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    Everyman's History of the Prayer Book
by Percy Dearmer








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THIS "Everyman's History" would be unfaithful to its modest purpose if it tried to offer the general reader a complete account of the development of our services; since such an account would necessarily be full of those complicated technicalities which make liturgiology a forbidding science even to many who are deeply interested in the devotional and artistic aspects of public worship. We must therefore be content with the main outlines, and with these only in so far as they concern the intelligent worshipper of to-day.

The great thing is that every man, woman, and child should realize the distinct character of the services in which we take part. This is where the old-fashioned type of service failed; and it failed because the proper ceremonial had receded from it, and people had come to regard the Sunday morning service of Mattins, Litany, Ante-Communion, Sermon, and Hymns as one long and rather formless "liturgy." They did appreciate its devotional beauty. Let me quote what the saintly Evangelical leader, Charles Simeon, said about a hundred years ago :—

"I am never nearer to God than I often am in the reading-desk." "As for the Liturgy, no commendation can be too great for it. . . . If a whole assembly were addressing God in the spirit of the Liturgy, as well as in the words, there would be nothing to compare with such a spectacle on the face of the earth; it would approximate more to heaven than anything of the kind that was ever seen in the world."

If the Evangelical Revival deepened men's sense of this heavenliness of worship, the Tractarian and the Liturgical Revivals, which followed in their turn upon it, have spread the devotional spirit far and wide by showing the beauty and intelligibility of our services. The best and truest parts of these three movements are with us still, purified and strengthened by the work of many who were called Broad Churchmen, and of others, like Maurice, who stood outside the party divisions of the 19th century. The Liturgical Revival helped men to escape from formalism by making the ceremonial itself answer the question, " What mean ye by this service?" It drew men together to the D¡vine Presence ; it quickened their spirits by beauty of form, colour, and movement, by sweetness of sound and scent, by making, in fact, the work of God in the Church less unworthy of the work of God in the woods and meadows outside; it taught them by that simple directness of appeal which visible ceremonial makes, uniting all hearts in a common emotion of thankfulness and praise, in a common thrill of worship and devotion.

We have had, indeed, during the last century a great recovery of the art of prayer, of common and united prayer; and that is why the so-called High and Low Church parties of the Victorian era are coming together again, each giving up some of its defects, and both merging in the ideal of an evangelical worship carried out with liturgical perfection.

Thus Churchmen as a whole are gradually learning to take a real and understanding part in our various services, not regarding them as a uniform "liturgy," performed at the reading-desk, but entering into the spirit of each solemn act of praise or prayer, as each is made clear by its appointed ceremonial. Thus, to mention the most fundamental point, the different services are held in different places, and have each its own character clearly stamped upon it. The Holy Communion is a great action done solemnly at the altar. Baptism is a service of admission, done at the font near the church door; the Marriage rite is the Christian blessing of the affianced pair, leading them from the body of the church to the Lord's Table; the Commination begins with warning from the pulpit and concludes with penitence when the priest and clerks kneel amidst the people in the nave; the Litany is a special intercession, sung in winding procession through the aisles, to culminate at the chancel-step, or said quietly at a kneeling-desk outside the screen. But Mattins and Evensong are said or sung within the choir, the congregation itself being there accommodated when there is room. They are thus choir services, and have a different character and object from the rest.


(A pre-reformation screen with returned stalls, remade in the 17th century.)

What is this character of the Divine Service, as the choir offices are called? It is the daily reading and hearing of Holy Scripture — primarily the recitation of the Psalter, accompanied by prayer and by meditation upon the teaching of the Bible.

This is admirably described in the preface, "Concerning the Service [that is the Divine Service] of the Church," which states that the English Church set herself to restore "this godly and decent order of the ancient Fathers," by arranging that the whole Bible should be read through at the daily services, once in the year, and the Psalter continuously recited once a month for the ancient Fathers had intended "that the Clergy . . . should (by often reading, and meditation in God's word) be stirred up to godliness themselves, and be more able to exhort others by wholesome doctrine, and to confute them that were adversaries to the truth and further, that the people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church) might continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion." It is then evident that the Divine Service is a daily and not a special Sunday service; and that one of the chief objects of the Reformers is frustrated unless it is said regularly every day.

This character of the Divine Service takes us far back to the origins of set "Hours" of worship. We find that Daniel (vi. 10) was in the habit of praying three times a day. The Psalmist speaks in the 119th Psalm of midnight prayers — "At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee " — of prayers before daybreak —
"Early in the morning do I cry unto thee," and "Mine eyes prevent the night watches." He also uses the words, "Seven times a day do I praise thee"; but, although this was applied to the Seven Canonical Hours of the Christian Church later on, we must remember that the Jews used the sacred number merely to suggest frequency or iteration, as in the phrase "purified seven times in the fire " of the 12th Psalm.

