The Origins of Evensong

A Sermon preached
The Seventh Sunday after Trinity (Year I )
Evensong 7:00 PM, July 30, 2017
The Parish of St. John the Baptist, South Cowichan BC


According to Wikipedia, a baseball is:

a ball used in the sport of the same name, baseball. The ball features a rubber or cork center, wrapped in yarn, and covered, in the words of the Official Baseball Rules “with two strips of white horsehide or cowhide, tightly stitched together.”

Sung Evening Prayer, or Evensong, is like a baseball in that it has three parts. I’m sure the similarity struck you, too.


The cork or rubber centre is the oldest part. It’s the sung parts – the versicles and responses, the preces, the psalms, and the canticles. Evening Prayer as we have it in the Book of Common Prayer (“BCP”) is derived from two old monastic services, namely Vespers and Compline. Vespers would have been sung at sunset and included the canticle Magnificat, or the Song of Mary. Compline would have been sung at the end of the day, just before bed, and it would have included the Nunc Dimittis, or the Song of Simeon. All of this would have been sung in Latin in plainsong, or some simple two- or four-part chants.

In the 16th century, in the reign of the boy-king Edward VI, son of Henry VIII and half-brother of Mary and Elizabeth, who succeeded him, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, had the opportunity to reform the liturgy of the Church of England. Thomas Cranmer had been appointed as Archbishop by Henry VIII, but the old man was quite conservative – he liked the services in Latin, he wanted his clergy to be unmarried, and liked his bishops to be submissive to royal authority, and not to the pope. Cranmer had been married once before as a young man, but his bride died early, and Cranmer was subsequently ordained a priest. However, on a trip to Germany to advocate for the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon he fell in with some Lutheran reformers, and secretly married. Cranmer, much to his and everybody else’s surprise, was then nominated by the King to be the Archbishop, so Cranmer kept his marriage secret from the king and just about everybody else. He wanted to have services in English, but the only thing he was able to get published and authorized in Henry VIII’s reign was The Great Litany. With the death of the old king and the sucession of his young son Edward VI, and the regency of dukes favourable to Reformation principles, Cranmer had his chance.

Cranmer was aware that in ancient times in cathedrals and other city churches there were two services of worship every day, one in the morning and one in the evening. However, so great was the influence of St. Benedict and monasticism in the Latin church that the forms of those services were lost and replaced by communities of religious who followed the Rule of Benedict: seven services daily, mostly psalms and canticles and what would seem to us exceedingly brief passages from scripture, a sentence or two at most. Cranmer wanted to have a Church of England where ordinary people could pray daily, and so he created Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. Not having any models from ancient times, he reworked what he did know, namely the services of the monastics, which is how Vespers and Compline became Evening Prayer.

Frontispiece-chained-bible-q38-2080x2446As a good reformer he wanted the common people to become biblically literate, and so he set up a lectionary so that practically the whole of the Bible would be read in one year at the services of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. He trusted that the Bible could speak for itself, and did not make any provision for the clergy to preach at these services – they led the prayers, the scriptures were read, and God was thus worshipped. One might wonder why people could not just read the Bible at home, but in fact, despite the new technology of the printing press, books were still expensive and valuable; in Cranmer’s time most Bible were chained to the lecterns so that they could not be easily stolen. Many people could not read, so their exposure to scripture took place in the church building. Because this was a penitential time Cranmer also included a prayer of confession at the beginning, and said prayers at the end. All of this was included in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, and that core format has not changed much since then in our own BCP.

So, in Evening Prayer we have the monastic core – the cork and rubber centre of the liturgical baseball – and then the Reformation prayers and readings – the twine going around the centre. The monastic core is what we chant, and the reformation additions are read and said. And, of course, all of this is now done in the language understood by the people, English.

The psalter in the BCP pre-dates the Authorized Version/ The King James Version, and is in fact essentially that of Miles Coverdale’s 1535 translation of the Bible, which it self was based on earlier English versions. The psalter in particular it was based on the Jerome’s Latin version of the Psalms, which was based on the Greek Septuagint. While Jerome translated all of the rest of the text of his Latin translation (“he Vulgate”) from the Hebrew and Greek originals, when it came to the psalms he produced no fewer than three translations. At the direction of church authorities one of these translations was translated from the Greek Septuagint and not the Hebrew original, and followed other ancient versions; this is the version that was included in the Vulgate and used in the monastic offices, and not one of the two he translated directly from Hebrew. Thus, in the BCP Psalter we have an English translation of a Latin translation of a Greek translation of the original Hebrew. You’ll appreciate that something might have been missed along the way, and so in our Canadian BCP of 1959/1962 Archbishop Carrington of Quebec gently revised it to bring the text more in accord with the original. That said, it’s still Tudor English, and has a bias towards patriarchal interpretations!

Sleeping ParishionersCranmer expected that Holy Communion would be the principal act of worship on Sunday, but in the medieval period it had become very uncommon for people to communicate, and this was still too revolutionary in 1549. So, Holy Communion was shortened, and turned into Ante-Communion. As well, the service tended to be shmushed together with Morning Prayer and the Litany, and thus morning worship would be this remarkably dull liturgy of two hours or more with repeated prayers for the monarch and typically dreadful long sermons unless one had the blessing of a great preacher like John Donne. It nearly killed the Church of England, and I suspect that this is why Methodism and other denominations proved to be so popular in comparison to the Established Church.

It was in this context that Evening Prayer became such a bright point in Anglican tradition, It wasn’t too long, it was an opportunity for the choirs to shine as they did old and new four-part chants, and as it was a Sunday clergy began to offer sermons, despite Cranmer having made no provision. For many people Evensong became the principal form of worship, a remarkable synthesis of music, scripture, and preaching.

As well, in the 18th century another innovation crept in – hymns. The original BCP made no provision for hymns, but by 1750 many clergy, especially Evangelicals, were incorporating hymns in the services in the morning and evening. So, with the introduction of hymns inspired by but not directly from scripture we arrive at the shape of Evening Prayer as most of us have known it.

The outermost layer, then, the stitched cowhide of the liturgical baseball, is preaching and hymnody.

There are, of course, alternatives to Sung Evening Prayer and Choral Evensong. The monastic services never ended, and whether in Roman Catholicism or Anglicanism one can find the old services in English translations. Communities such as Iona and Taize take a different approach to worship, grounding their services in repetitive chants or popular Celtic tunes. The Book of Alternative Services has contemporary language versions of Morning and Evening Prayer, and these have been set to music. But there is something striking and wonderful about this grand old service as it has evolved and become a familiar means of worship.

So come, hear the word of God.
Offer to God in Christ the praises due his name.
Proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in word, chant, and hymn.
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
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