When last did you attend a choral Evensong service at your local parish? Does you parish even offer a sung service of evening prayer? Are these important questions to be asking in light of our South African context? Let us explore where the service of Evensong actually comes from and how it formed the basis of Anglican piety for several hundred years, and then let us see if such a service is serves a purpose in our modern worship patterns.
In the early 1540's Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was experimenting with new forms of the daily office. King Henry VIII had recently cut ties with the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church had formally been born. While Henry wanted to be free of the authority of Rome, he still wished to maintain the Catholic faith in all its fullness - a type of English Catholicism. However, many others in England were hoping for a much more radical review of the Christian doctrine and liturgy. Cranmer was one of those who desired change. At that time the normal routine was eight offices a day: Mattins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Sometimes other devotional offices were added to this rigorous daily pattern. His first experiments retained the standard ecclesiastical Latin, which was then the normal liturgical language, but he drastically cut down the number of offices to two: morning and evening prayer (originally called Mattins and Evensong). Morning Prayer was a combination of Matins, Lauds and Prime; while Evening Prayer was an amalgamation of Vespers and Compline. The services were not used during Henry's reign, but not long after Edward VI was crowned they were included in the first official English Book of Common Prayer (1549). Except for the addition of a confession and absolution in 1552, these two offices remained largely unchanged until the mid-1960's when liturgical experimentation swept through the Anglican Communion.
When Cranmer was designing the new liturgies for the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, his desire was to encourage ordinary people to participate in the Eucharist every week. At the time, it was normal for ordinary people to have communion once or twice (sometimes three times) a year. In fact, even Calvin was advocating a similar set-up in Geneva. Sadly, neither Cranmer nor Calvin succeeded in persuading ordinary folk to receive Communion regularly, and as a result, the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer became the standard services for Sunday worship. For almost four hundred years, the devotional piety of the offices influenced and shaped Anglican piety, and the sacrament of the Eucharist, while celebrated often by clergy and small congregations, was usually only attended by the main congregation on special occasions.
Today, people around the world consider the Anglican offices of Morning and Evening Prayer to be Anglicanism's greatest gift to the Christian worship tradition. Likewise, people from other denominations often will visit an Anglican church just to attend choral Evensong, having attended their usual parish in the morning.
Since the theological and liturgical revolutions of the mid-twentieth century, much has changed in Anglican worship trends. These days the Eucharist forms the basis of our weekly worship diet. In Southern Africa it is seldom the case that either sung Morning or Evening Prayer replaces the Eucharist, and a rarity if it appears at all in the usual routine of a parish. And so it is that ordinary Anglicans are not familiar with the devotional rhythms of these beautiful services.
Since these offices were usually the main service of the day, composers wrote vast amounts of music for choirs to sing. This is where the English anthem grew to prominence, and where sets of morning and evening canticles rose to popularity. Think of settings like Stanford in B-flat or Dyson in D. Also the chanting of the psalms to Anglican chant became standard practice (remember that the old Communion services from the Book of Common Prayer did not make provision for Psalmody). Thus, a corpus of music was written especially for these offices.
If Morning and Evening Prayer have formed such an important part of our liturgical history, is it not equally important to ensure that they find a place in our modern worship patterns? Think of the beauty of choral Evensong sung by a good choir. Not much can match the solemnity and sanctity of such a service. Besides giving the choir an opportunity to shine, it gives the congregation the time to soak in the Ã¢â‚¬Å“beauty of holinessÃ¢â‚¬Â. It is here that a type of worship, not often encountered today, take place: the choir offers a sacrifice of worship through music on behalf of the congregation. Some may say that such worship is outdated and irrelevant for our times. This is a valid point. Nevertheless, for choir members it is a time where they can offer themselves fully to God through music. I cannot tell you how often singers have been brought to faith by singing Evensong. Also, for some people at certain times of their lives, a service which demands very little of them is exactly what they need at that point in their spiritual journeys. Given these factors, is it not time we started encouraging the revival of choral Evensong?
But do the offices need to be sung by a choir? Certainly not! The congregation can participate given the right settings of the canticles and easy chants for the Psalms. Today metrical canticles are available for use in congregational settings to ensure the Ã¢â‚¬Å“full and active participationÃ¢â‚¬Â of the whole congregation. The Psalms can even be chanted with a regular congregation response (this is called responsorial Psalmody). Does there have to be an anthem? If there is no choir, and anthem is not essential - a hymn could be a good congregational substitute. Does the music have to be English? Most certainly not! This is a gap in the liturgical musical market! We need vernacular versions of the canticles with local tunes. Or perhaps what would be best, given the diversity of our local communities, is macaronic versions of the canticles. The time is ripe for a musical facelift for the offices!
My point here, though, is that the offices are an important part of our Anglican heritage which have fallen gradually into relative obscurity. While priests are required to pray the offices daily, very few laity do the same. The richness of structured corporate prayer is thus lost on hundreds of thousands of people. I encourage you to think about reviving the offices in your parish. A simple Evensong with hymns and metrical canticles is the best way to start, and to inspire you, I have included a South African set of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (the evening canticles). They are by John Gardner, a respected local poet who wrote the hymn 'Who will save our land and people'. I also encourage other poets, particularly those who are conversant in more than one language, to write new metrical settings of the canticles for use in parishes. Let us develop our own South African voice for these services!
Tune: ZIONIST SONG or BLESSED ASSURANCE
1. May all our people hail you as Lord,
sharing the vision of you as our King;
Serving you humbly, caring for all -
may we be love-led to do the right thing.
Shine out, our land, how great is our Lord;
May all our works give glory to God.
2. Take away pride and self-seeking greed;
exalt those leaders who put others first;
Powerful Lord, who does all good things,
satisfy those who for righteousness thirst.
3. Help us to make our beautiful land
one where the weak are made safe and secure,
Children are taught well, the hungry are fed,
bodies kept healthy, environment pure.
4. Father and Shepherd, almighty Lord,
promise of mercy has lived down the years;
Praise be for that, and worship and thanks.
So we now gather to raise today's prayers:
Tune: LIZALIS' INDINGA LAKHO
1. Faithful Simeon prayed to God:
'Let your servant go in peace.'
Promised words had been fulfilled:
This, God's son, had come to save.
2. Down the years and in all lands,
Christian truth exacts a price.
Some have fallen in their pride;
Others fight against the light.
3. All who welcome what is right
Rise to live a life renewed;
All who worship, wait and watch
Share the glorious peace of God.
John Gardner (c2014 used with permission)
Written for the College of the Transfiguration
Growing the Church
Anglican Students Federation
ACSA Environmental Network
Anglican Youth of Southern Africa