In the Acts of the Apostles we find that the first Christians were like Daniel in observing three set hours of prayer. Pentecost, we read in the 2nd chapter, was at the Third Hour; and a picture is given further on of the faithful "day by day continuing stedfastly with one accord in the Temple, and breaking bread at home," which means probably that they went to the Temple for their "hours," and had the Eucharist in the house of one of the brethren. In the 3rd chapter we read of Peter and John "going up into the Temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour"; and in the 10th chapter, Cornelius and St. Peter see their visions when praying alone at the 9th and 6th hours respectively. Here, then, are three set hours of prayer, corresponding with the Terce, Sext, and None, of later ages — the Third Hour of the day (Terce), at 9 a.m. ; the Sixth Hour (Sext), at noon; and the Ninth Hour (None), at 3 p.m.


We know that these three hours were continued by the early Church; and they are mentioned by Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian (c. 200 A.D.) as a recognized custom. They were at first a matter of private devotion, but gradually public services were instituted. The first, probably, of these was the Saturday night service, kept as a vigil or preparation for the Sunday Eucharist, of which we see the beginning in St. Paul's midnight service at Troas (Acts xx. 7-11). In this connexion it is worth recalling that many English bishops' charges in the 17th century lay stress on the Saturday Evensong, which at the present day some churches are restoring as a sung service at 8.15 or 8.30 p.m. — for it is found in practice that there is no better way of preparing for the Lord's Day. In early times this Saturday service was in theory one that lasted all night (as it actually did on Easter Even), and it is still called the All-night Service in Russia and Greece; but in practice it was generally divided into two — one at lamp-lighting and one at cock-crow — with bedtime in between.

We can only sketch in outline here the development of the primitive hours of private or family prayer into the public order of Divine Service, as Christendom grew more numerous and churches increased. The cock-crow service was extended to other holy days besides Sundays by about A.D. 200, and consisted of Psalms, Lessons, and Prayers. The Saturday night services became a daily Vespers, and by about the year 300 daily Mattins and Evensong (as we should now call them) were a recognized institution. The Pilgrimage of Silvia (or Etheria), written c. A.D. 385, gives an interesting description of the nocturnal service held daily in the Church of the Resurrection at Jerusalem, telling how sets of priests and deacons said prayers between the alternate canticles and psalms with their antiphons, among the monks, virgins, and lay folk, till the bishop came at daybreak for the Eucharist (if missa here means the Eucharist); and how other services were held, at the Sixth, Ninth, and Tenth Hours.

A very early Christian Church at Taff' Kha, in Syria (perhaps of the third century, and the oldest in the world).

It was not, however, till about A.D. 400 that the "Little Hours" of Terce, Sext, and None had generally developed from private prayers into public services. By about A.D. 500 (keeping to round numbers for the sake of simplicity), the monks of the West had added two more services — one on rising from bed, called Prime, which was followed by the daily meeting of the Chapter (the business meeting of the monks); the other before going to bed, called Compline, that is the completion of the day.

Thus, although in Egypt and other places the monks were still content with the primitive services at lamp-lighting and cock-crow, the monks of the West set themselves to carry out the literal (though not the real) meaning of the Psalmist's words, "Seven times a day will I praise thee." There were in fact eight Hours or Choir Services altogether, which were said at seven different times, the night service of Mattins and the dawn-service of Lauds being said together. They may be set down thus :—

Cock-crow: 3. Nocturns (later called Mattins).
Sunrise: 4. Lauds (followed directly after Nocturns).
On rising: 5. Prime
9 a. m.: 6. Terce. The Little Hours
Noon: 7. Sext.
3 p. m.: 8. None.
Sunset: 1. Vespers (called Evensong in England).


2. Compline.

These were the services as they were written down at Rome about the 6th century and adopted in England and many other countries. They consisted almost entirely of portions of the Scriptures: the Psalter was said through each week (not each month only as in our Prayer Book), and there was a regular system
of Lessons from the Old and the New Testament.
Here was in fact the "godly and decent order of the ancient Fathers," to which our English Reformers turned for their ideal. With the exception that some Lessons were taken from the Fathers, the only additions to the Bible portions were themselves mainly shorter Scriptural passages: these were the familiar opening Versicles and Responses ("O Lord, open thou," &c.), Responds (appropriate chants sung after the Lessons), Antiphons (appropriate chants, at first after every verse, and later before and after whole Psalms and Canticles) and lastly the Kyries and Lord's Prayer with the Preces or Suffrages, which formed a little Litany, surviving in our Kyries, Lord's Prayer, and the Versicles and Responses, "0 Lord, shew thy mercy upon us," etc.


"O LORD, open thou my lips;" etc. The opening Versicles, Responses, Gloria, Venite, etc., of Mattins. (From a particularly fine English MS. Book of Hours, c. 1305.)

