Project Canterbury

Evensong Explained, with Notes on Matins and the Litany
by W.K. Lowther Clarke

London: SPCK, 1922.

EVENSONG is a popular service in the true sense of the term "popular." Especially when the psalms and lessons have a clear and appropriate message, it appeals to the people in a wonderful way, refreshing the soul and informing the mind. But we shall enjoy the service still more if we understand it. This pamphlet is an attempt to explain how we got our Evensong, and what the service means. Matins could be treated in the same way, but is not so suitable for our purpose, since those who attend churches where the sung Eucharist is the chief Sunday morning service are not so familiar with it as with Evensong.

THE ORIGIN OF EVENSONG.—It is sometimes said that Matins and Evensong came from the monks. In a sense this is true, but the offices from which our modern services are derived were used by other priests than those in monasteries, and in a simpler form by pious layfolk in their private devotions. The great Churchman mainly responsible for our Morning and Evening Prayer was Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury in the reigns of Henry VIII., Edward VI., and Mary; under Mary, as every schoolboy knows, he was burned to death at Oxford. Now Cranmer found a system of prayers for different times of the day, called the Hours, observed most fully in the monasteries, but to a large extent outside them too, which, in spite of its beauty, was unsuitable for general use because (i) there were far more services than people could be expected to attend; (ii) not enough Scripture was read; (iii) the public services were in Latin-we have a relic of this in the titles of the psalms in our Prayer-Book; and (iv) they were too elaborate for simple people to follow.

Let us now look at the services as they were held in their completest form in the monasteries. At midnight the monks were roused from sleep and proceeded from the dormitory to the church, where they said the first prayers of the new day. This service was rather long and included several lessons from the Bible. When it was over they went back to bed until dawn, when they had the next service, called Lauds (that is, Praises), followed by another called Prime. We may reckon these two as one. The rest of the day was marked by services at the third, sixth, and ninth hours—counting from six o'clock—to which the names Terce, Sext, Nones were given, from the Latin words tertia, sexta, nona, meaning the third, sixth, and ninth hours. This makes five services, leaving out the daily Mass, of which we are not thinking here. The other two were Vespers at sunset, and Compline (so called because it completed the day) last thing at night. Special importance was attached to the number seven, and to the midnight rising, because of the words of the psalms: "Seven times a day will I praise Thee," and " At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto Thee." Out of these seven or eight services Cranmer made our Matins and Evensong. The early morning offices were turned into Matins, the three day offices were not used, and Vespers and Compline formed Evensong, as we shall see presently.

We may ask next, Where did the monks get their services? The services used in the monasteries had been altered in the course of time, but were, nevertheless, essentially the same as those used in monasteries 1,200 years before, and these in their turn go back to the earliest age of the Church. The Apostles themselves had services consisting of psalms, Scripture readings and prayers, out of which was formed the first part of the primitive Liturgy. From this Ante-Communion, as we call it, the Old Testament lesson has dropped out, and all that is left of the psalm-singing is the "Glory be to Thee, O God," before the Gospel, unless we say that the modern hymns represent the psalms. When the need for extra services arose, the model was at hand in the Ante-Communion, which was thus the link between the Apostles and the monks.

But where did the Apostles get their services? They were the very services which they had attended in company with our Lord in the synagogues at Capernaum and elsewhere. And if we push our inquiries still further back, we reach the time when the Jews were exiled to Babylon, far away from their beloved temple, and learned to sing the Lord's song in a strange land, without an altar or sacrifice. Of course, the Church gave a Christian turn to the old Jewish worship, but the framework of the service was the same. The Eucharist which Christ bade us do in remembrance of Him is the greatest possible act of worship, but Matins and Evensong must be reverenced and loved because they are a modern form of the worship which Christ and His Apostles offered to God.

CRANMER'S WORK.—We have seen that Matins and Evensong, though dating from the Reformation in their present form, are yet derived from services which go back to the very first age of the Church, and even beyond that to the Jewish Synagogue. Let us now see exactly how Evensong was made up from the old Latin services of Vespers and Compline.

Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury in Henry VIII,'s reign, was a great scholar, and produced magnificent translations of the old prayers. But something more than translating was necessary; the services had to be simplified and improved. The chief contents of each service were: (i) psalms and a canticle, (ii) a lesson from Scripture, (iii) the Lord's Prayer and other prayers, (iv) versicles and responses. In respect of the psalms and lessons Cranmer made some important changes. Compline had fixed psalms, in the same way as we have Psalm 95, "O come, let us sing unto the Lord," always at Matins, and at Vespers the psalms were always taken from Psalms 111 to 150. In order that the congregation might get to know the whole psalter, it was now divided into sixty parts, to be used at Morning and Evening Prayer on the thirty days of the month. At all the old services, except the midnight office, the lesson was very short, only a verse or two being read, and though changes were made to suit the seasons, yet very little Scripture was brought before the worshippers. To remedy this it was now arranged that two long lessons from Old and New Testaments should be read at each service. These were the greatest changes.

Let us now examine Evensong as it left Cranmer's hands and appeared in the first English Prayer-Book, published in 1549. It began with the Lord's Prayer. This had been the invariable beginning of every office, but the prayer was said softly by the priest only. Then came the opening versicles and responses, taken almost word for word from the old services. Psalms and lessons formed the bulk of the service, as explained above, but they were arranged on a different plan from the old one. The Magnificat came from Vespers; Nunc Dimittis came from Compline, and so did the Creed. The second Lord's Prayer and concluding versicles and responses were taken straight from the old services. The first collect was that of the week, the second a Vespers prayer, and the third—"Lighten our darkness"—was the collect of Compline.

This, then, was the service, distinctly shorter than at present.

Three years later the second edition of the Prayer-Book appeared, and the opportunity was taken to prefix the first part of the service. You have only got to read this carefully, and you will see that the style is different from that of the short collects and responses. It is not a translation from old books, but a free composition in the language of the day. The idea was that after a sentence from the Bible to strike the note of the service, the people should be reminded of the purposes of public worship, and should then confess their sins and receive the assurance of God's forgiveness of sinners. This part is really a penitential introduction to the actual service. At a later period the various prayers after the third collect were composed and placed in their present position.

You will now understand several things which may have puzzled you. It has become a common thing to say the first part of the service in a natural voice, and for the organ not to be heard until "O Lord, open Thou our lips"; and for the last prayers also to be said without any intrusion of music. This is not a fad, but a careful following out of the purpose of the office as shown in its history. Again, the clergy frequently omit some of the first part of the service, and change the last part, substituting other prayers. We have seen the reason for this. The central part is the actual office, the first part being an introduction and the last a supplement. There is a demand nowadays for more variety in our services. This is best met by exercising freedom in the opening and closing parts and keeping the middle, which is practically all from the Bible, untouched. We shall then not be departing from that service which, in all essentials, the Church has used from the beginning.

The following table shows where the different parts of Evensong come from:


Sentences, Exhortation, Confession, Absolution. Added in 1552.


Lord's Prayer, Versicles, Responses. From old services.
Psalms and Lessons. As in old services, but made more varied and much longer.
Magnificat. Vespers.
Nunc Dimittis. Compline.
Creed. Compline.
Lord's Prayer, Versicles, Responses. From old services.

First collect. As in old services.
Second collect. Vespers.
Third collect. Compline.


Prayers for King, etc. Added later.

THE SPIRIT OF THE SERVICE.—Next let us consider in what spirit we should follow the service.

We begin on a low note of penitence, because we arc not worthy to approach the Most High God in worship until we have washed our feet, so to speak, and received that cleansing from daily defilement which Christ alone can give. As a further preparation we say Christ's own prayer. Next the organ sounds, and we begin the work for which we have come to church, that of praising God. It is indeed wonderful to think that He in the glory of heaven should want our poor human worship, yet Jesus has assured us that this is so. For "the Father seeketh such to worship Him in spirit and in truth." The priest turns to us and bids us praise the Lord. We answer that we will—"The Lord's Name be praised."

