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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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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Recording of Rachmaninoff Vespers by the Hertford College Chapel Choir

baptism_icon

Icon of the Baptism of Christ in Hertford College Chapel, painted by Silvia Dimitrova-Potter.

The Hertford College Chapel Choir performed the sublime Vespers (Op. 37: Всенощное бдение All-night Vigil) by Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) to a packed chapel at a late-evening service on Tuesday 12 February 2013. Vespers was written in Moscow in 1915. It is considered to be some of his finest work, combing his musical genius with scholarly treatment of the chant traditions. It was conducted by our senior organ scholar, Edmund Whitehead.

Below is the live recording of five movements from the Vespers:

  1. Свете тихий Svete tikhiy (Φῶς ἱλαρόν Phōs hilaron),
  2. Ныне отпущаеши Nyne otpushchayeshi (Nunc dimittis),
  3. Богородице Дево Bogoroditse Devo (Ave Maria),
  4. Слава в вышних Богу Slava v vyshnikh Bogu (Matins responses),
  5. Благословен еси Blagosloven yesi (Resurrection troparion).


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Carols from Hertford College, Oxford

nine-lessonsking-carols

We have ended term in Hertford College, Oxford, with joyous song and a couple of carol services. We squeeze Advent and Christmas into the last week of term, even though it is still November. For your edification and jubilation, here is a sample recording of five modern carols performed by Hertford College Chapel Choir.

  1. Gardner Tomorrow shall be my dancing day
  2. Whitacre Lux aurumque
  3. Allain In the bleak mid-winter (world première)
  4. Sandström Det är en ros utsprungen
  5. Leighton Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child

 


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Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden

Our Lady of Willesden, the Black Virgin

Our Lady of Willesden, the Black Virgin

This morning I took the train to North-West London on a personal pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden. A few weeks ago I received my copy of the new Britain’s holiest places by Nick Mayhew Smith. It’s a wonderful travel guide with personal observations to the places of Christian heritage around Britain. I must confess that I had never heard of Our Lady of Willesden. Reading Mayhew Smith’s one page write-up, I jumped on the train this morning to make pilgrimage.

The Shrine is both oddly English and oddly London. It is in the Parish Church of St Mary Willesden, a rather pretty English parish church surrounded by a verdant graveyard, typical of so many village churches up and down the country. Yet just beyond its stone boundary wall is a busy roundabout with red London double-deckers ferrying passengers to and from Neasden Tube Station.

St Mary's Church, Willesden

St Mary's Church, Willesden

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Transgender and the church

Christina Beardsley

Christina Beardsley

This week has been declared Transgender Faith Action Week by the Interfaith Coalition for Transgender Equality, a fact to which I was drawn by Becky Garrison‘s article for Cif Belief. This comes after the wonderful 4thought.tv (which airs short personal statements on controversial subjects after the evening news on Channel 4) spent a week discussing “Is it wrong to change gender?

The week began with a video by Christina Beardsley, a Church of England priest, hospital chaplain and vice-chair of Changing Attitude. Beardsley transitioned a decade ago, after 23 years of ordained ministry, and gave a succinct and compelling 105 seconds on the church and transgender. After introducing herself, she loses no time in making the point: “There is no theological objection to someone changing gender”. No ifs, no buts, no cautious relative clauses, and it is a quote she takes from George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and one who in no way could be labelled as a liberal. If that were not shocking enough for many people ­Christian and non-Christian alike — she continues by lauding the Bible for being transgender friendly. I really enjoyed seeing her hard-hitting approach, made all the more necessary due to the inherent prejudice against transgender, despite strong theological arguments to the contrary.

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Bright sadness: thoughts for Ash Wednesday

Those who know me know that I take fasting pretty seriously. That does not mean that I am a master of the fast; I get grumpy, get tempted when I fast; I am weak, ill-disciplined and self-centred. However, I am serious about fasting because I am slowly coming to understand that fasting helps me to understand those most deplorable qualities in me. It certainly is not pretty, but does give invaluable insight. It is a pain, but full of gain.

You see, the date of Easter is in the diary, it will come and there will be hallelujahs (that word was typed before Shrove midnight!) aplenty, but it can mean very little if we simply let it fall upon us. A few years ago I walked to the summit of Mount Snowdon. It was a great climb, but I was put out to see people arriving at the summit by train from Llanberis. They had not put in the time and effort, but just bought the ticket. However, I overheard their loud complaining about the weather or the less than perfect view, and I understood that my investment gave the greater enjoyment of the beauty and magnificence of that little bit of creation. We often arrive at Easter like those who roll off the train, and we might get something from the experience, but it is definitely worth arriving the hard way, for the hard way is the way of beauty.

