new moon, the holy Islamic month of Ramadan began either last Wednesday or Thursday. This month of months is set apart by fasting.

Islamic practice is to refrain, during the daylight hours of the month of Ramadan, from consuming any food, drink, tobacco, and having sex. On the positive side, Muslims are encouraged to pray, give charitably and think on God more during the fast.

As the Islamic calendar is based solely on lunar phases without regard to tropical seasons, the months slowly move through the seasons each year. Ramadan falling in August means, in the northern hemisphere, around fifteen hours without food or water each day for around 29/30 days. (Mehdi Hasan has written some basic FAQs on Ramadan for New Statesman.)

As an Anglican I’m fascinated by the Islamic fast. The practice of fasting in Anglicanism is in a shabby state. For most it consists of ‘giving up’ something for the forty days of Lent, usually chocolate. It is not exactly taxing. Apart from the giving up of things, we do encourage Lent courses as a way of getting some positive spiritual input, but we have to admit that it’s all quite slim. The Roman Catholic Church has always been more legalistic when it comes to fasting, setting out what can and can’t be eaten, and how much. However, the history of Catholic pronouncements on fasting shows a steady rolling back of strictures. In contrast, Eastern Christianity has retained a more robust idea of fasting: animal products and alcohol are not consumed during fasts, making one a vegan teetotaler.

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An English anthem?

And did those feet in ancient time

The preface to Blake's 'Milton, a Poem', containing 'And did those feet in ancient time', as coloured by Blake.

Greg Mulholland, Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West, has been watching the footie, and he wants a debate on an English national anthem. It seems he’s got a little annoyed at the use of ‘God Save the Queen’ for the England football team at the World Cup in South Africa.

First off, anthems are rather silly things. Their lyrics are often little more than a admixture of jingoism and romanticist nonsense. However, the things of anthems and flags are important symbols of belonging, as long as we recognise they are the symbols and window-dressing of our identity and not its substance.

Second off, I abhor our current paean to Mrs Windsor because she doesn’t even begin to represent what this country means to most of us. The tune and lyrics are both bad: scrap it along with the monarchy! It also has the problem of having some official status in most Commonwealth realms (those countries that inexplicably keep Mrs Windsor as head of state). New Zealanders, for instance, would have the right to complain that the use of ‘God Save the Queen’ by British or English sporting teams that the anthem is just as much theirs — ‘God Save the Queen’ is the national anthem of New Zealand, alongside the more common ‘God Defend New Zealand’. In spite of my being a Christian, I recognise that ‘God Save the Queen’ bears a certain theological element that is either inappropriate or questionable to a significant number of citizens — being addressed to God, it is a prayer, and can, historically, be said to be a Christian, even Church of England, prayer.

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