Finishing Compline

Although in the classical Anglican Prayer Books the Nunc Dimittis is resident in Evening Prayer, its place in the spirituality of liturgical time most fully comes into its own here in Compline.  The language of “let your servant depart in peace” is an integral part of this office’s devotional emphases on sleep as an image of death, and the light of Christ transforming both the worshiper and the world.  For further notes, see Evening Prayer.

This Canticle has been a part of the service of Compline since at least the Rule of Saint Benedict, and the antiphon is also of ancient use in the Church.  The positioning has shifted in different breviaries – some before the Prayers (such as the Sarum) and some after the Prayers (such as in modern Prayer Books and the Roman Rite).  Precise translation of the antiphon into English varies among different sources; ours retains the wording of the 1979 Prayer Book.

The addition of three Alleluias during Eastertide is also a pre-Reformation tradition, marking one of the heightened features of praise during that festal season.


The call and response, Benedicamus in Latin, is a common closure for many offices.

Retained from the 1979 Prayer Book, the final benediction said by the officiant is drawn from the Roman Rite.

The almighty and merciful Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
bless us and keep us, this night and evermore. Amen.

In the monastic setting where most of the daily office tradition was developed, these prayers would be the worshipers’ last words before going (back) to sleep. The benediction is not a formal blessing in the sense of a priest’s role, and thus is proper for an officiant of any order to say.  It draws from part of the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6:24) but is made explicitly Trinitarian and occasioned for Compline in the adding of “this night and evermore.”  Although it is a traditional benediction for this office, it is an appropriate final bedtime prayer to use in family settings and other late-evening occasions.

Fasting has a Purpose

Fasting is perhaps the most prominent and well-known feature of the season of Lent, even though many people today don’t practice it. One of the issues that presents itself to people seems to be that fasting is often misunderstood. Since today is Friday, a fast day, let’s take a look at a few examples of what fasting isn’t, and what it actually is.

Fasting is not an end unto itself

Simply “giving something up for Lent” or refraining from eating certain foods at certain times does not make a person more holy. All foods were created for our enjoyment, provided we give thanks to God. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). Fasting, however, is a powerful tool in the toolbox of spiritual disciplines if used rightly. Fasting is a discipline that we can celebrate and use in conjunction with prayer and alms-giving. You can read more about that connection in Isaiah 58 and in part of this short article.

Fasting is not abstinence

It is not always clear in the Bible, but there is a difference between fasting and abstinence. Fasting is a reduction, abstinence is an elimination. When Moses, Jesus, or others fasted for 40 days, it does not typically mean that they ate or drank nothing at all – the human body can survive without food that long if properly prepared, but certainly not without water. One might appeal to divine providence in certain cases, but to belabor that point would be to miss the spiritual point: the discipline of fasting before special occasions or for special intercessory or penitential purposes is valuable to every believer. To fast is to reduce the amount or luxury of a thing. The biggest traditional example of this is to cut meat out of the diet because eating meat was associated with feasting, celebration, even worship. If you want some tips on what fasting might look like in today’s world, you can check out this article.

Fasting is not self-harm

Again, fasting is a spiritual discipline. It is geared toward exercising self-denial such that your spiritual attentions are provoked and improved in some way. Thus, fasting in such a way that your health suffers is not a true fast. The goal is redirect your passions, not make yourself sick. This is not about self-punishment, but self-control. This is why, traditionally, the young, the old, the sick, and pregnant women have been exempt from rules of fasting. It’s not that we’re going easy on “the weak”, but that people must not be encouraged to harm themselves. If you’re on medication, have dietary issues, or other food-related situation, fasting from food is something that you should not pursue without pastoral and medical advice.

Fasting is not just about food

Last of all, there are many other things that can be reduced or eliminated by way of the spiritual discipline of fasting. Social media, television, other activities of leisure or entertainment, are all excellent examples of things that can profitably be reduced or set aside for the sake of increased spiritual pursuits. Don’t get hung up on “I’m giving up chocolate for Lent!” when there are so many other possibilities out there. Look to where your habits and desires are found, and explore ways to curb and control those habits and desires – that is where you truly learn self-control.

Faithfully Stay the Course

February 24th is Saint Matthias Day in the traditional liturgical calendar. Some churches and provinces have moved him over to May 14, closer to Ascension Day and Pentecost, where his story in Acts 1 fits right in from a biblical-narrative perspective. But we’ve still got him in late February, usually in Lent. It’s always nice to have a feast day in Lent – we get a little break from the penitential tone! – but there’s also something appropriate about observing this Saint during Lent: Matthias is only one of the twelve Apostles because he was selected to replace Judas, the traitor.

