Morning Prayer

Each weekday at 7:30am, my parish church, St. Alban’s, is livestreaming Morning Prayer. It is a simple service but I have found it moving and meaningful. I’ve been reminded of the consolatory function of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer (Matins and Evensong) for so many Christians for so many years of pain and trouble and fear. I’m going to post here a relevant passage from my biography of the Book of Common Prayer.  


So days were begun and ended in communal prayer. In institutions that featured chapel services — the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge most famously, but also public schools, preparatory schools, the Inns of Court — and where attendance was mandatory, this rhythm of worship was still more pronounced. Cranmer’s 1549 order, which would later undergo significant change, begins with the priest reciting the Lord’s Prayer “with a loud voice” — this in contrast to the old Roman practice, which likewise began Matins with the Lord’s Prayer but instructed the priest to say it silently. After centuries of liturgical prayers being muttered in low tones, and in a language unknown to the people, the new model demands audible English. After this prayer comes a beautiful exchange taken from Psalm 51: the priest says, “O Lord, open thou my lips,” and the people reply, “And my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.” Then “O God, make speed to save me” calls forth the answer, “O Lord, make haste to help me.” Such echoes and alternations are intrinsic to the structure of liturgical prayer: praise and petition, gratitude and need. The whole of the Matins service repeatedly enacts this oscillation.

After further prayers and readings from Scripture, the service comes to a close with a series of “collects” (pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable): these brief but highly condensed prayers were a specialty of Cranmer’s. He did not invent them — Latin liturgies are full of them — but he gave them a distinctive English style that would be much imitated in the coming centuries. Here is the final collect of Matins:

O Lord our heavenly father, almighty and ever-living God, which hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day: defend us in the same with thy mighty power; and grant that this day we fall into no sin, neither run into any kind of danger, but that all our doings may be ordered by thy governance, to do always that is righteous in thy sight: through Jesus Christ our lord. Amen.

Here we see the rhetorical structure common to most collects: a salutation to God; an acknowledgment of some core truth, in this case that the people come to prayer only because God has “safely brought us to the beginning of this day”; a petition (“grant us this day we fall into no sin”); an aspiration, or hope and purpose for the prayer, often introduced by the word “that” (“that all our doings may be ordered by thy governance”); and a concluding appeal to Jesus Christ as the mediator and advocate for God’s people. Anglican liturgies are studded with these collects, many of them either composed fresh by Cranmer or adapted by him from Latin sources. They are among the most characteristic and recognizable features of prayer-book worship.

For the people of the sixteenth century, this thanksgiving for safe passage to a new day would not have been a merely pro forma acknowledgment. As A. Roger Ekirch has shown in his extraordinary history At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, the early modern period in England was marked by deep anxiety about the dangers of the nighttime world. With only limited forms of artificial lighting, people found the darkness continually befuddling: friend could not be distinguished from foe, nor animate objects from inanimate ones. The moon was thought to bring both madness and disease, and the night air was perceived as unhealthy, even poisonous. Ekirch quotes one woman whose thoughts were typical of the period: “At night, I pray Almighty God to keep me from ye power of evil spirits, and of evil men; from fearfull dreams and terrifying imaginations; from fire, and all sad accidents . . . so many mischiefs, I know of, doubtless more that I know not of.” Doubtless more that I know not of: the “Terrors of the Night,” as Thomas Nashe called them in a 1594 pamphlet, multiplied relentlessly in the mind.

This was the context in which people came to Matins thanking the God “which hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day,” and the context that determines the sober mood of Evensong. One can easily imagine the felt need to come together in church, before the fall of night, to beg God’s protection, and indeed Evensong, which begins with a shortened version of the exchange that opens Matins — “O God, make speed to save me”; “O Lord, make haste to help me” — concludes with a collect frankly admitting the fear of the dark, in a prayer so urgent that it even forgoes the customary decorous address to God and rushes straight to its petition: “Lighten our darkness we beseech thee, O Lord, & by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night, for the love of thy only son, our savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”

praise and worship

This long article about the state of praise and worship music today provokes several thoughts:

  • Very few things depress me to the extent that praise music does. Many things anger me more, frustrate me more, arouse my righteous indignation, but praise music has an extraordinary power to depress my spirits and make me want to do away with myself.
  • It’s not going away, though, is it? Its empire shall increase. 
  • Because what Christians (leaders and lay people alike) can’t seem to unlearn is the idea that church should resemble as closely as possible our everyday lives. The buildings should look the same, the people should dress the same, the technology should be the same, and the music should sound the same. Church cannot under any circumstances be allowed to differ, to set itself apart. 

excerpts from my Sent folder: liturgy

I only attended low-church evangelical congregations for a few years after I became a Christian, but those were tough times for me, and more than once along the way I wondered if I had made a big mistake by trying to follow Jesus — at least, through trying to follow him alongside other people, in church. It wasn’t that I thought I was better than them — in fact, I usually thought I was worse. I especially felt I was too emotionally incompetent to be an evangelical. I mean, the pastor would tell me how happy I ought to be that Jesus had saved me from my sins, so I tried to be super-happy, but I could never quite get where he thought I needed to be. And then five minutes later he’d tell me how grieved I should be when I realized how deeply sinful I am, and I’d try to make myself appropriately sad at what I, through my rebellion, had done to God — but if I couldn’t climb the mountain of happiness I also couldn’t make my way down into the depths of the pit of sadness. Again: emotionally incompetent.

It was only when I began to worship in the Anglican tradition that I felt the burden lift. Because that tradition gave me the right words to say — words that Christians had prayed (in one language or another) for two thousand years, words that had stood the test of time, that had been crafted by people whose walk with Jesus was longer and stronger than mine would ever be. Instead of trying to feel a certain way, I just needed to focus on saying the right words, and in that way training myself to live inside them.

Even more important, the tradition was so wonderfully patient with me! It didn’t ask me to comprehend the tragedy of my sinfulness immediately. Instead, it said “Here you go, we’re starting this season called Lent now. You’ll have forty days to meditate on these matters, and we the Church will help you at every step.” And then when Easter came the liturgy said to me, “You can’t celebrate this in an instant — in fact, we’re going to take fifty days to live into the miracle of the Resurrection and the new life we have in Christ.”

I cannot possibly overstate what a gift the ancient liturgies and the ancient calendar of the Church have been to me. They have quite literally made it possible for me to be a follower of Jesus. Now, I am sure that if I had never come across the ancient faith God would have found ways to nourish and bless me, but how much smoother my path has been thanks to these old and well-trodden ways. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for them.