These eight Hours of the Divine Service in the 8th century were in three groups, as in the following tables. For convenience we add — in small type and square brackets — the main additions of the Mediaeval Breviary, which will be mentioned next:—

[Lord's Prayer.]
"0 Lord, open thou," etc.
Venite, with Invitatory.
[Metrical Hymn.]
The Nocturn Psalms, with Antiphons.
V. and R. Lord's Prayer [Creed].
3 Lessons with Responds.
(On Sundays, 3 Nocturns, having in all 18 Psalms and 9 Lessons. On Festivals, 9 Lessons with fewer Psalms.)
[On Festivals, Te Deum.]

[Lord's Prayer.]
"O God, make speed," etc.
5 Psalms, with Antiphons.
Short Lesson.
[Metrical Hymn.]
Canticle (at Lauds, Benedictus: at Vespers, Magnificat), with Antiphon.
Kyries and Lord's Prayer (ferial).
Suffrages (ferial).
[Collect of Day.]

These were like Lauds and Evensong, but there were only three Psalms (three parts of Ps. 119, for each of the three Little Hours) and no Canticle.
[The Office Hymn was placed before the Psalms, and was invariable.]
    These form a subsidiary group, and may be classed with Groups III and II.
    PRIME followed Group III in having three invariable Psalms and no Canticle.
[The Prime Office Hymn followed Group III in position and invariableness.]
    COMPLINE was like Group II, but had four invariable Psalms : the Canticle was Nunc Dimittis.
[The Compline Office Hymn followed Group II in position and variableness.]
They wear copes over their surplices: the MS. service-book is on a large lectern. (From an early 15th cent. MS.)

Our next point of time is about A.D. 1250, when the revised Hours of the Breviary (p. 44) began to come into use, mainly through the Franciscans. The principal changes in structure were the addition of the Lord's Prayer at the beginning of each service, and of prayers at the end. Metrical hymns — Office Hymns as they are called — had been adopted from the Benedictines. The Te Deum had been put into Mattins for festival use; and the Athanasian Creed had been inserted in Prime;
memorials and collects of Saints were added at the end of some Hours. Later, the Ave Maria came also to be added, though not uniformly. The changes in substance were for the worse and of the most serious character the Bible Lessons were reduced, and Lessons from apocryphal
stories of the Saints were multiplied.

The decadence continued, as we have explained on pp. 34 and 41; though indeed we have to remember that in other respects this period was beyond praise; to it we owe the matchless churches of Mediaeval Christendom — churches that were loved and frequented by rich and poor alike — full of prayer, and furnished by the people with a faultless sense of beauty. By the time of the Reformation the legendary element was so bad that "to lie like a second nocturn" became a proverb; and the services — besides being said at inappropriate hours in a language not understood by the people — were in a state of such extraordinary complication that, as the Prefiice says, "many times there was more business to find out what should be read than to read it when it was found out."

The opening words of the Placebo, or Evensong of the Dead, with the beginning of Ps. 116. (The coffin is covered with a herse cloth, richly embroidered: the herse is a wooden frame with twelve candles in it. The altar has two candles on it, and a golden reredos behind: it is stripped of its frontal as a sign of mourning. Three clerks in copes stand before a lectern. On the left are two mourners.)

But this was not all. To the long and intricate Hours yet more was added in the Middle Ages: Commemorations were multiplied; and it became the custom to say or sing in addition a Little Service of our Lady and the Service of the Dead. To these were sometimes added the Seven Penitential Psalms and the Fifteen Gradual Psalms, not to mention the Rosary and other private devotions. Obviously this gradual accretion of services had become for many a burden too great to bear. The result was irreverence and neglect. At Exeter, for instance, in 1330, we read of the clerks beguiling the time by pouring wax from their candles on to the shaven heads of those ill the lower stalls ; and in some cathedrals the canons used to come in at the beginning of service, bow, and walk out again.

The result of all this was the Reformation. So says Cranmer's preface to the Prayer Book, Concerning the Service of the Church, which was written before 1549. In place of the Psalter being only recited in part and the Bible read in unintelligent fragments, in place of the "legends," which really were legends — " some untrue, some uncertain, some vain and superstitious" — in place of the confusion caused by the "number and hardness of the rules called the Pie,' the Divine Service was restored to a "language and order" "much agreeable to the mind and purpose of the old Fathers.

How this was done is familiar to every church-goer; and we have already described, in chapters 5 to 11, the general history of the reform.