We proceed with the psalms. They are precious and holy to us because they formed our Lord's hymn-book, and can never be superseded. As centuries of Church life have proved, they have a message for every mood and need. Yet they come from the Old Testament, not the New, and so we end each with the Christian Doxology to show that we interpret it in a Christian sense. An Old Testament lesson follows. Note that we are still in the Old Testament. Sometimes we cannot get much help from the lesson and wonder why it is read. Well, the Old Testament shows how God prepared the way for Christ. He never left Himself without witness, but compared with us, who have Christ the Light of the world, the Hebrews of old were walking in twilight. The wonder is not that they failed so often, but that on the whole they succeeded so well.

Each Evensong brings before us God's plan of salvation. We begin with the Old Testament, which looks forward to Christ. Next comes the Magnificat, which links the two Testaments. It is the splendid song of the Blessed Virgin Mary before Jesus was born, and has been adopted by the Church as the great hymn of the Incarnation, in which God on high stooped so low. Let us always remember this in singing the Magnificat—that we are celebrating God's coming to earth. After this the second lesson is read, from which we learn about Christ's life on earth, or else how His Spirit worked in the first disciples. With our minds fixed on Christ and all He means to us, we join the aged Simeon in his hymn of praise: "Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace."

We now pause and see how far we have got. After the penitential introduction we began with the Old Testament, went on to watch our Lord's coming, gave thanks for it, learned much—if we have been attentive—of God's ways with men. Now we stand and say the Creed together. This is the Church's summary of the truths we have been learning about. It is the custom to face the same way as we recite the Creed. This is our belief, for which we will live and, if need be, die. The service draws to an end with the versicles, responses, and prayers. Before we start on this part there is a valuable incident which we are apt to miss. The priest turns and says, "The Lord be with you," and we answer, "And with thy spirit." This serves to recall our attention, which is possibly wandering, and to remind us that Divine Worship is not a solo. Priest and people each need the other's goodwill and prayers. One last thought. The collect for the week is also found in the Communion Service. It brings the office into relation with the greatest service of all, and recalls our Sunday morning Communion.

Can we improve on this service? A little, perhaps, but very little. One or two details, especially in connection with the opening and closing prayers, or with the choice of psalms and lessons, might be arranged rather better, but in the main the service is well-nigh perfect. It is solid food for grown men, and one of the greatest gifts which our part of the Church Catholic has to offer its sons.

MATINS.—Except for the Te Deum, which needs a section to itself, Matins can be treated more briefly. The only respects in which it differs from Evensong are these: (i) The places of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis are taken by the Te Deum (or Benedicite) and Benedictus (or Jubilate), and an invitation to worship, the Venite, specially suitable for the beginning of Sunday, is added; (2) the second and third collects are different.

The Venite and Te Deum were taken from the long night office beginning at midnight. The Benedicite came from the daybreak office, Lauds, in which it was ordered for Sunday; the Benedictus was also from Lauds. Of the two collects, that for peace was said at Lauds, and that for grace at Prime, the service which followed it immediately.

The Benedicite, or Song of the Three Children, comes from a. part of the Book of Daniel which is found in the Greek Old Testament, but not in the Hebrew Bible. The First English Prayer-Book ordered its use in Lent, and although this direction is no longer given, the custom remains. The Benedictus, or Song of Zacharias at the naming of John the Baptist, comes with special force after the second lesson, from the New Testament, the whole of which is one long telling of the story how God has "visited and redeemed His people."

