The service of Evensong, or Evening Prayer, is a combination and a development of the daily Monastic services. Monks and Nuns would be summoned to worship at midnight to welcome the new day. After this, they would go back to bed until dawn, when they returned to the church to sing Lauds. During the day, the third, sixth and ninth hours – measured from 6 o’clock in the morning – were marked by the services Terce, Sext and Nones. At sunset, Vespers would be sung, followed by Compline, the last thing at night. This seven-fold pattern of worship is very ancient, and can be traced back to when then Jews were exiled to Babylon, far away from the Temple. At that time, they learned to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”, as the psalmist says, without altar or sacrifice. The services are mentioned in other psalms, for example “Seven times a day will I praise Thee,” and “At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto Thee.” When the Gospels mention Jesus and his disciples reading scripture, praying and singing psalms, they would be almost certainly using one of these forms of worship.
At the English reformation, Cranmer and others saw the importance of continuing this tradition that predates even the establishment of synagogues. However, the reformers were also determined to redemocratise Christianity – to involve the whole of the community in worship – and recognised that it was too much to expect the whole parish to gather seven times a day. So, the first two monastic services were combined into Morning Prayer, Vespers and Compline put together as Evening Prayer, and the services translated into English. Cranmer and his colleagues were also determined that the congregation should know and love the psalter and the scriptures; hence, the very short readings and the restricted number of psalms used at Compline were replaced by a Lectionary giving a schedule for singing of all of the psalms, plus a complete list of long readings from the Old and New Testaments, setting out the Gospel, the Good News.
Although at ToTH we use the 1662 Book of Common Prayer text for Evensong, most of the English text of central part of the service was already in use by 1549. The Introduction, consisting of Sentences, Exhortation, Confession and Absolution, was added in 1552, as were the Intercessions that conclude the service. The distinction is preserved to this day, with the Introduction and Intercessions being spoken, and the central section – derived entirely from scripture and as used in the ancient services – being sung. The fact that two services are combined has resulted in the Lord’s Prayer occurring twice!
Evensong has inspired many composers to set the texts to music. These range from late Renaissance composers such as Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, to the high Victorian geniuses such as Charles Villiers Stanford, Thomas Attwood Walmisley and to later masters of the form such as Herbert Murrill, Herbert Howells and Basil Harwood. This wealth of excellent music has ensured that, after a period of decline, Evensong is a small growth areas within modern Christianity, both within the Anglican-Episcopalian Communion and as an export; perhaps surprisingly, an increasing number of non-Anglican churches in Germany, the Netherlands and other countries are celebrating Evensong (in English!) so that their choirs and congregations can experience the wonderful music and the Cranmer’s stirring language.
So, when we are asked “What did Jesus do?”, one of our possible answers is that He and the disciples often celebrated something very closely related to Evensong. We continue this 2,600 year old tradition at ToTH at 6 pm on the third Sunday of each month, from August to May inclusive.