Sunday Mattins: means of grace

The Prayer Book Office has been the principle means of grace for Anglican Christians since the break with Rome - Oikodomeo

I have previously referred to this phrase from Oikodomeo but it is certainly worthy of further comment as it helps to deliver past generations of Anglicans from - to use a term of the Marxist historian E.P. Thompson - the "enormous condescension of posterity".  Rather than viewing Sunday Mattins, the mainstay of Anglican public worship from the 16th to the mid-20th century, as a form of deep spiritual impoverishment, Oikodomeo rightly identifies it as a "principle means of grace".

In what way was it a "means of grace"? How did Sunday Mattins sustain a vibrant Anglican piety over centuries? If we consider the various constituent parts of the liturgy of Mattins and their meaning, we perhaps can begin to identify how Sunday Mattins functioned as a "means of grace".

As laudable Practice has pointed out in the past, the Absolution at Morning Prayer was long considered - from Hooker to Christopher Wordsworth in the late 19th century - as having the same efficacy as the special form of absolution in the Visitation of the Sick.  Lancelot Andrewes provides a simple, significant statement of this when, in his Notes on the Book of Common Prayer, he grounds the Absolution at Morning and Evening Prayer in the "authority of absolution" bestowed by the Lord in "John xx.23".  Thus, as Sparrow states, "when therefore the Priest absolves, God absolves, if we be truly penitent". Here, then, Sunday Mattins offered the grace of what Sparrow describes as "the Ministry of Reconciliation".

In psalm, first lesson, and second lesson we - in the words of the Prayer for the Church Militant - "hear and receive thy holy Word". This not, as Hooker emphasised, "bare reading": and note the echo here of Jewel's insistence that the Eucharist is not "a cold ceremony only, and nothing to be wrought therein". Rather, as Hooker states contra his Puritan opponents, to hear the reading of Scripture at Sunday Mattins is to encounter grace.

That which offendeth us is, first the greate disgrace which they offer unto our custome of bear readinge the word of God, and to his gracious Spirit, the principall vertue whereof thereby manifestinge it selfe for the endlesse good of mens soules, even the vertue which it hath to convert, to edifie, to save soules, this they mightelie strive to obscure (LEP V.22.1).

We receive this grace through the Scriptures as a form of feeding, as the conclusion of the homily 'A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading of Holy Scripture' reminds us:

let us ruminate, and, as it were, chew the cud, that we may have the sweet juice, spiritual effect, marrow, honey, kernel, taste, comfort, and consolation of them.

The Gospel canticles of praise at Mattins and Evensong - Benedictus, Magnificat, and Nunc Dimittis - reminds us that the grace experienced by those who, in Hooker's words, in "theire hartes armes and verie bowels embraced him" is "proportionable" to "the benfites which wee and others have receaved" (V.40.2-3). This, in other words, emphasises what it is for us to "receive" grace through the reading of Scripture at Mattins and Evensong.  As Sparrow notes:

The answer may be, that bearing Christ in the womb, suckling him, holding him in our arms, is not so great a blessing, as the laying up his holy word in our hearts, by which Christ is formed in us.

These canticles, together with the Te Deum and the Creed, also have the character of anamnesis for they are, as Sparrow puts it, "the most expressive Jubilations and rejoycings for the redemption of the world". This character of anamnesis is particularly evident in the Te Deum's almost creedal nature, while the gospel canticles are a recalling of the mighty acts of redemption: "for he hath visited and redeemed his people", "he hath shewed strength with his arm", "for mine eyes have seen thy salvation".  This is reiterated in the Creed's proclamation of the acts of redemption, a proclamation which Rowan Williams has described as "essentially 'eucharistic'".

Finally, there are the prayers at Sunday Mattins.  George Herbert in The Country Parson states that "the Countrey Parson, when he is to read divine services", comes before "the heavenly altar".  Sparrow, noting the rubric requiring the Minister to stand for the versicles and response, understands this to be an expression of the priestly office, for "the Ministers of the Gospel are appointed by God to offer up the sacrifices of prayers and praises of the Church for the people".  The fact that minister wore a surplice for Sunday Mattins just as he did for administering the holy Eucharist only further emphasised the sacrificial aspects of Mattins.  Herbert's 'Come people; Aaron's drest' refers no less to Mattins than to the Eucharist. (It might be noted that a lay person leading Mattins can be understood to signify the royal priesthood and the "lively sacrifice".)

Absolution; spiritual feeding; anamnesis; sacrifice. Little wonder, then, that Sunday Mattins was "the principle means of grace" for generations of Anglicans.  We might also reflect on how Sunday Mattins therefore acts as a means of preparing us for the holy Eucharist, shaping and sustaining us by, and orienting towards, a eucharistic spirituality.  All of which might make us possibly embrace the counter-intuitive idea that one way of renewing the Eucharistic spirituality of contemporary Anglicanism would be to renew the place of Mattins as a regular Sunday liturgy.


Popular Posts