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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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Advent antiphons

As Christmas approaches, Western Christian tradition has hallowed each evening from mid-Advent to 23 December with the singing of particular antiphons at Magnificat of Evening Prayer. Each antiphon recalls an epithet of Christ, and begins with the vocative ‘O …’, giving them the name of ‘O Antiphons’. The texts of the antiphons is the basis for the Advent carol ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel‘. These evenings are often also known as ‘Golden Nights’.

The Sarum Rite, on which much English liturgical tradition is based, begins on 16 December with O Sapientia, ‘O Wisdom’, and the Book of Common Prayer marks the date as such in its calendar (yet provides no other text or instruction).

The official use of the Roman Catholic Church is to start a day after, singing O Sapientia on 17 December, and Common Worship follows that use .

It seems that the Sarum version of eight antiphons from 16 to 23 December was a development of the use of seven antiphons from 17 to 23 December, adding O Virgo Virginum (‘O Virgin of virgins’) to the end of the series. There is a good theological reason to revert to the use of seven antiphons: all seven are addressed to Christ in prophetic epithets, while the additional, eighth antiphon is addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Although devotion to Mary right before Christmas is commendable, it does break the unity of the antiphons.

Titles of the ‘O Antiphons’
Latin title English title CW dates Sarum dates
O Sapientia O Wisdom 17 Dec. 16 Dec.
O Adonai O Lord 18 Dec. 17 Dec.
O Radix Jesse O Root of Jesse 19 Dec. 18 Dec.
O Clavis David O Key of David 20 Dec. 19 Dec.
O Oriens O Dayspring, O Morning Star 21 Dec. 20 Dec.
O Rex Gentium O King of the Nations 22 Dec. 21 Dec.
O Emmanuel O God with Us 23 Dec. 22 Dec.
O Virgo Virginum O Virgin of Virgins 23 Dec.

Some traditions added another antiphon O Gabriel, while some had O Thoma Didyme for the feast of St Thomas on 21 December instead of it. That brought the number to nine antiphons, and it was natural some would expand the series to the biblical twelve, adding O Rex Pacifice ‘O King of Peace’, O Mundi Domina ‘O Mistress of the World’ and O Hierusalem ‘O Jerusalem’, and beginning on 12 December, the eve of St Lucy. The New English Hymnal provides the plainsong music for the antiphons (NEH 503, with the chant for Magnificat at 504).