There are two lessons that I’d like to draw from this liturgical observance (and from Acts 1:12-26).

  1. Apostolic authority is a critical point for the unity of the Church.
  2. Every Christian must faithfully stay the course of the faith.

On the point of apostolic authority, this is something I like to try to mention during Ascensiontide but often don’t have time – (there is a lot of fantastic theology and lessons about Jesus and his ministry to us to tease out in that brief mini-season, and I seldom have opportunity to write or preach about ecclesiology then) – the eleven considered it vitally important that they replace Judas and restore their number to twelve apostles. Jesus had just told them that while it was not for them to know “the times or seasons” concerning the Kingdom of God, but that they would “receive power” when the Holy Spirit would descend upon them. And this wasn’t entirely in the future; Jesus had already “breathed on them the Holy Spirit” giving them authority to forgive and retain sins. In that authority they’d already been entrusted with, they took it upon them to select and ordain a new twelfth man – Matthias. St. Peter even quotes Psalm 109 to acknowledge the necessity of this act: “Let another take his office.” And in the Greek, the word translated “office” is the source for the word “episcopate” – the office of an overseer, or bishop.

They knew that when the Holy Spirit would descend upon the whole church (on the day of Pentecost) the leadership had to be ready. Ancient Israel was founded with Twelve Tribes, and the New Israel was to be re-founded with Twelve Apostles – this was a very self-conscious and -aware decision, they knew the significance of what they were doing.

And, although the nature of the authority of those first Apostles is different from the authority that has been passed down among the Bishops ever since, the apostolic role of the bishops assembled is still critical for the church today. On their own, bishops might be little more than super-priests, pastors of megachurches, or of multi-site churches. That’s where cynicism from tired or burned church-goers (or skepticism from presbyterians and congregationalists) thrives. The real power, or authority, of the bishop is not so much in the individual as in the episcopacy as an institution and a group. One bishop can go astray about as easily as one priest or pastor, honestly. But a group, or college, of bishops, is another matter. Yes, a group can be corrupted too – we consider the entire Roman Church to be in error for example. But a church is at its best when its bishops speak together with one voice, in accord with the Church global and temporal.

An example of this was just demonstrated last month when the College of Bishops of the Anglican Church in North America concluded a year of deliberations concerning the issues of ministering to people with same-sex attraction. It’s one of the greatest ministry challenges of our time, and must be met with careful biblical attention and loving attention to the situation of people today. Their excellent statement can be read online here.

But of course, there are always people who want to add their own nuances, pick at words, and even twist or re-cast what has been said. No small online furor has followed, muddying the waters and making some people wonder what the exodus from the Episcopal Church was all about if we’re just going to re-tread the same ground all over again. One of the angles of corrective response is an article in which a respected Anglican examines for us the nature of the teaching authority of bishops as a unified body. I commend that reading to you also!

But this also leads us to the second point about the election of Matthias to be the new 12th Apostle – he was “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us“. And, critically unlike Judas Iscariot, Matthias faithfully stayed the course. He did not falter from the way of Christ; he remained constant like the other eleven.

Other Scriptures read on this day attest to this also: Psalm 15 asks the hard-yet-important question of who can dwell on God’s holy hill; Philippians 3 gives us the example of “press[ing] on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus“. Simply put, there is a way that leads to life, and a way that leads to death. Judas chose the latter for himself; we must choose the former. Yes, salvation is not simply about what you choose – the real work of salvation is Jesus’ death on the Cross for the sins of the world, but if you reject his sacrifice on your behalf then you’ll have to find another way to pay for your sins… and there isn’t one.

The story of St. Matthias taking Judas’ office, or episcopacy, is a sobering reminder. Please, faithfully stay the course of the faith. In Christ alone is salvation wrought, and only his Body (the Church) offers him to us.

Liturgical care for the dying

It goes without saying that what we say to people as their time of death approaches is very important. With limited time left for them to live, we find the need to cut to the chase, say what needs to be said, make amends, confess the truth, and so forth, bubbles up to the surface. Sometimes this can be emotional and difficult, and this applies to the pastoral relationship as well. How does a clergyman minister to someone who is dying?