THE "TE DEUM."—The Te Deum is the grandest of all our hymns, and is used by Christians throughout the world. It is very old, and no one knows for certain who was the composer. A beautiful tradition says that two famous saints, Ambrose and Augustine, composed it together at Milan on the day when Augustine was baptized. But this story is not found until hundreds of years later, and is unlikely. Two Christian songs of even earlier date, the Gloria in Excelsis and the Sanctus of the Communion Service, seem to have been used by the composer, for phrases from these are found in the Te Deum.

The first thirteen verses are a hymn in honour of the Holy Trinity. Heaven and earth—angels in heaven, and on earth apostles, prophets, and martyrs—adore God. We, the Church on earth, join them in a great song of praise to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

We pass on to a confession of faith in Jesus Christ, following the Creed very
Closely. We can see this best by putting the sentences opposite one another.

Thou art the King of Glory:
O Christ.

Thou art the everlasting Son:
of the Father.

When Thou tookest upon
Thee to deliver man:
Thou didst not abhor the
Virgin's womb.

When Thou hadst overcome
the sharpness of death:

Thou didst open the King-
dom of Heaven to all

Thou sittest at the right
hand of God: in the
Glory of the Father.

We believe that Thou shalt
come: to be our Judge.

I believe in Jesus Christ

His only Son our Lord,

Who was conceived by
the Holy Ghost, Born
of the Virgin Mary,

Suffered under Pontius
Pilate, Was crucified,
dead, and buried.

He ascended into heaven,

And sitteth on the right
hand of God the Father

From thence He shall
come to judge the
quick and the dead.

Two verses follow in which we pray for salvation through Christ.

The third part seems to have been added later, and consists mainly of passages from the psalms. It is quite wrong to change the music at "Vouchsafe, O Lord," because this does not mark any new section. If you turn to the Te Deum as printed in the Accession Service at the end of any fairly recent prayer-book of the Church of England, you will find the three parts shown clearly.

Once more we arrange the verses in columns, those on the right giving the number and verse of the psalms as given in our prayer-book.

O Lord, save Thy people: and bless Thine heritage.

Govern them: and lift them
up for ever.

Day by day: we magnify

And we worship Thy Name:
ever world without end.

O Lord, have mercy upon
us: have mercy upon us.

O Lord, let Thy mercy lighten upon us: as our trust is in Thee.

O Lord, in Thee have I trusted: let me never be confounded.

28, 10: O save thy people,
and give Thy blessing
unto Thine inheritance:

feed them, and set them
up for ever.

145, 2: Every day will I
give thanks unto Thee:
and praise Thy Name for
ever and ever.

123, 3: Have mercy upon us,
O Lord, have mercy
upon us.

33, 21: Let Thy merciful kindness, O Lord, be upon us: like as we do put our trust in Thee.

31, I: In Thee, O Lord, have I put my trust: let me never be put to confusion.

THE LITANY.—The Litany forms an important part of the Sunday morning service, being linked on to Matins. If we leave it unsaid, our worship has contained very little special intercession for other people.

Litany is a Greek word meaning "solemn entreaty," very much the same as Rogation, a word of Latin origin, which comes in the phrase "Rogation Days," the three days before Ascension Day. By The Litany we mean the Long Litany, which comes in our Prayer-Book, and is ordered to be said on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. There arc other solemn entreaties in common use at Intercession Services, but this is the only authorized Litany of the Church of England.

Just as Matins and Evensong are based upon old services, so is the Litany. Let us look at the various stages in its long history. In the early days of the Church the deacon would give out subjects for prayer during the Communion Service. "Let us pray," he would say, "for the sick; for travellers; for the Church; for the Bishop," and so on, the people answering after each Kyrie eleison, "Lord, have mercy." This still goes on in the Eastern Churches. If you attended their Communion Service, you would catch nothing of certain parts of the service, conducted by the priest behind the chancel-screen, but you would hear the Litany chanted by the deacon and the congregation.

