Evening Prayer (Anglican)

Evening Prayer is a liturgy in use in the Anglican Communion (and other churches in the Anglican tradition, such as the Continuing Anglican Movement and the Anglican Use of the Roman Catholic Church) and celebrated in the late afternoon or evening. It is also commonly known as Evensong, especially (but not exclusively) when the office is rendered chorally (that is, when most of the service is sung by the choir and clergy alone). It is roughly the equivalent of Vespers in the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran churches, although it was originally formed by combining the Catholic offices of vespers and compline. Although many churches now take their services from Common Worship or other modern prayer books, if a church has a choir, Choral Evensong from the Book of Common Prayer often remains in use because of the greater musical provision. Evening Prayer, like Mattins (and in contrast to the Eucharist), may be led by a layperson, and is recited by some devout Anglicans daily in private (clergy in many Anglican jurisdictions are required to do so).

Book of Common Prayer service

The service of Evening Prayer, according to traditional prayer books such as the 1662 English or 1959 Canadian Book of Common Prayer, is similar in structure to the equivalent Morning Prayer (or Mattins), but with different canticles and with evening-specific collects. Until the 1960s Morning Prayer was the usual morning service in all but very high church parishes, with the Eucharist celebrated as the main morning service once per month or even quarterly. It is made up of the following elements:

  • A penitential introduction, including the General Confession and the Lord's Prayer.
  • Preces — a series of responsory prayers.
  • A portion of the psalter, usually two or three psalms.
  • Two lessons (readings) from the Bible. The first is usually taken from the Old Testament and the second from the New Testament. Each lesson is followed by (one of):
  • Two canticles, usually the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, but the various Books of Common Prayer from different countries often offer an enlarged list of options.
  • The Apostles' Creed.
  • Several prayers and responses, including the Kyrie eleison and the Lord's Prayer.
  • An anthem following the third collect ("In quires and places where they sing, here followeth the anthem," in the famous phraseology of the 1662 edition of the Prayer Book).
  • Further prayers

If the service is accompanied the church organ will normally be played before and after the service. Many institutions have regular unaccompanied evensongs: at Exeter Cathedral and Ripon Cathedral, as well as the Chapel of King's College, Cambridge, for example, Friday evensongs are usually sung to a cappella settings of the liturgy.

In practice, the penitential introduction is often omitted, and apart from in some cathedrals, usually only one psalm is sung. A sermon or homily may be preached at the end on Sundays or other special occasions, such as important feast days, but does not form a set part of the liturgy. Also, one or more congregational hymns may be added to the service. In Anglo-Catholic churches, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament frequently follows Evensong.

Episcopal Church USA service

In ECUSA, like the Eucharist, the Burial of the Dead, and A Penitential Order, Morning and Evening Prayer are given in the 1979 US Book of Common Prayer in two forms: "Rite One" and "Rite Two".

Rite One is a significantly simplified version of the traditional order for Evening Prayer. It is somewhat similar to the traditional Prayer Book rite, but the Confession of Sin has been truncated, the Phos Hilaron may be said, and only one reading need be used. The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis may both be used, or one of them may be used, or an alternative canticle may be used. The remainder of the service is similar to the traditional form.

Rite Two is substantially similar, but is rendered in modern language.

The ECUSA BCP also offers an "Order of Worship for the Evening", which may be used as a service in itself or as an introduction to Evening Prayer.

Book of Alternative Services

The Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada provides a simple version of Evening Prayer. The service may begin with the Service of Light or the Penitential Rite. Otherwise, it commences with the Preces and the Phos Hilaron. The Psalms are said followed by one or more readings and one or more canticles. The Apostle's Creed or the Summary of the Law is said, and then Intercessions and Thanksgivings may be offered. The Collect of the Day may follow. The service concludes with the Lord's Prayer and Dismissal.

A special form of Evensong, the "Vigil of the Resurrection" is provided for use on Saturdays.

Common Worship

Evening Prayer in the Common Worship books of the Church of England follows this pattern:

  • an Opening responsory
  • a thanksgiving prayer (and/or) a hymn (and/or) a canticle

(Instead of the preceding, a Form of Penitence and/or the Blessing of the Light may be used)

  • Psalms
  • a canticle (optional)
  • Reading/s
  • Suffrages (optional)
  • the Gospel Canticle (usually the Magnificat, sometimes the Nunc dimittis)
  • Thanksgivings, Intercessions, Prayers (including the Collect of the Day)
  • The Lord's Prayer and the Grace conclude the liturgy.

