What is Compline? A Little History…

What is Compline? A Little History…

Recently, we have begun offering the service of Compline in the evenings. Many have asked, “What is Compline?”

A brief history of Compline can be found in “Commentary on the American Prayer Book”[1]Compline originated in the fourth century as the night prayers of monks in their dormitories. In his Rule, Benedict of Nursia describes the content of the rite in the sixth century: “Let Compline be limited to the saying of three psalms, which are to be said straightforwardly without antiphons, after which let there be a hymn of that hour, a lesson, a versicle, the Kyrie, and a blessing to conclude.” The psalms are Compline are fixed, “Let the same psalms be repeated every day at Compline, which are Psalms 4, 91, and 134.”

Late in the middle ages, the office of Vespers was moved earlier in the day and Compline was often said in church. It attracted various additions: the Lord’s Prayer and the Ave Maria at the beginning, antiphons for the psalms, the Nunc dimittis with an antiphon, the Lord’s Prayer again, the Apostles’ Creed, a confession and absolution, and prayers at the end.

The Church of England’s 1549 Prayer Book included the Nunc dimittis, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and “A Collect for Aid Against Perils” into its service of Evening Prayer (Evensong). Henry VIII and Elizabeth in their private devotions provided forms for a simple office of Compline.

Over the last one hundred years, Compline has been revived in a variety of Anglican communities. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the first American Prayer Book to include it.

At the end of a weary day, Compline is a brief, simple service that is described in A New Zealand Prayer Book as:

The offering of prayer late in the evening, by laity, religious orders or clergy, often called Compline, has sometimes been described as the ‘goodnight prayer of the Church.’ It rounds off the days and prepares us for a quiet night. As the psalmist wrote:

I lie down in peace and take my rest
for it is in God alone that I dwell unfraid.

Night Prayer derives its content from the wisdom of centuries in Scripture and above all in the psalms, but also from contemporary Christian experience of God. It celebrates the awareness that each of us who tries to pray is a part of the human whole. So we are taken over from the threshold from daytime, not in a mood of self-centered spirituality, but as representatives of humanity, acknowledging our creaturehood before God.[2]

[1] (Hatchett 1995), p. 144

[2] (The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia 1989), p. 167.

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