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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Revisiting why I’m an Anglican

Ten months ago I posted on why I’m an Anglican. That article struck some people as somewhat negative, and I especially like this reflection on what I wrote by Pradusz. The background for that article was partly thinking on those I know who were raised in the Church of England but have converted to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. For them, the ministry of women was a stumbling block, but I could also trace a deeper sense of turning away from the everyday normality of Anglicanism in English religion to something more exotic, challenging and full of the certainty of tradition. For those converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, old-fashioned orientalism was often part of the allure, and I hope the Orthodox quickly put them straight on that account. Likewise, I’ve known Anglicans convert to charismatic house churches for the certainty that comes from a certain type of biblical interpretation and emotionally charged worship. For me, Anglicanism is part of cherishing who I am, rather than trying to be something different. I wanted to emphasize the Kierkegaardian way in which the historical reasons for our life choices are often different from the interpretations we put on them. For the majority of people in this world, their religious conviction was chosen for them, by their parents and society at large. I wanted to embrace the religion that chose me, rather than applauding the concept that the grass always has to be greener in someone else’s field.

Celebrating the religion that chose me is important because I can find good reasons to question Anglican religious history. The Church of England has always been associated with English state power, and the global Anglican Communion owes its existence to British imperialism and colonialism. I am horrified at how most Anglicans seem unaware of this history, but realise that ignorance of them is part of the reason why Anglicanism is trying and failing to deal with its internal fault lines.

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