Provision is also made for the continued use of the form found in the Alternative Service Book, which is largely a contemporary rewording of the Prayer Book rite.


In a fully choral service of evensong, all of the service except the penitential introduction, lessons, the creed and some of the prayers are typically sung by the officiating cleric (or a lay cantor) and the choir. In cathedrals, or on particularly important days in the church calendar, the canticles, the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis, are performed in more elaborate settings.

There are countless settings of the canticles, but a number of composers have contributed works which are performed regularly across the Anglican Communion. These range late Renaissance composers such as Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, to high Victorian geniuses such as Charles Villiers Stanford, Thomas Attwood Walmisley and to later masters of the form such as Herbert Murrill, Herbert Howells and Basil Harwood. Settings from outside the core tradition of Anglican church music have also become popular, with examples by Michael Tippett, Giles Swayne and Arvo Pärt. It is also widely regarded as acceptable to perform the canticles in Latin. The earliest settings of the Magnificat alternate between polyphony and plainchant, but later devices included alternating singing between the two "sides" of the choir (the singers standing on either side of the conductor, known as Decani and Cantoris), between soloists and the full ensemble, and between singers in various parts of the building. Typically the choir is either unaccompanied or accompanied by the organ, although it is not unusual for instrumental ensembles to be engaged for very important events.

As an ordinary service, Evensong will start with the preces and responses and proceed with the canticles and psalm set to Anglican chant, with an anthem after the Third Collect.

In extremely high church parishes Evensong may have plainchant substituted for Anglican chant and may conclude with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament (or a modified form of "Devotions to the Blessed Sacrament") and the carrying of the reserved sacrament under a humeral veil from the high altar to an altar of repose, to the accompaniment of music.

The service may also include hymns. The first of these may be called the Office Hymn, and will usually be particularly closely tied to the liturgical theme of the day, and may be an ancient plainchant setting. This will usually be sung just before the psalm(s) or immediately before the first canticle and may be sung by the choir alone. Otherwise any hymns normally come toward the end of the service, maybe one either side of the sermon (if there is one), or following the anthem. These hymns will generally be congregational.

Most cathedrals of the Church of England, from where the service originates, and a large number of college chapels in the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge offer this service regularly, often daily. In other provinces of the Anglican Communion, such as the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, the Anglican Church of Australia, and the Anglican Church of Canada, it is offered less often, although many parishes do hold special Evensong services occasionally. There are some notable exceptions, including Washington National Cathedral, which holds the service five times a week, and Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York, which holds it four times each week, as well as Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Grace Church in Madison, New Jersey, Trinity Church, Princeton, NJ, St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo, The Cathedral of St. Peter, St. Petersburg, Fl, St. John's Cathedral in Brisbane, St. Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne, St Peter's Cathedral, Adelaide, St. James' Cathedral, Toronto, St John's Cathedral, St. John's, Newfoundland and Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, and most of the larger churches and cathedrals of the Church of Ireland, all of which hold the service at least twice a week. The popularity of evensong has spread to other Protestant denominations, particularly churches of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Methodist churches which use a formal liturgical worship style. Examples in the Presbyterian Church include Fourth Presbyterian, Chicago, Illinois, and Independent Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Alabama, both of which offer evensong services on a seasonal basis.

The BBC has, since 1926 broadcast a weekly service of Choral Evensong. Until recently this was on BBC Radio 3 on a Wednesday afternoon at 16:00 UK time (and occasionally also on Sunday evening). From February 25 2007 the regular slot for this broadcast has moved to Sundays, still at 16:00. This usually comes live from an English cathedral or collegiate institution. However, it is occasionally a recording, or is replaced by a different form of service or a service from a church elsewhere in the world and/or of another denomination. The most recent broadcast is available on the BBC's "Listen Again" service for up to a week after the original broadcast. In January 2008, the controller of Radio 3, Roger Wright, announced that from mid-September 2008, the live broadcast of Choral Evensong would return to the Wednesday slot at 16:00 and this would be repeated on the following Sunday at 16:00.

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