Stephen Beet tours the Choral Foundations of England
in search of a favourite service.

WERE YOU, AS I WAS, brought up to attend Choral Matins? Countless Anglicans must hold this service, the first in the Prayer Book, dear to their hearts. In recent years it has become increasingly difficult to find such a service outside London. This once most popular service is in grave danger of being ‘killed off’ because it does not fit in with modem patterns of worship.

It is a sad fact that Prayer Book Morning Prayer has disappeared from the public worship of most parishes mainly because of the current preference of the clergy for a Parish Communion. Canon Henry Burgess, in his masterly work ‘Why Prayer Book Morning Prayer’ concludes: ‘This is a service which the Church can ill afford to neglect, not only because it is a magnificent vehicle of worship, but because it provides a form of worship suited alike to the committed and uncommitted. All can take part in it without the embarrassment of affirmations which they have not yet made their own. No form of Eucharist, however ‘popular’ its language, can make that possible. .. If the Church of England is to remain in any sense the Church of the nation, and not become a sect held together by attendance at the Eucharist, there is an urgent need for the reinstatement of Morning Prayer.’

Sadly, it seems that not many Deans, Provosts and Chapters of our English Cathedrals share Canon Burgess’s views. What exactly is the situation in our Cathedrals and Choral Foundations today? What of the future? I decided to find out. The journey has taken me all over England.

Shortly after Easter, I sent a questionnaire to every Cathedral and Choral Foundation in England, Wales, and Ireland asking about the current status of Matins. I have had a very good response: over fifty replies out of the sixty-five sent out. The vast majority were very helpful and polite, as one would expect; but there were exceptions and even the occasional incident of rudeness.

The results of the survey paint a rather depressing picture:

Sixteen cathedrals reported that they sing Matins every Sunday but only four of those regarded it as the main morning service, there being also a Sung Eucharist which is regarded as more important.

In fourteen cathedrals it is possible to attend the service on a regular basis: two or three Sundays per month.

Twenty-two cathedrals never or hardly ever sing Matins. Two Cathedrals have restored the service over the last few years (one being St. Paul’s Cathedral, which now sings it every week), and none have plans to sing the service on fewer occasions than at present, or to discontinue the service which, I suppose, is some small comfort.

The picture is even more depressing if one lives out of London and wishes to attend a thoroughly traditional service complete with the Authorised Version of the Bible and prayers in keeping with the language of the Prayer Book. Only St. Edmundsbury, Portsmouth, Guildford King’s College, Cambridge, and two others, which could not be identified, admitted to using the AV.

Within London, thanks to the Royal Peculiars, we are truly blessed: The Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy, The Temple Church, and the Chapels Royal are bastions of tradition:

Regular Choral Matins, the Authorised Version of the Bible, and fine prayers and addresses accompanied by some of the finest singing by choirs of men and boys in the world – we are indeed spoilt for choice. Both St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey sing Matins every week, but neither uses the King James’ Bible.

Outside London, it is possible to attend Matins if one is prepared to travel. It seems to have survived better in the north than in the midlands, where it is difficult to attend a service regularly. Several Cathedrals where Matins is never sung did not respond.

The reasons given for the lack of Matins are interesting: ‘The Eucharist is more important’, Wakefield; ‘We do not have Matins’, Southwark; ‘The Eucharist has been the main service for many years and I have not been able to discover why (it displaced Matins)’, Truro; ‘The Eucharist is more appropriate’ Carlisle; ‘Choral Eucharist is more popular’, several replies. One precentor, who did not wish to be named, wrote that he was doing his best to restore the service to its former prominence.

The reasons given for the abandoning of the Authorised Version in favour of modern translations are even more interesting: ‘Presumably because they are easier to understand’, several replies; ‘For homiletical clarity and exposition’, Christ Church, Oxford; ‘To encourage reflection on scriptural texts in a modern context,’ Durham; ‘In the 1960s, the RSV was considered more accurate’, Peterborough; ‘Far more accurate’. St Paul’s; ‘A decision by Chapter,’ Salisbury and Exeter and York; ‘Don’t know,’ several replies; ‘It happened a long time ago, before my time’, the most common reply.

But there was good news from Ireland. Several Cathedrals reported the service sung regularly, accompanied by the Authorised Version; and the Dean of St. Patrick’s reminded me that they still sing Matins Monday to Fridays: ‘I believe we are now the only cathedral in the world which does.’

