Hallo again to all.
For many years, we've been fortunate to live in and near communities—parochial, cathedral, monastic, university—where there is provision at least weekly for worship in the evening. This has often been a traditional Evensong from the Book of Common Prayer, with a trained choir, prepared sermon, offering, ushers, and printed service leaflet. Some of the most memorable services we have ever attended have been when 'we are come to the sun's hour of rest' and 'the lights of evening round us shine'. It is hard to think of a service more quintessentially Anglican than choral Evening Prayer with all the accompanying gentleness and power that sound, stone, light, glass, vesture, posture, and gesture can convey.
In the parish church where we most often attend Compline, a peal of bells calls worshipers from around the darkened city into an island of brilliant candlelight. There, we sit in patient silence until the unseen choir begins its chant and polyphony. For the next 20 minutes, the words of psalms wash over us in an ancient rhythm while the needs of the world outside continue to pulse; no matter the intensity of calm within the church, there are always sirens and car traffic to remind us of our neighbours, their work, their needs, their safety, and their presence.
We attend Compline in every frame of mind at the end of always-busy weeks. Sometimes we are tired, and sometimes anxious. Sometimes we are content, with our shoulders fresh from a warm hug or a good meal and a finished project. At other times, we call to mind the names and needs of all our friends and relations, holding them on our hearts and offering them to God as the liturgy makes its careful path through the early night. Invariably, we hear some phrase afresh, and we are glad we have come:
We do not speak a word. There is no service leaflet or hymnal. No one shakes our hand, asks for our email address, or asks us to introduce ourselves. All come and go in comfortable but deliberate silence, tracing paths of liturgical light back through the streets to our homes, to a frozen yogurt shop, to a Chinese restaurant, to a pub, to a library, to a shower and bed.
Week after week, this arcane and obscure liturgy—with its imagery rooted in an age before incandescent light—draws a congregation so large that it's necessary to come well ahead of the service in order to find an open seat. And though it is too dark to take careful metrics on those in attendance, our anecdotal evidence points to an anonymous congregation of remarkable diversity with respect to age, sex, clothing, and outward forms of reverence.
Why do they come to Compline, rather than Mattins, or Low Mass, or High Mass, or Evensong?
We imagine the answers to this question are as numerous as there are individuals who come. We're confident, though, of a few aspects of the service and their special attractiveness, all of which may have something to inform our daytime worship life.
Compline has a clear purpose. It gives us a gate of quiet entry into the night, transcendent and personal even when we celebrate it in community. Whether it is chanted or spoken, its text tells each hearing heart of God's presence and guidance, peace and protection for the coming hours. Moreover, Compline lacks some of the things some otherwise keen worshipers might find off-putting: excessive length, complex directions, a potentially dreary sermon, a multiplicity of readings or the discomfort of forced socialization. Instead, we encounter only the light of Christ shining in darkness, piercing the night and transfiguring it in love. Compline is not all of the Christian story or all of an Anglican life, but it offers notes we need to hear and know:
See you next week.
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