Various pastoral manuals have always been around to help parish priests care for the flock at time of death, but only in modern times have Prayer Books started including actual rites for such occasions. The rite provided in our 2019 Prayer Book is well-crafted to be a few minutes long, one minute long, or just a few seconds, depending upon the situation’s need. When there is ample time to prepare and space for family members to gather, it can be a strangely beautiful time of worship. Other times it will be a simpler matter: the priest visiting the barely-conscious patient in a hospital bed – time for interaction is just about over and the Last Prayers and Commendations simply need to be given (still heartily and clearly). Or there might be an emergency or other crisis, the priest having only seconds to speak before the chance is lost. This rite provides all you need for any of those situations.

Of course, all that careful liturgical crafting will go to waste if the minister, in a pinch, doesn’t know what’s in this rite and how to implement it when put on the spot. So here is the Saint Aelfric Customary’s explanation of the Ministry to the Dying and how to put the page into practice.

Anointing the Sick with Oil

The Customary has been updated with guidance for the Ministry to the Sick!

Those already familiar with modern Prayer Books will find here a very familiar rite; those used to classical Prayer Books may be surprised to find provision for the anointing of the sick with holy oil. This is an ancient practice, stemming all the way back the New Testament (James 5:13-16).

You can read the full entry here: https://saint-aelfric-customary.org/customary-ministry-to-the-sick/

About Private Confession

Private confession of sin to a priest is a subject of some controversy among Anglicans. Some argue that it has no place in our tradition whatsoever, while others advocate it as a good and proper practice worthy of normalization. A look at the historical Prayer Books reveals something in between: this practice was allowed, but not normal. Two references to private confession stand in the old Prayer Books:

  1. The Communion of the Sick provide an absolution for the Priest to say if the sick person wants to make a confession to him.
  2. The Exhortation at Holy Communion (the one announcing an upcoming celebration of Holy Communion) invites people to make a private confession if their consciences are particularly troubled, “to remove all scruple and doubt” and receive godly counsel.

Thus we find a clear outline of an authentically Anglican approach to private confession: it is a special pastoral ministry whereby a priest can provide more particular spiritual guidance to his flock and bring the benefits and comforts of the regular liturgy to those who are shut up sick at home.

To this end, modern Prayer Books (like our new one) provide an actual form for private confession. In the 2019 Prayer Book, the absolution from the old 1662 Visitation of the Sick is retained for this very purpose! It’s an excellent resource for priestly/pastoral ministry, drawing upon both ancient and specifically-Anglican tradition, in our modern context.

One of the things that people new to the practice often misunderstand is the issue of secrecy. Our Prayer Book notes that “The secrecy of a confession is morally binding for the confessor and is not to be broken” – no exception is provided. As far as the East is from the West, so far has the Lord put away our sins from us.  That established, it must also be noted that a true confession involves contrition.  The penitent concludes “I am truly sorry” and “I firmly intend amendment of life” and “ask for counsel.” The confessional is no more a place for ‘cheap grace’ than the Holy Table or the pulpit. For more specific guidance on how to use this rite, and how to handle the issues of particular sorts of sins that may be confessed, read the full Customary entry here: https://saint-aelfric-customary.org/customary-reconciliation-of-a-penitent/

A Series of Related Commemorations

The calendar of commemorations in our new Prayer Book today lists three women: Lydia, Dorcus, and Phoebe. Normally, as you may be aware, only one commemoration per day is the norm. Sometimes if a group of people were martyred together they’ll share a date, and sometimes (even more rarely) a few people with similar legacies are remembered together. This “affinity group commemoration” phenomenon is mostly a feature of the Episcopalian calendar since 1979, though some rare examples of these entries have carried over into our calendar and/or can be found in other traditions also.

Just for one example, Lydia has been commemorated as a Saint in many traditions over the years, but her feast day varies widely. The Romans remember her on August 3rd, various Eastern churches commemorate her on March 27th, May 20th, or June 25th. Some Lutherans celebrate her on October 25th. We, with some other Lutherans and the Episcopalians, have her down for January 27th.

What is particularly interesting about this date for commemorating Lydia and Dorcus and Phoebe (since we don’t have clear traditions of when they died, which would be the normal date for a Saint’s Day) is that they are on Day Three of a three-day series of commemorations. January 25th is the Conversion of Saint Paul, January 26th is for Saints Timothy and Titus, and January 27th is for Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe. This string of remembrances is a real “Book of Acts Party”, I once joked, and makes a lot of sense. Together these six people form a sequence both historical and missiological:

  1. God calls Saul (eventually to be known as Paul) to faith in Christ
  2. Paul ordains ministers (Timothy and Titus) to continue his work
  3. More people convert (Lydia, Dorcus, Phoebe) and continue the advance of the kingdom

Thus this trio of celebrations is worth pointing out to our fellow church-goers as a biblical and liturgical reminder of the call of the Church to make disciples and grow. The different roles are important to note, because sometimes we assume that “mission” and “evangelism” is best done by professionals – or least by particular individuals with special zeal and drive. Saint Paul was an extraordinary individual, Timothy and Titus were bishops, they can be most inspiring but also very difficult to relate to. This is where the three women may come in helpful.

