St. Paul’s Cathedral and the BCP

St. Paul’s Cathedral

This past Tuesday evening, my wife and I found ourselves outside St Paul’s Cathedral, London, 15 min before Evensong. Being lovers of Evensong, how could we resist? Plus, it meant getting into one of the grand churches of Anglicanism without having to pay an evil fee.

We were cheerily directed to the Choir where we sat on a little bench in front of the stalls (which were full already — but the little bench had better back support!). We walked through this glistening white space, beneath its large dome where music can resound and ring like the voices of the angels of heaven. In the choir we sat in the gilded space, mosaics gleaming down from above us, the Holy Table with its canopy at the far end.

I like the Holy Table at St. Paul’s; it has yet to be marred by a modern, swanky cross; let us hope it stays that way. It is beneath a large canopy, calling to my mind the ciborium in the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. Hanging from the canopy are carved cherubim, calling to one’s mind the Temple of Solomon (although his would have had a more Near Eastern feel, not Renaissance). These cherubim bring to mind the reality that Christ’s sacrifice, which we commemorate and (in a way) recapitulate in the Eucharist, is the culmination and fulfilment of Israel’s Temple worship of old.

I also noted that in the aisles flanking the choir, the ceiling is decorated with mosaics of angels. Appropriate — a reminder that we are joined by them as we worship Christ on his heavenly throne, the God-Man depicted in the mosaic on the half-dome above the altar.

But my words cannot do the Baroque majesty of St Paul’s justice. The cathedral website can at least try.

Evensong, as you well know, is an ancient service. The creators of the pew cards at St Paul’s believe that it traces its roots to the monastic worship developed in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. However, as Robert Taft points out in The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, it has its roots in earliest Christianity, possibly even Judaism, and was developed both in monastic hours of worship and in Cathedral worship, the latter being the time for the whole Christian community to gather in prayer before and after the work of the day.

The service as it was sung at St Paul’s that night was substantially Thomas Cranmer’s as originally produced in 1549 — a simplification of the two services from the Roman Breviary of Vespers and Compline with the addition of space for two substantial readings of Scripture. And, of course, in English.

Although they cut a few things, such as the prayer of confession at the beginning (despite the Prologue to the service saying that ‘we ought most chiefly so to do’ at times of common worship), one of the strengths of this service, in contrast to Westminster Abbey the night before as well as to St Mary’s Cathedral and a couple of Edinburgh’s Anglo-Catholic communities, was this very fact that the service was entirely in the English tongue, rather than ‘in a tongue not understanded of the people’, thus following Article of Religion 24. Well done, St Paul’s. Keep it up.

Furthermore, they provided us with Psalters to use during the service. Thus, although we did not join for the Psalm-singing (the congregation only joined in for the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed), we could follow along. This made the Evensong feel more like a church service and less like a choir concert — unlike Westminster Abbey the night before.

After the requisite collects, we were led in a few prayers, including a lovely one from the Venerable Bede.

The choir was magnificent. It was mixed men’s and boys’ voices, bringing us the full range of luxuriousness and texture and beauty that the English choral tradition can provide. Thus we found Cranmer’s beautiful words — paired, of course, with Coverdale’s beautiful Psalter — matched with beautiful music in a beautiful cathedral. If there had been more congregational worship, perhaps the perfect production of the BCP?

Now, St. Paul’s Cathedral was begun in 1675 after the Great Fire of 1666 and finished in 1711. These dates are notable as we consider this 350th year of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the most influential and widely-used edition of the Prayer Book for three centuries of Anglicanism, and still substantially the Prayer Book of the Church of England (though never of the Scottish Episcopal Church).

This Prayer Book of Prayer Books balances Catholic with Reformed in a way never seen before, avoiding the extremes both of Cromwell’s Puritan rites and of Mary I’s Sarum rite.* It has room for beauty, though, beauty in the language, beauty in the humility of penitent sinners making their confession, meekly kneeling upon their knees. Beauty in Coverdale’s Psalter. Beauty in the phrasing of the Collects, in the Prayer of St. Chrysostom, in the majestic language of 1611’s KJV to be used for the Lessons.

Alas, however, this period of the apparent triumph of the Prayer Book, the period of the Restoration of the Monarchy, the days of rebuilding St. Paul’s, are precisely when the Anglican experiment changes tack. Having produced a liturgy that is theologically consonant with the Reformed point of view, the Church of England at this time makes it possible for non-conformists to preach and worship outside of the Anglican hierarchy and to construct their own chapels. Thus, the bulk of the successors to the Puritans eventually leave, removing their voice from the Anglican conversation and becoming Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists.