These statistics, which will shortly be available in full, present the official picture. Naturally, I wanted to obtain a more personal and, in some ways, subjective picture of the present situation. From several Cathedrals we hear reports that the service is under threat. Reports have reached me that where Matins is advertised, it is sometimes, as at one Midlands Cathedral, cancelled at the whim of the authorities and a Eucharist substituted. When an explanation is requested, dismissive and patronising statements are offered in reply. Personally, I have been informed by one canon that I am in need of education in these matters. Several people have written to say that they find it very irritating to find the service spoilt by modern language Bible readings, too often of doubtful accuracy. The neglect, and sometimes the suppression, of the A.V. is, sadly, born out by the survey. One lady wrote to say she had been astonished to hear at a recent service that a man had gone down to a certain place to ‘see what someone was getting up to!’ Occasional prayers are another cause for complaint. ‘We seem to pray for everyone in the world every day’, wrote one gentleman who attends daily offices. ‘The prayers are very silly, and the clergy patronise us, ‘claimed one lady, who added: ‘They are always changing the words of the prayers: why do they have to change the beautiful words of Cranmer? Do they think we are incapable of understanding them?’

Alarmed by this sometimes anecdotal evidence, I decided to find out for myself what they were getting up to.

Over the past year, I have visited the majority of the English Cathedrals and have attended at least one choral service, although it was not always possible to attend Matins, even when it was sung regularly. In a future issue, the editor may allow me to share my thoughts on the state of our unique Choral Tradition, but, for the present, I shall confine my remarks to observations directly connected with Matins.

At Ely, I asked a lay official if Matins was being held the following day (Sunday). I was informed that the service had not been sung for many years, much to her regret. When I asked why the service had been discontinued she replied: ‘I don ‘t know, I think it was something to do with the clergy!’

At Rochester, I was told that Matins was sung every Sunday, but not many people attended because it was held too early in the day.

The remark about the demise of Matins being ‘something to do with the clergy’ struck a chord. So few clergy are really committed to maintaining the service. It has been the laity who have fought their corner to keep the service. How many young people are encouraged to attend the service? As Canon Burgess pointed out in his essay, the demises of Matins is a very worrying fact. So many wonderful settings of the Morning Canticles are very seldom heard nowadays, and before long a considerable portion of the marvellous legacy of such music will disappear for ever. Indeed the tradition of singing the psalms for the day is already lost in many Cathedrals. So now we have morning psalms in the evening or stand to risk never hearing half of the appointed psalms.

Only if we are prepared to request the reintroduction of Matins, and not to be put off by the opposition we are almost certain to encounter, can we even hope of maintaining the status quo. Those places where Choral Matins is regarded as the main service of the day are flourishing. Large congregations attend the Temple Church and Savoy Chapel, many people travelling considerable distances for the privilege of attending such a service. The ‘Times’ recently reported that this was also the case at Hampton Court, another oasis in the desert. Everything should be done to alert the clergy to the fact that a considerable number of Anglicans still value this service, and there are sound reasons for doing so. It is really not acceptable to be told that we are out of date and that we must change with the times. In my opinion there is too little true humility in these matters. It should be perfectly possible for most Cathedrals to provide a sung service of Matins on a regular basis.

Canon Burgess remarks that much of the blame lies with the theological colleges’ who have not taught the value of the Prayer Book as a vehicle of worship, with the result that the clergy have not taught, because they have not understood the spiritual plan informing its worship.’

Despite this lack of instruction, lay people who have become accustomed to Morning Prayer enter into the worship it inspires with genuine appreciation, and feel cheated when they cannot get it. This is hardly surprising because Morning Prayer is so dependent on Scripture throughout.

All who value our glorious heritage should take heart in the knowledge that there are sound theological arguments to strengthen our cause: we should not be afraid positively to assert our belief in the importance of Choral Matins and do all we can to support those clergy who are actively maintaining the tradition.

Stephen Beet is a member of the Prayer Book Society.

Note: I am indebted to Canon Henry Burgess MA, Canon Emeritus of Sheffield Cathedral for his permission to quote from his booklet ‘Why Prayer Book Morning Prayer’ which is available from The Prayer Book Society, St. James Garlickhythe, Garlick Hill, London, EC4V 2AL