Lydia was a wealthy woman, who lived in Thyatira, in Roman Macedonia. She was essentially the first European convert to Christianity. She was already a “worshiper of God”, which means she was probably familiar with basic Jewish teachings and believed in the God of Israel, but (most importantly) “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” and she and her household were subsequently baptized. She heeded the Gospel, brought her family along, and then supported the ministry of Paul and his companions with her considerable means. Believing in the mission of the Gospel and supporting it with hospitality and finances is no small thing!

Dorcas, also named Tabitha, was a devout woman faithful in Christ and abundant in good works. Her ministry of providing for the poor and needy made her most beloved in her community and when she died many people showed St. Peter the clothing she had made for them, beseeching him to pray for her and raise her from the dead, which he did. Her resuscitation “became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” Thus even though she did directly participate in “evangelistic outreach” as we might call it, her good deeds gave her a positive reputation that, when recognized by the Church, brought many to share the faith she proclaimed. The light of her good deeds was seen, and many others came to the Light as a result.

Phoebe, finally, is a person of some controversy in modern Christian circles. She is described as a “διάκονον” from which we have the word Deacon. Some argue she was a Deacon in the formal ordained sense, like the men in Acts 6. Some argue she was a Deaconess in the context of the Early Church’s practice: a non-ordained minister who assisted with the baptism of women and works of mercy in the community. Others take the word in its general sense – a “servant of the Church”. Whatever the precise interpretation of this word, we know that Phoebe was an active member of the Church at Cenchrae (probably a village near Corinth) who traveled to Rome, perhaps along with the letter that St. Paul had written to them. She was to be received “worth of the saints” and to be helped in whatever she might need, because she was a “patron of many” as well as of Paul himself. A patron indicates she probably was rich, like Lydia, and provided financial and/or hospitable support for the traveling apostles and the local church. As a woman of means, perhaps she was able to be active in other ways – supplying the church and the ministers, caring for the sick, bringing alms to the poor, or any number of other services for the cause of the Gospel.

So we remember today the great contribution of these three women; their service to the Gospel and the Church was incalculable and their names endure forever through the Scriptures and the liturgical calendar. It is helpful for us to commemorate people who made a great difference through seemingly “ordinary” means… maybe just maybe we can be inspired to spend and be spent for the cause of Christ, ourselves.

Inauguration Day Prayers

Our Archbishop, Foley Beach, sent out a reminder today that we as Christians are called to pray for our leaders. I would add the clarification that we pray for them whether we like them or not, whether we’re happy they’re in office or unhappy; whether we prefer them, “the other guy”, or none of the above.

Here is what he wrote to us:

Sisters and Brothers in Christ, 

As our nation inaugurates a new President and Vice-President, and begins a new session of Congress, let us speak to God on behalf of our nation. I recommend the following prayers from the Book of Common Prayer 2019 as a start.

#37. For the President and All in Civil Authority, p. 657

O Lord our Governor, whose glory fills all the world: We commend this Nation to your merciful care, that we may be guided by your providence, and dwell secure in your peace. Grant to the President of this Nation, the Governor of this State, and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do your will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them continually mindful of their calling to serve this people in reverent obedience to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

#38. For Congress or A State Legislature, p. 657

O God, the fountain of wisdom, whose will is good and gracious, and whose law is truth: So guide and bless our Senators and Representatives assembled in Congress, that they may enact laws pleasing in your sight, to the glory of your Name and the welfare of this people; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

#41. For Cities, Towns, and Other Communities, p. 658

Heavenly Father, you sent your Son among us to proclaim the kingdom of God in cities, towns, villages, and lonely places. Behold and visit, we pray, the communities throughout these United States of America. Renew the bonds of charity that uphold our civic life. Send us honest and able leaders. Deliver us from poverty, prejudice, and oppression, that peace may prevail with righteousness, and justice with mercy. And at the last, bring us to your Holy City, the new Jerusalem, where we shall know perfect unity and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The quietly profound pro-life rite

One of the trademark causes of orthodox Anglicanism in North America today is the commitment to the pro-life cause. Romans and Reformed, Protestants and Pentecostals, Brethren and Baptists, all conservative Christians are concerned about the evils of murder that urge on the abortion industry. Often we are accused of being hypocrites, only really being “pro-birth” and leaving the children of the poor to their fate. Occasionally that is true, especially when you look at the many politicians who only use causes such as the pro-life cause primarily to prop up their re-election campaigns among conservatives… being pro-life in name only is indeed a sham.

