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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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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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