We can best show how the old services were combined into our present Mattins and Evensong by the following tables. We must, however, bear in mind that such combination was not an innovation in principle : outside the monasteries, the clergy did not attempt to pray seven times a day, and had made two services out of the eight, calling the first six by the general name of Mattins, and the last two (Evensong and Compline) by the general name of Evensong — thus forming a very lengthy and complicated Morning and Evening Prayer.
We have also to remember that the English Service has lost the Office Hymn, Antiphons, and the Responds to the Lessons — the loss of the Office Hymn having been afterwards made good by Hymn-books; and has gained enormously by the whole Psalter being said "in course" for the Psalms, and the whole Bible being read "in course," in place of the mere snippets which had formed the Lessons of the later Middle Ages.

The Sarum Evensong is printed in
Clarendon type,
The Sarurn Compline in CAPITALS.

Lord s Prayer.
0 God, make speed, etc.
Glory be, etc.
[Antiphons omitted].
Sentences, Exhortn., Confessn., Absoln., 2nd P.B., also "O Lord, open Thou" (from Mattins). (There had been a Canfessn. and
Absoln. at Compline
[Office Hymn omitted.]
Canticle, Magnificat.
   (Omission supplied by Hymn Books.)
   Alternatives to Canticles, 2ndP.B.
KYRIES (Creed added here in 1st P. B.)
[Confession, etc., omitted.]
Collect of Day.
Other Collects.
Creed placed before Kyries, 2nd P.B.
  Anthem, and the Five Prayers. 5th P. B., 1661. (An anthem, e.g. "Salve Regina," had often been sung after Compline in the pre-Reformation period.)
The Sarum Mattins is printed in
Clarendon type.
The Sarum Lauds in CAPITALS.

Lord's Prayer.
O Lord, open thou, etc.
O God, make speed, etc.
Glory be, etc.

Canticle, Venite
Sentences, Exhortn., Confessn., Absoln., 2nd P.B. (There had been a Confn. and Absolution at Prime.)
[Office Hymn omitted.]
Psalms [Antiphons omitted].
Lesson [Instead of Groups of Lessons with Responds].
Canticle, Te Deum [on Festivals in Sarum use],
CANTICLE, BENEDICITE [on Sundays, with Antiphon, in Sarum use].
(This omission supplied many times over by Hymn Books.)
Alternative Canticle, 2nd P. B.
Kyries (from Prime).
Creed (Prime).
Lord's Prayer (Prime).
Creed placed here, 2nd P. B.
Anthem and the
Five Prayers, 5th P. B.

This, then, is the character of the Divine Service. There are a few prayers in it, or added to it, but in the main it is a service of Psalm and Canticle, of singing and Bible — reading. The Psalter is indeed the very essence of the Service, and has been, as we have seen, ever since the Christian Church sprang from the loins of the Jewish. Mattins and Evensong are Bible Services; for the prayers and metrical hymns are but additions to the solid basis of Holy Scripture, while the sermon and extra hymns added to the Prayer Book service after Sunday Evensong (and in many churches after Mattins also) are merely a popular addition, and form no part of the Prayer Book order.

"Beatus vir qui non abut in consilio impiorum." "Blessed is the man that bath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly." From a Psalter, written at Winchester, probably in the time of Bishop Æthelwold, 963-84.

The Divine Service of the Anglican Communion is not incapable of improvement: the Lectionary, for instance, needs thorough revision; all the service before "O Lord, open thou our lips" should be removed, and we need a better system of intercession after the Third Collect; but the action of the Reformers has had one remarkable justification. The Divine Service has retained its hold upon the affections of the people, as it has done in no other part of the Catholic Church. Indeed, it is often said that Mattins and Evensong are too popular, because so many people come to them on Sunday instead of to the Holy Communion. We must not put Mattins into a corner because of this, but must do what we can to make the Holy Communion better understood and loved; so that the people may learn to emulate the zeal of their Mediaeval forefathers, whose practice was to keep the Lord's Day holy by attending "Mattins, Mass, and Evensong." They ought indeed to go together: Saturday Evensong (which is the First Evensong of Sunday) and Sunday Mattins are the proper preparation for the Sunday Eucharist; and Sunday Evensong (which is the second Evensong) is the fit thanksgiving for it; and this is why the Prayer Book appoints the same collect for Saturday Evensong and the three Sunday services. "These ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone."

(From a Franciscan Breviary, the finest 15th century Florentine work, done in the convent of S. Croce, shortly after the year 1482.)

For the Divine Service is an invaluable part of the Christian life, a great safeguard against distorted ideas and weak-minded devotions, a great instrument of sobriety, peace, intelligence, and depth in religion. It is a service of quiet and thoughtful worship, of meditation, of learning, remembering, and reflection. There is much rest in it, much time to ponder, and pray, and to relax in God from the strain of mundane life, spreading our souls out in the sunshine of heaven, drinking in the atmosphere of ancient holy deeds and thoughts, strengthening our inner life by the fellowship of the Common Prayer, and lifting up tranquil hearts in piety and thankfulness to the God of our fathers.

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