But, of course, the Church as a whole is indeed consistently pro-life, however imperfectly aberrant individuals may demonstrate that. One of the particular expressions of this truth in our Prayer Book (which I think is often over-looked) is the Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child. In classical Prayer Books it was often referred to as “The Churching of Women” and it focused more on welcoming the mother back to church after being away for the latter weeks of her pregnancy and giving thanks for her survival. Modern edits to the rite have expanded it to be a bit more flexible to the varied family situations we’re likely to see on the ground today: adoptions, single parents, difficult circumstances.

This rite reminds us that children are gifts from God – all life is sacred.  The Church proclaims and celebrates this truth even amidst the devastating difficulties that can accompany pregnancy and birth. You can read the 2019 Prayer Book’s form of it here, and this Customary’s walk-through of how to implement it here: https://saint-aelfric-customary.org/customary-thanksgiving-for-a-child/

Considering the Wedding and its Due Preparation

After the theological drift in the past two American Prayer Books, the service of Holy Matrimony in the 2019 Prayer Book is a breath of fresh air, its content rooted in the traditional material of the classical Anglican tradition. The format of the service is very much in the modern style, but language and doctrine it contains are long-awaited returns to historic orthodoxy.

The opening text on BCP 198-199 outline the doctrine of marriage and call for “great care” in the preparation of all candidates for Holy Matrimony. The word “candidate” should be taken seriously: just as in Confirmation and Ordination, those preparing for marriage are merely candidates, and the minister is well within his rights to deny officiating the wedding if the couple is not prepared or ineligible for marriage. The Banns of Marriage are one line of discernment, wherein the congregation is to be given at least three opportunities to offer any “cause, or just impediment” that the wedding should not go through. Furthermore, the minister is expected (and in many dioceses required) to have the couple sign the Declaration of Intention on BCP 200. This, and its accompanying liturgy on BCP 213, is essentially a formalized betrothal ceremony, and serves as the primary “gateway” to the path to marriage. If the couple is unable to sign the Declaration in good conscience they need further instruction and catechesis concerning Christian marriage before they can receive the Church’s blessing. The minister should take this role with grave solemnity, as many believers have slipped through the cracks in recent decades, entering into marriage with (at best) anemic views of biblical marriage.

What follows is but one way of approaching pre-marital counseling, which the minister can adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of the couple in question.

“Marriage is two people made one flesh in community bearing fruit for life before God.”

1. “Marriage Is”

  • Examine the Declaration of Intent study its four-fold purpose of marriage
  • Examine Holy Matrimony as an image of Christ & Church
  • Gateway: Sign the Declaration of Intention

2. “Two People”

  • Profile the personalities of the man and the woman with appropriate social and religious tools and measures
  • Consider their schedules, lifestyles, interests, personal spaces
  • Gateway: Make plans for Confirmation if not yet done

3. “Made One Flesh”

  • Consider the unity of the couple, especially their disciplines (spiritual and otherwise)
  • Examine their conflict resolution past and present, and where peace is found
  • Gateway: Have them paraphrase the Wedding Vows for their own understanding

4. “In Community”

  • Consider the community, especially the future in-laws, for this couple, and their relationships
  • Explore their baggage, expectations, history, and wishes about family and friends
  • Gateway: Offer Healing Prayer

5. “Bearing Fruit”

  • Explore the subjects of agape love that sacrifices & spreads, especially with regards to sexuality, family planning, and child-rearing
  • Examine their sexual desires, history, expectations, and ethics
  • Gateway: Offer private Confession & Absolution

6. “For Life”

  • Consider ordinary household plans like finances, spending & saving habits, occupations
  • Explore the subjects of homemaking and domestic duties and expectations
  • Gateway: Have them prepare a budget and list major milestones as a couple for their first year

7. “Before God”

  • Explore spiritual habits shared by the couple and pastoral accountability for the future
  • Consider the religious life of their family-to-be
  • Gateway: Plan the wedding ceremony’s liturgy together