The classic move of giving up chocolate is simply useless. I mean, what is the point or significance of that? Fasting need not be extreme (and should not be if you have health problems), but it should make some significant impact on our lives. This webpage offers some suggestions and advice on fasting. Remember that we can have Sundays off from fasting, and that is why there are 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. As the average British person consumes so much more than the global average, and not just in terms of food, fasting can have a social-justice focus too.

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Spit, more spit and streaking

EphphathaIn the last article, I discussed the strange swearword ‘raca’ that turned up, or got edited out of, last Sunday’s Gospel from Matthew. In this morning’s Mass, the Daily Eucharistic Lectionary gave us Mark 8.22-26 for our Gospel. There’s not really much of a link between the two, apart from the spit.

Today’s Gospel is the pericope of Jesushealing of a blind man by putting his spit in his eyes. The healing takes two goes — first, the man sees people but they look like trees walking around. Characteristically for Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells him not to tell. The spit, the walking trees and the messianic secret all add up to make a rather odd incident.

The oddness of this incident is one of the pieces of evidence that Mark’s is the earliest gospel. The three synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke — share a lot of passages in common, some even verbatim, and often order this material in a similar way. Mark, being the shortest gospel, has parallel texts of almost every passage in either or both Matthew and Luke, so it seems that Matthew and Luke are based on Mark. Markan priority — the hypothesis that Mark’s Gospel was written first — is strengthened by the few scraps of Mark that do not appear in the other two. One of them is the spit-and-trees pericope above.

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Whoever would call their brother ‘raca’?

Raca!

Today, the Fourth Sunday before Lent, we continued reading the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel in church. The chunk of gospel appointed for today was Matthew 5.21-37, a fairly hefty chunk of moral instruction covering murder, anger, name calling, adultery, divorce, oaths and promises. I didn’t preach a very good sermon, getting far too bogged down in a process-like interpretation of collective responsibility for ethics and the liberation of understanding that sin is a normal part of ‘fallen’ human existence, albeit non-essential (for Christ was without sin).

Apart from my missing the mark, I noticed that the original Greek text of Matthew 5.22 includes the non-Greek word raca (ρακα, raka, or ραχα, racha). This is one of the handful of Aramaic words and phrases that litter the New Testament, and the gospels in particular, where the Greek text merely transliterates the Aramaic in to Greek letters as best it can (fitting Aramaic into Greek letters is an awkward fit at the best of times). When we translate the Bible into English we then have a choice of leaving the translated Aramaic in, as we do for Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, or translating it into English too. Where there is a Greek gloss with the phrase, as there is for Eloi, Eloi, it doesn’t matter that we’ve left this foreign language there: it comes with a translation. However, for the word raca in Matthew 5.22, we are given no translation help. Some translators leave it in, some ‘translate’ it to English.

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The Anglican tradition of daily prayer, and a year of praying the Roman Office

Prayer, Rosary, Book of Common Prayer 001

Image by bhsher via Flickr

I have spent the last year praying my daily prayers from the Roman Office with my parish. Over the years I have used a number of Anglican office books, from the Book of Common Prayer, the Alternative Service Book, Celebrating Common Prayer and Common Worship: Daily Prayer. The traditional Anglican approach to ordering daily prayer might be summed up in the word from the introduction to the Book of Common Prayer

Moreover, the number and hardness of the Rules called the Pie, and the manifold changings of the Service, was the cause, that to turn the Book only was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out.

For Anglicans then, daily prayer has been governed by the aesthetic of the simple; if this is the daily work of the clergy, then it should be likened unto the ploughing of furrows and not bookish cleverness. Of course, traditional Anglican daily prayer can be a thing of great beauty when Solemn Matins (if such a thing still be done) or Evensong is accompanied by a robed choir: simple, yet sublime. The Alternative Service Book 1980 followed this principle of simplicity, but in its updated ‘committee prose’ the business of prayer felt more like it needed to be moved and seconded rather than Amen-ed! The times I prayed the ASB are mostly blanked out as bad memory. Into this spiritual desert we welcomed Celebrating Common Prayer almost lasciviously! Being built through the experience of Anglican Franciscans of the Society of St Francis (SSF) it was tested at the prayer desk. It encouraged Anglicans to think about the occasional Midday or Night Prayer (Compline). It gave us prayer that, while remaining fixed in its shape, moved with the seasons of the liturgical year and flavoured them appropriately with joy or sorrow, hope or conviction. This formed the basis of Common Worship: Daily Prayer, the current standard for the Church of England’s office. E’en so, the Anglican method has always been to take two or three books to the prayer desk: prayer book and Bible, and now the lectionary that reminds us of saints to celebrate and which psalms and readings to use. We Anglicans are not good at knowing our own tradition, so it seems necessary to offer this here as and aide mémoire.

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