So, the work continued, with Cranmer setting the direction and doing much of the compiling – working, again, in his great library at Croydon, as he had done when composing the Litany of 1544 – and dealing with varying degrees of assistance and resistance from his fellow churchmen. The whole project is so closely associated with Cranmer and was so clearly driven by him that it is sometimes hard to discern the presence of the supporting cast. But it was there.
The Litany had long since been completed. The Homilies – which were not part of the prayer book itself but which provided key theological and pastoral context for it – written and distributed, the order for Communion promulgated and mandated, and the Kalendar worked out. A great deal remained to be done but, among that work, some of the most important of all: the creation of rites for Morning and Evening Prayer, or, as they were commonly known, Matins and Evensong.
We have already noted the horae canonicae, the “canonical hours” of the monastic life, and the Daily Office containing the prayers for each “hour.” The origins of these rites are lost, but they are closely associated with the vigil that the disciples of Jesus failed to keep when He was undergoing His agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Most of His followers had abandoned Him, and the few who remained snoozed as He prayed, thus earning His rebuke: “What, could ye not watch with Me one hour?” (Matthew 26.40). After this, they soon dozed off again. The regular prayers of monks and nuns are best understood as attempts by the church to assign some of its members to do what the disciples could not do: to stay awake and pray with the Lord. There is, therefore, a close link between the monastic hours and the sufferings of Good Friday. In their ideal form, as established by St. Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century, they are conducted every three hours and are named, as follows: Matins (midnight), Lauds (3 am or, more commonly, dawn), Prime (6 am), Terce (9 am), Sext (noon), Nones (3 pm), Vespers (6 pm), [and] Compline (9 pm).
But, the ideal may be unreachable: few human beings can thrive, or even survive, when getting no more than two uninterrupted hours of sleep each night. The needs of the body cannot simply be overridden even by the most willing spirit. Consequently, most monasteries and convents have either distributed the responsibility for keeping the hours among various members of the community, so that, for instance, those who say Matins are excused from Lauds, or have combined the hours in various ways, so that Vespers and Compline are said together before the community’s bedtime, and Matins, Lauds, and Prime said immediately after rising.
But, for Cranmer – who, it must be remembered, collaborated with Henry in the dissolution of England’s monasteries – the whole system was deeply suspect, however it happened to be tweaked. How can some members of Christ’s church be given the task of praying on behalf of the others? Are not all Christians commanded to pray, indeed to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5.17)? In this light, one of the greatest challenges of creating a prayer book for English Christians was to find a way to enable ordinary people, who had their own daily work, also to pray faithfully, to keep, in their own way, the vigil the first disciples had failed to keep.
Matins and Evensong were Cranmer’s solution to this problem. Together, they constitute a brilliant solution indeed, and one of Cranmer’s most lasting achievements, as later chapters of this history will show. Although many of the most heated – indeed, poisonous – theological debates of the Reformation era concerned the events of the Mass (or the Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper – the name of the rite, itself, was a major point of contention), the Anglicanism that developed from the Book of Common Prayer would be centered on the regular enactment, by millions of laypersons, of these simplified forms of the ancient Daily Office. Cranmer wished English Christians to take Communion more often than they had been accustomed to yet, as things turned out, weekly Communion did not become commonplace in the Church of England until the Victorian era. The typical parish Sunday service would contain Morning Prayer, perhaps followed by the Ante-Communion, that is, the parts of the Communion service preceding the administering of the sacrament itself: prayers, the reading of the Decalogue, the recitation of the creed, a sermon, and prayers for the church. At the end of the day, people would return for Evensong.
So, days were begun and ended in communal prayer.
From: The “Book of Common Prayer”: A Biography by Alan Jacobs; “Lives of Great Religious Books” series (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), pp. 28-31.
Alan Jacobs is Professor of Humanities at Baylor University. Previously, he was Professor of English at Wheaton College.