Saturday, 10 September 2011

What happened to Vespers?

Whilst looking for something else I was recently struck by the number of churches in Westminster that had Vespers sung on Sundays. Of course, this is not current praxis, I was looking at a copy of the 'Catholic Directory' well over a century old dating from 1893.

Of a total of 71 churches listing the times of public services 34 had Vespers on Sunday afternoons and 35 had some form of 'Evening Service'. For the purpose of this exercise all forms of advertised afternoon or evening services other than Vespers were counted as the same be they 'RSB', Compline or whatever. So in 1893 48% of churches in the 'London' part of the Archdiocese of Westminster were singing Vespers on Sundays - quite impressive really.

Carrying out the same exercise for fifteen years later (Catholic Directory, 1908) the result is strikingly different. Applying the same criteria there are now 87 churches: of those churches 24 advertised Vespers on Sundays whilst 60 of them advertised 'Evening Service'. Many churches that had advertised Vespers in 1893 were now offering 'Evening Service' - only one new church was listing Vespers.

In fifteen years, with a growth in the number of churches, the percentage of churches singing Vespers on Sundays had fallen from 48% to 28% with a corresponding increase in the number offering 'Evening Service'. A similar pattern is apparent with the Warwickshire part of the Archdiocese of Birmingham with a respective fall from 41% to 23% of churches singing Vespers from 1893 to 1908.

Any ideas as to why Vespers was in decline? My hypothesis would be changes in demographics of parishes due to immigration.

Update: Having now looked at the 'Catholic Directory' for 1939 the figures for Westminster are even more depressing. (The Directory is no longer distinguishing between 'London', Middlesex etc., so this is not exactly comparable to the above but the trend is all too clear). Sunday Services are listed for 184 churches and places of worship. Of these 184 churches only 17 have Vespers on Sundays (and one of those, the Servites in Fulham Road, only on the first Sunday of the month). 'Evening Service' is advertised by 160 of those churches, i.e. 87% of the churches. So the percentage of Westminster churches having Vespers on Sunday has fallen from 48% (1893) to 28% (1908) and then to 9% in 1939. (According to the website of the 'Diocese' [sic] of Westminster it now has 216 or 214 parishes: of those I understand 2 have Vespers on Sundays, less than 1%).


davidforster said...

I don't know why, but I wonder whether it is something that drew comment at the time in organs like The Tablet, The Month, or the Clergy Review.

I wonder whether social change was also involved - increased pace of life, modernity, compulsory education (as well as immigration).

Recently I heard how, when Newman founded his Oratory in Birmingham, in the 1850s the church was full of men every evening for the devotional services, confession, fervorini, etc. that the Oratorians specialized in. Men would go from the factory or the office to the church, and thence to home.

We would tend to blame the decline of these things on the cinema and popular entertainment, but I wonder if they were already in decline beforehand.

Anonymous said...

If you can ever find copies (Heythrop Library ??) of Magnificat, the splendid magazine of the Society of the Magnificat,there are many details and times of churches with public Divine Office,as well as articles about the Divine Office.They also had Office sung especially to promote it.It all died out in the late 1960s when its founder devoted herself to the promotion of the old Rite Mass,mainly in Oxford.
Alan Robinson

Anonymous said...

Could some of these other "Evening Services" have included Vespers as a part of them? For example, if one had Vespers plus a sermon might it have been listed as an "Evening Service"? Or is "Evening Service" strictly your term to designate explicitly listed services other than Vespers -- e.g., Compline? In other words, is it possible that in some cases there was a change of term away from Vespers whereas Vespers itself was still being sung? This question is simply one of clarification with regard to your terms and the content listed in the Directory.

Rubricarius said...


I don't think so as I have counted 'V, S, B', where it appears, as Vespers and not 'Evening Service'. I believe churches would have indicated 'V' if they were regularly singing Vespers.

I understand from a colleague that the 'standard' pattern of early to mid-nineteeth century parish worship was for early morning HC, mid-morning (sung) Mass and afternoon Vespers and have been urged to look at the early resources.

Anonymous said...

Do let everyone know what you turn up. To me, the suspicious question seems to be: what were these churches replacing Vespers with, considering that they didn't dispense with Sunday evening services altogether? Hence the suspicion that Vespers might have been lurking there all along. The related question would be about the effects of the Liturgical Movement in Westminster: did it not promote Vespers? And given the Anglican emphasis on Evensong, why would Vespers have declined? Many questions arise.