In the West of Europe a new use arose. In pagan times the people used to have processions round the fields in the spring, praying against damage to the crops by late frosts. The Church, very properly, took over this custom, putting Christian prayers of the Litany kind in place of pagan. Special processions for prayer were also instituted in the South of France about A.D. 470, at a time when earthquakes were frequent. The French Church set apart the three days before Ascension Day for such litanies or rogations, and the custom spread to neighbouring lands.

Our English forefathers were particularly fond of processions. That is one reason why the churches in remote country districts are so big. People wanted plenty of room for their services and processions. Processions before the Sunday Eucharist were very frequent. So we are not surprised to find that the first English service for common use in Church was the Litany, much as we have it now. This was put forth in 1544, by the orders of Henry VIII. The title of the service was "the Common Prayer of Procession." Processions were discouraged at the Reformation, but the word was kept. This Litany lasted a few years only. In Edward VI.'s Prayer-Books a new form, composed by Archbishop Cranmer, took its place. Much of the older form was kept, but he drew upon Eastern and German sources as well.

We have seen that the Litany was once part of the Eucharist. It has now become a separate service, but the Prayer-Book intends it always to precede the Communion Service, as a preparation for this. But it lingers on in the actual service too. The Kyrie eleison ("Lord, have mercy") is a little litany which has become attached to the Ten Commandments. Again, when a hymn is sung in procession as an introduction to the choral Communion Service, the old idea of a processional litany is cropping up once more. In the last few years it has become common for a priest to give out subjects for prayer, before he says, "Let us pray for the whole state of Christ's Church militant here on earth." He is actually starting over again the same practice with which the Litany began in the first instance.

In the middle of our service, the words "Lord, have mercy upon us," etc., occur. This is the most primitive part, round which everything else has been grouped. How old it is may be judged from the words Kyrie eleison. Every choir-boy knows that the responses after the Commandments are called Kyries. Few realize that these are Greek words in a Latin form, and take us back to a very early time in the history of the Roman Church, when Greek was still its language, since the members were chiefly Greek people who had come to live at Rome.

The part which begins, "O Lord, arise and help us," is based upon prayers for use in time of war. During the war it was most appropriate, but the language is difficult to apply in peace-time.

In Edward VI.'s reign a sentence, now happily omitted, ran: "From the Bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities." In 1661, when the Prayer-Book was last revised, the words "rebellion" and "schism" were added to the things from which we pray to be delivered. The country had just recovered from the great rebellion under Cromwell and the religious divisions of the Commonwealth.

SOME WORDS AND THEIR MEANING.—There is a general impression that the Prayer-Book is a hard book, full of words which ordinary people cannot understand. But if one sets to work to draw up a list of hard words in Morning and Evening Prayer it is surprising to find how few really need explaining. A few are noted below, but if their number were much increased, the reader would feel his intelligence was being insulted.

The GENERAL Confession means a confession of our sins in general, as opposed to a confession of particular sins, such as is mentioned in the Office for the Visitation of the Sick. Similarly the General Thanksgiving means a thanksgiving for those good things in which we all share alike. Such a prayer can be offered by the minister on behalf of the congregation, and the Prayer-Book does not intend that they should join in. But the custom of so doing which prevails in some churches is harmless, and there is a real advantage in giving the congregation something to say during the latter part of the service.

SABAOTH in the Te Deum has nothing to do with Sabbath, but is the Hebrew word for hosts. "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts" (that is, the heavenly hosts of angels), conies from Isaiah, chapter vi., and is the song of praise chanted by the angels to Jehovah. The Hebrew word has, by an accident, been left untranslated. Just as we value the scraps of Latin preserved in the Prayer-Book, so the few relics of Hebrew (such as Sabaoth, Cherubim, Seraphim, Abba) should be precious in our eyes.

NOBLE in the Te Deum is a translation of the Latin word candidatus. "White-robed (army of martyrs)" would bring out the meaning better.

ANANIAS, AZARIAS, AND MISAEL, addressed at the end of the Benedicite, are the names of Daniel's three friends, which were changed by Nebuchadnezzar to Shadrach, Abednego, and Meshach. See Daniel i. 7, where the forms of the names arc slightly different.

