Christopher Trundle on the daily recitation of the Psalms in the Church of England

The Psalter shall be read through once every Month, it is there appointed, both for Morning and Evening Prayer’ (from ‘The Order How the Psalter is Appointed to be Read’ in the Book of Common Prayer).

The daily recitation of the psalms has been central to the worship and prayer of Christians and Jews from ancient times, and comes to us from the worship of the Temple at Jerusalem. Indeed, rubrics in ancient texts and in the Septuagint indicate that the psalter is a specifically liturgical book. Throughout the centuries, men and women have found that the psalms resonate strongly with their hopes, fears, joys and tribulations; they are supremely human texts.

Core of the Daily Office

The specifically disciplined and ordered recitation of the psalms, however, forms the core of the Daily Office, and countless different rules and structures have existed in both East and West to ensure that the whole psalter could be read in different timescales, most often once per week. At the Reformation the Church of England greatly simplified the ordering of their recitation for ease of use, dividing the psalms into groups for the morning and evening of each day of the month (the words, ‘15th Evening’ strike fear into the heart of many a chorister!).

The Reformers’ zeal for ensuring that Scripture was as easily accessible as possible was the prime motivation (‘to turn the Book only was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out’; ‘Concerning the Service of the Church’ in the Book of Common Prayer); but there went with this a clear understanding that structured and ordered liturgy was central to the life of the Church.

The English translation of the psalms we find in the Prayer Book today is based on Miles Coverdale’s version, and is largely identical to that of the Great Bible of 1539. This translation has become much loved and has left an indelible mark on Anglicans for generations. Our maintaining of the ancient tradition of reciting the psalms (albeit in the vernacular) is not the only part of our psalmic Patrimony, however, for their chanting has also become part and parcel of Anglican worship throughout the world.

Chanting and plainsong

Anglican chant is, of course, one of those things which people either love or hate. It is, nonetheless, one of the most readily identifiable parts of the Anglican Offices of Mattins and Evensong. Anglican chant had become a staple of English worship by the late seventeenth century, but it bears rather more resemblance to ancient forms of chanting than one might expect, and certainly echoes the fauxbourdon style frequently found in renaissance music.

We should not forget, however, that the singing of psalms to plainsong in the vernacular is also solidly Anglican. The Psalter Noted, published in 1849, and the later Manual of Plainsong compiled by Briggs and Frere under the general editorship of Stainer are two important examples of the Tractarian desire to restore ancient liturgical norms to Anglican liturgy.

The metrical psalm is also a part of our tradition, many being favourites in the New English Hymnal to this day. The Anglican choral tradition is, of course, one of our treasured possessions, not least because its very purpose is the service of the liturgy. The widespread singing of psalms, which the Church of England has maintained in a distinctive way, is an important witness to our ancient heritage and worship – and long may it continue.

‘My song shall be alway of the loving-kindness of the Lord: with my mouth will I ever be shewing thy truth from one generation to another’ (Psalm 89). ND