Posts Tagged ‘Book of Common Prayer’

On compline

August 7, 2018

On a recent trip to Edinburgh, one of my finds in one of my favourite second-hand bookshops was a pamphlet I hadn’t seen for over 40 years, though I’d never forgotten it – a version of Compline for Sunday, the very first version arranged to be sung in English, with which I was familiar from church and school in my younger days.

The divine office of the Catholic church is a complicated thing, which I won’t muddy the waters with here; suffice it to say that Compline was the last prayer of the day, said or sung immediately before the monks went to bed, and basically it is about wanting to be kept safe during the night, when all sorts of perils are abroad. There aren’t too many of those, perhaps, for us to worry about nowadays, but in Anglo-Saxon times for example, when you were never sure whether your monastery might be attacked and burned by marauding Vikings in the night, things were clearly rather different…

Night-time is a curious time, anyway, if you think about it: we are asleep, mostly, and thus at our most vulnerable, as well as at the mercy of our dreams and nightmares, if not insomnia. And one third of our life is spent in that state, in the dark. In those long-forgotten and dangerous days, when the biology of sleep and the psychology of dreams was unknown, praying to be kept safe made sense.

The service is short – about ten or fifteen minutes at the most – and some of it is only semi-audible prayers, but then there are the lovely plainsong chants of the psalms, and a hymn about the arrival of nightfall, Te lucis ante terminum. It’s soothing to listen to, calming and absolutely appropriate to the time of day when you are slowing down, ready for bed and sleep. If you want to listen to it, recordings are out there on the web.

I’m a little surprised that I’m actually quite so attached to this English version, rather than the Latin original (which I do also like); so many of the English versions of the old Latin services read like something translated by a translation program and are about as spiritual as a bus timetable, but not this one. When Cranmer produced the Book of Common Prayer for the new, reformed English church in the late 1540s, he combined the two old services of Vespers and Compline into Evensong, and although that gave rise to the wonders of Anglican psalmody, it’s a longer and more cluttered service, which isn’t so specific about the approach of night and for me, does not have the same comforting effect.


Diarmaid MacCulloch: All Things Made New

January 10, 2018

51EaEVd-aYL._AC_US218_I think the blurb on this book is deliberately somewhat vague and misleading; the book isn’t a book so much as a collection of diverse essays and book reviews MacCulloch has written over quite a period of time, all linked in some way by Reformation themes. Having said that – and shame on Penguin Books for their marketing – it is a very good collection of pieces, as one would expect from the author.

His introduction is challenging, and reminds us of his magisterial scope, taking in Luther‘s profound pessimism about human beings and his seeing their salvation as completely dependent on God (I can’t help seeing such a god as a kind of gigantic, slightly sadistic, computer-game player), underlining the profound religious differences that exist between the United States and Europe, which are not usually understood or taken into account, and reminding us that during sixteenth century, if toleration existed, it was in Eastern Europe – Poland and Romania – rather than in the West… He never shies away from pointing out clearly the contradictions, contortions and illogicalities of both Protestant and Catholic beliefs.

There are sections on the Reformation generally, but a good deal of the book is taken up with the English Reformation more specifically. I didn’t know, for instance, that one of the primary financial motives behind the dissolution and destruction of our monasteries was to raise cash to build coastal fortifications against a possible French invasion. One of the lengthier and most interesting chapters explores and charts the complexities of the characters, beliefs and infighting during the reign of Henry VIII which ultimately permitted a successful reformation in this country, along with the attendant cultural vandalism. MacCulloch is also fascinating on the development of the Book of Common Prayer.

I particularly liked his description of the ‘theological schizophrenia’ of the Church of England… the more I read, the more confusing and confused the entire establishment and development of the English Church appears, and MacCulloch does nothing to dissipate this impression. He tackles the inaccurate, falsified and plain biased accounts of the English Reformation over the years, and also provides an interesting and helpful survey of a range of historians of the Reformation from various perspectives.

The book concludes with two rather long and to be honest, slightly tiresome essays, one on Hooker and the other on a forger of documents who deceived historians for over a century; though I was expecting (and enjoyed) an academic book, these two pieces seemed just a bit too specialised, really.

A useful read if you are seriously into history and religion; a good read because anything by MacCulloch has been, so far, in my experience.

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