HELL in the Creed is a stumbling-block to some worshippers, who cannot bear to think of the holy Jesus in connection with the place of torment. But the word meant originally the place of departed spirits, and whatever St. Peter meant by "prison" in his First Epistle, where (iii. 19) he says Christ "went and preached unto the spirits in prison," that the Church means by "hell" in the Creed.

Why should we call the King RELIGIOUS in the Prayer for the High Court of Parliament? Some English Kings have been men of notoriously evil life. The word refers to his office, not to his personal character. The reverence owed to the King by the Christians of the British Dominions is more than the honour given to all "powers that be." The wonderful ceremony of the anointing at the Coronation, which is almost peculiar to our Kings, is considered by Churchmen to convey divine grace for the monarch's high office, so that it becomes truly religious.

THE RUBRICS.—The rest of our space may fitly be devoted to a brief study of these. The word rubric comes from the Latin and means red; it is explained by the fact that the directions for worship which accompanied the prayers in the old books were written in red.

Facing the first page of Morning Prayer is a very important rubric, which says that "such ornaments of the Church, and of the ministers thereof, at all times of their ministration, shall be retained, and be in use, as were in this Church of England, by the authority of Parliament, in the second year of King Edward the Sixth." This direction in its present form dates from 1661, when, at the Restoration of Charles II., the Prayer-Book was revised. At first sight it would seem that all we have to do is to look up what was allowed in the way of ornaments and vestments at the beginning of Edward VI.'s reign; that is legal in the Church of England to-day. But could this have been the intention of the Bishops in 1661? Could they have meant to restore things which had long dropped out of use? And if so, why did they take no steps to revive their use? This is not the place to enter into so controversial a matter, but the following anecdote may be recorded. At the Savoy Conference in 1661, between the Bishops and the Puritans, the latter said: "Forasmuch as this rubric seemeth to bring back the cope, albe, etc., and other vestments forbidden by the Common Prayer Book, 5 and 6 Edward VI. ... we desire that it may be wholly left out." To which the Bishops answered: "We think it fit that the rubric continue as it is."

The "Ordinary" mentioned in the rubric is, as a rule, the Bishop.

The Absolution is ordered to be pronounced by the priest alone, the prayers before and after being assigned to the minister. A deacon, therefore, may read other parts of the service, but may not give the Absolution.

It is instructive to compare the rubrics introducing the Lord's Prayer in the two places. The first Lord's Prayer is to be said with an "audible" voice, the people joining in; the second in a "loud" voice, the "clerks" (or singing men) as well as the people doing their part. This bears out what was said above about the musical part of the service beginning with "O Lord, open Thou our lips."

The rubric about the first lesson has been taken to mean that a layman may read the lessons. We have had "the minister " and "the priest," now it is "he that readeth."

Notice that "Glory be to the Father, etc.," comes after all the psalms, and even after the Gospel canticles, which were uttered before the mystery of Our Lord's Divinity was made clear, but that it is unnecessary at the end of the Te Deum, which is itself a hymn to the Holy Trinity.

After the three collects an Anthem is ordered for "Quires and places where they sing." This means Cathedrals, Royal Chapels, etc. It is not desirable that ordinary parish churches should have the same music as Cathedrals, and, indeed, the Prayer-Book would seem to provide expressly that they should not.

Lastly: At the beginning and end of Morning and Evening Prayer alike it is made clear that these are daily services. The average Churchman still looks upon them as Sunday services only. By God's mercy, daily services have been restored in many churches, but very little use is made by the laity of the privilege. Probably few are permitted by the circumstances of their lives to attend regularly, but nearly all could go at times if they had the will so to do. A wonderful peace and stability of soul is gained by those who, year after year, have said the Church's Daily Prayers. If the whole office is impossible or irksome, let us at least follow the Church's guidance in the study of Scripture, and read the appointed psalms and lessons each day.

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