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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In celebration of William Tyndale

From:Foxe's Book of Martyrs

William Tyndale.

On Wednesday just gone (6 October), we celebrated William Tyndale at the Mass. Thinking on him since, I have come to see that he is grossly under-appreciated and forgotten.

William Tyndale was a son of Gloucestershire, born around the end of the 15th century. He was educated at Oxford and Cambridge, just missing the great humanist scholar Erasmus at Cambridge. Tyndale was a gifted linguist, becoming fluent in eight languages, and was excited by the work of Erasmus in editing the Greek New Testament from the best available texts of the time.

After leaving Cambridge, as a chaplain, Tyndale expressed his desire to render the Scriptures in English and his frustration with a church that forbade such a translation. In one memorable debate, an arch-conservative cleric said to Tyndale, ‘We had better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s’, to which he responded, ‘I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!’.

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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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Please don’t label me

Please don't label me

I am completely torn over this. The people who brought you the Atheist Bus Campaign are now bringing us a billboard campaign in which a young child asks us ‘Please don’t label me’. The campaign is the shop window for the brash evangelical wing of atheism, the Dawkins–Hitchens tendency.

First of all, the real political issue behind ‘Please don’t label me’ is faith schools. Regardless of a certain moral panic among secularists, the number and popularity of faith schools in the UK have been increasing. This has happened due to a complex network of reasons that are not all that easy to unravel. I want to talk about the political issues around faith schools first, and then the philosophical issues around the labelling of children. I’ve given the two sections under headings below, so you can skip whatever does not interest you. Continue reading


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Ad fontes of Christian humanism

I’ve recently updated my What page, so I thought I would also copy it here as a post for comment.

GarshuniAd fontes is a Latin phrase meaning ‘to the sources’, a favourite motto of Renaissance humanism. I am particularly thinking of Erasmus of Rotterdam with this phrase, recalling his invaluable biblical scholarship. Renaissance humanism both laid the groundwork for the Reformation and re-engaged with the writers of the early church.

The term ‘humanism’ is only applied retrospectively to this movement. The Oxford English Dictionary dates its earliest meaningful occurrence in the French humanisme of 1765, with the meaning of ‘love of humanity’, with a German reference to Humanismus from 1808 being used to describe the classical syllabus of the gelehrten Schulen (‘learned schools’, grammar schools). Our universities’ humanities divisions and faculties are named after this understanding of humanism. It didn’t take long for the term to acquire two more widely applied senses: the intellectual movement of the Renaissance and a philosophy oriented toward the human. There are a few sparse uses of the term ‘humanism’ to refer to a doctrine that Jesus Christ has a merely human nature (adoptionism, ebionitism and perhaps unitarianism), and Schiller used the term as a name for pragmatism; these are not my doctrines, nor my intended meaning. Continue reading