This is the backdrop for Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s where you can hear sung Cranmer’s beauteous liturgy beneath a gilded mosaic. These figural representations of angels (not Saints, my friends!) and of our true King, Jesus Christ, are part of an Anglican conversation where Laud and Charles I (the Church of England’s sainted martyr!) are triumphant, and where majesty can rule as the Church seeks a balance between tradition and reform, part of an Anglican conversation diminished by the loss of some of her participants.

*Technically the Sarum Use of the Roman Rite.

Vespers

Christ Pantokrator, Church of the Holy Apostles, Athens

The little chapel was lit only by ambient light from the sides, the chandelier from the ceiling turned off — this, of course, augmented by the lights on Fr. Raphael’s lectern and the glowing candles in the lamps before the iconostasis and those lit by the faithful before the icons near the door.

Icons hung on the four walls of the room as well as on the iconostasis, although not completely covering this piece of ecclesiastical furniture which was made from simple timbers and boards, no fancy carvings in sight.  Although the chapel had no dome (I believe Fr. John lives upstairs), a circular icon of Christ Pantokrator was mounted to the ceiling above the nave.

When the curtain in the iconostasis opened, I could see the Holy Table* with an ornate cross with two other ornate objects flanking it; they reminded me of monstrances, but I knew they couldn’t be since Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is a western phenomenon associated with the 13th-century feast of Corpus Christi.

Fr. Raphael stood at his lectern in the back left corner of the chapel and chanted and sang Vespers.  There were Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, Kyries, and many others.  Amidst these beautiful hymns and chants were hymns for St. Ambrose of Milan whose feast was the next day.  These were beautiful and complex, verse homilies in miniature, teaching us of the life and teachings of St. Ambrose, praying that our faith might mirror his.

My Sundays of worship at Evensong at St. Alban’s in Ottawa as well as the many nights I have prayed Compline alone gladdened my heart when Fr. Raphael sang the Nunc Dimittis.  I mouthed the words silently along with him.

Every once in a while, I would see Fr. John behind the iconostasis, standing before the Holy Table, bowing, praying, and chanting a few portions of the order for Vespers himself.  At one point, Fr. John censed the Holy Table and then proceed out from behind the iconostasis with the censer.  He censed the doors, the icons of the day posted near the doors, Theodore, me, and Fr. Raphael, before proceeding back to his position behind the iconostasis.

Theodore, a young Romanian student of electrical engineering at the University of Edinburgh, and I were the only two congregants for most of Vespers last night.  We stood at the back, crossing ourselves at the right moments and lifting up our hearts to God.  Using skills developed at Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic services, I kept half an eye on Fr. Raphael to know when to cross myself.  I tried to listen to the words of the service, but sometimes, especially when the chanting became singing, I got caught up in the melody and lost track of the words.

I prayed the Jesus Prayer (‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’) many times over.  My charismatic upbringing also manifested itself in the quiet praying in tongues through the movement of the Holy Spirit in that quiet, holy space.  At times, my mind wandered as I stood there, thinking about Eastern Orthodoxy, liturgy, and worship, as well as St. Ambrose.  Inevitably, my thoughts turned to the fact that my back was hurting.

I sat down.  Theodore had already done so, so I didn’t feel bad about it.

Within about a minute of having sat down, Fr. Raphael called me over to his four-platformed spinning lectern to read.

I read the Trisagion, the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer to St. Ambrose, and a prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  I may have prayed something else, but those are the prayers that stand out in my mind.  Fortunately, I know enough of Orthodox liturgy to have been able to pray the Glory Be without printed words properly.

After this beautiful service, we retired to the church hall for tea and cake.  I met Theodore and Dimitri, and had a conversation with Fr. Raphael about Pope St. Leo the Great and St. Cyril of Alexandria.  Then, as it was about 8:15 and I hadn’t had supper, I went home.

I’m glad I stopped in at the Orthodox Community of St. Andrew the Apostle.  The Lord blessed me through that visit, and I worshipped him in spirit and in truth.

*If I recall Fr. Alexander Schmemann properly, the entire space involved in the iconostasis is the altar.  Not knowing the Orthodox word, I give you the Anglican.