What is Compline?

What is Compline?

Porter Taylor

Porter Taylor

The Rev. Porter Case Taylor is an Anglican priest residing in Kansas with his wife, Rebecca, and their three sons. He is a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen working on a dissertation on liturgical theology and agency in worship. Additionally, he is the author of “The Liturgical Theologian,” a blog on the Patheos Evangelical Channel and is passionate about liturgy, the sacraments, and ecclesiology. He received his MAT from Fuller Theological Seminary and is editing a volume of essays honoring Alexander Schmemann due to be published by Pickwick Publications (academic imprint of Wipf & Stock) in 2018.
Porter Taylor

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As you are browsing through the Daily Office of your 1979 BCP or “Texts for Common Prayer” for the ACNA, you will run into an order of liturgy called “Compline.” Maybe you’re familiar with Compline and maybe you’re not. It doesn’t really matter…yet. In either case, this ancient prayer hour is prayed at the conclusion of every day and ought to be embraced as a powerful tool and beautiful liturgy. My goal in this post is to inform, equip, and empower you that you might add Compline to your daily routine and continue telling time liturgically rather than chronologically.

Origins

Compline was a late addition to the Anglican liturgical repertoire; the 1979 BCP is the first American edition of the prayer book to include this service. The Americans, per usual liturgically, were 50 years late to the party as the English, Irish, and Scottish all included Compline in their 1920’s texts (both published and proposed revisions) and the Indian and Canadian books made the same move some 15-20 years prior to the Episcopal Church.

Do not be deceived however, by the lack of Anglican liturgies including Compline because the service itself is not new; it is in fact quite ancient. Dating back to the fourth century, and referenced by St. Benedict, St. Basil, and St. John Chrysostom, Compline has been prayed for century after century and forms part of the whole Daily Office (cf. Liturgy of the Hours). Compline was the last service of the day, to be said by the monks in their dormitories before bed. It was a simple service without flourishes or flashes. St. Benedict had this to say about the simplicity of Compline:

Let Compline be limited to the saying of three psalms, which are to be said straightforwardly without antiphons, after which let there be the hymn of that hour, a lesson, a versicle, the Kyrie, and a blessing to conclude.[1]

To this day, Psalms 4, 31, and 91 form the backbone of the service. Psalm 134 is often included as an additional, optional reading. Whereas Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer were designed as Cathedral offices, to be prayed corporately, Compline has always been a monastic, private office used in the comfort and seclusion of one’s habitation.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer made an important liturgical move as part of the English Reformation which saw Vespers and Compline combined into a single service known as Evensong. This was a cathedral service and was—or has been—often prayer chorally. Cranmer did the same thing when forming Matins—what we now know as Morning Prayer—when he combined Matins, Lauds, and Prime. Cranmer left a legacy of two chief prayer services at the beginning and end of the day filled with Scripture, hymns, and prayer. However, and this is a small “however,” Cranmer also boiled 8 prayer hours into 2 and I think we as Anglicans have lost a significant amount of liturgical catechesis and formation because of this.

Why Compline?

Compline was a service to close the day, an opportunity to give thanks for the joys and graces experienced, a chance to confess the (many) sins committed throughout the day, and the perfect moment to close the day the same way it started: in doxological prayer. If Morning Prayer—or whatever service you use to begin your day—is designed to start the day off right then Compline is designed to end it well.

It is the monastic roots of Compline upon which I want to focus. We cannot properly understand the significance or importance of Compline apart from its place within the whole of the Daily Office. The monastic prayer cycle of Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline was designed as a means of devoting the whole of one’s daily life to the Lord. If we are going to church every Sunday but nothing else then only 1-2 hours of a 168-hour week are truly spent in prayer, meditation, or hearing from God. Church thus becomes an escape from the “real” world, an opportunity to pause a reflect during a day when the world sets our agenda. Routinely praying the Daily Office teaches us the exact opposite. Regular engagement in Morning, Noonday, and Evening Prayer and Compline teaches us that God and his Kingdom are first and foremost the reality of our lives and we learn how to view the world through that lens rather than the other way around.

Compline doesn’t magically accomplish something different from the rest of the Daily Office. And that’s the point. Compline, along with Morning, Noonday, and Evening Prayer, teaches us how to pray and for what we should pray. We learn the language of liturgical prayer as used since the early church; we discover that our prayers are a) directed to the triune God and b) focus on our surroundings as much (if not more) than they do on us; we are daily transformed through the confession of sin and the assurance that God loves us and lovingly calls us to a higher form of living.

Suggestion

Compline is perhaps the easiest office to add to your daily prayer life. The others require you to remember to pray before/after you do something or to pray at seemingly random times throughout your schedule. Compline, however, takes place right before bed and unless you are an insomniac: everyone sleeps. Keep your prayer book or a printed liturgy by your bed and pray it every night before you sleep.

Let’s make a commitment together. Let’s promise that we will pray Compline every night for the next week and see what happens. Come back to this post and leave comments, questions, and reflections during your week of prayer.


[1] Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary On the American Prayer Book, HarperCollins Publishers. (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 144.

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