Compline: A Rookie Anglican Guide

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Compline as Night Prayer

Many of us are accustomed to saying a quick prayer before bed. The church has a formal tradition of doing this called Compline, the final of four prayer times collectively called the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer. Unlike the two principal offices, Morning and Evening Prayer, Compline (as well as Midday Prayer) doesn’t particularly change based on day or season. This being the case, and because it fits at a natural time of day for prayer, Compline is an accessible way to begin a rhythm of daily prayer.

Scripture reminds us of many instances of prayer at night. King David praises God even at night in the Psalms, where he reflects, “I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night (Psalm 63:6). Jesus himself prays in anguish at night in the Garden of Gethsemane. Perhaps most powerfully, however, is the High Priestly Prayer earlier that same night when he prays for God to protect those whom he has kept safe thus far (Jn. 17:12). Jesus asks his Father on their behalf, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” (Jn. 17:15).

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Compline as Spiritual Warfare

This is Compline’s one strongly reinforced theme: God is our protector. It is the office that deals most directly with the assaults of the devil and the other perils we face, asking for God’s peace and shelter. Compline is, in fact, spiritual warfare.

We are reminded of this warfare aspect in the Compline reading from 1 Peter, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). The entire office causes us to acknowledge the reality that, in St Paul’s words, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12) and, therefore, we put on the “whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:13). In particular, we do this through Compline (and all four offices) by the recitation of scripture, which St Paul describes as “the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God’ (Eph. 6:17).

A Refresher on the Daily Office

Compline is one part of the Daily Office, the daily rhythm of prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer are the two principal services, with shorter services of Midday Prayer and Compline said at noon and before bed. The four-part rhythm is:

As David Smith explained in his Rookie Anglican Guide to Morning Prayer, these prayer services are the “most basic building blocks of Anglican life;” they are “scripts” that walk you through “confessing sin, worshipping God, reading scripture, and praying for yourself and others.” I encourage you to check out our other articles and Rookie Anglican guides about the Daily Office.

Unlike Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, Compline (along with Midday Prayer) are not featured in the early Prayer Books of Thomas Cranmer, nor the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Instead, Compline originates as one of the Benedictine monastic prayer times, the last before bed. For this reason, its name is an anglicization of the Latin word completorium, which, fittingly, means “completion.” In the early 20th century, a resurgence in the practice of Compline happened within Anglicanism, appearing as a supplemental rite in various Anglican provinces worldwide. Along with Midday Prayer, it became an official part of The Episcopal Church’s 1979 Prayer Book and was kept for the ACNA’s version in 2019.

The Three Parts of Compline

Like the other offices, Compline can be divided into three parts: Preparation, Proclamation, and Prayers. However, each of these is shorter than in Morning and Evening Prayer.

  • The Preparation features a confession of sin.
  • The Proclamation features God’s word in the Psalms and a short scripture reading.
  • The Prayers feature the Kyrie eleison, the Lord’s Prayer, collects, and a time for personal prayer, together with the Nunc dimittis to close the service.

1. Preparation

Confession of Sin

The first thing we do in Compline is to confess that we have sinned,

…through our own fault, in thought, and word, and deed, and in what we have left undone.

And we ask for God’s forgiveness. There is no assumption that a priest is present. However, if there is, provision is given for an absolution in the additional directions (pg. 65). Otherwise, the officiant (or individual, if said alone) closes with:

May almighty God grant us forgiveness of all our sins, and the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Invitatory

After we confess our sins and receive the Lord’s grace, we recite an antiphon, once again on the theme of God’s protection.

O God, make speed to save us;
O Lord, make haste to help us.

This is followed by the Gloria Patri, a recurring doxology found in all four offices, which can be sung or said:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. Alleluia.

2. Proclamation

The Psalm(s) Appointed

At this point, we transition to praising God through the Psalms. Unlike Morning and Evening Prayer, which cycles through all 150 psalms, there are four to choose from in Compline: Psalm 4, Psalm 31:1-6, Psalm 91, and Psalm 134. The first three follow with the theme of God’s protection, while the last is a bold encouragement to praise God even during the night, particularly fitting for those who work instead of sleep during the night hours. One can choose how many to read, from just one to all four in one prayer time. At the end, the Gloria Patri is said or sung again.

Readings

There are four recommended passages of scripture, of which one is picked. These are Jer. 14:9, Matt. 11:28-30, Heb. 13:20-21, and 1 Peter 5:8-9. The first three passages petition God for protection and peace, while the last encourages us to be watchful, again fitting (like the last psalm above) for those awake during the night. If Compline is made a daily practice, the Prayer Book lists seven additional short passages in the “Additional Directions” on page 65.

3. The Prayers

We then move from the time of scripture and response to a period of laying our concerns and thanksgivings before the Lord. These begin with the antiphon,

Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit;
For you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.
Keep me, O Lord, as the apple of your eye;
Hide me under the shadow of your wings.

This immediately launches into the Kyrie eleison.

Lord, have mercy upon us
Christ, have mercy upon us
Lord, have mercy upon us

This simple prayer echoes the numerous petitions for God’s mercy in both testaments, particularly Christ’s mercy in the New Testament (Matt. 15:22, Matt. 17:15, Matt. 20:30, Mk. 10:46).

The Lord’s Prayer

From the Kyrie, we begin with the prayer Jesus taught us. We say it in unison, expressing our shared faith and dependence on God. The Lord’s Prayer encompasses adoration, petition, and surrender to God.

Collects

Collects are brief prayers that gather the intentions and desires of the congregation into a focused petition. They typically follow a distinct structure, beginning with an invocation or address to God, then a specific request or petition, and concluding with a doxology or affirmation of faith.

In Compline, we have four initial options, all focused on God’s protection during the night. An additional collect can be added on Saturday that looks toward Sunday worship. Finally, one of two collects are added that pray for those who are awake during the night:

those who work, or watch, or weep this night…

Any additional collects we wish to include can be found on pp. 641-683.

To learn more about the Collects, read “What is a Collect?”

Thanksgivings and Intercessions

Here we have an unstructured moment to lift up our individual concerns and those we know about to God’s care.

Nunc dimittis

Unlike the primary offices, there is only one canticle, the Nunc dimittis, which serves as a final prayer rather than a response of praise. In Compline, it is prefaced and followed by this antiphon:

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.

The Nunc dimittis, also known as the Song of Simeon, is taken from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:29-32). It is the prayer of Simeon upon seeing the infant Jesus, expressing his joy and contentment. The Nunc dimittis is a powerful proclamation of fulfillment and hope, as Simeon recognizes Jesus as the light of revelation for the Gentiles and the glory of God’s people, Israel.

For those who want to chant the Nunc dimittis, we have an easy guide here.

Dismissal

Finally, we end with a simple responsive dismissal that sets us on our way.

We’re Here to Help

While this seems like a lot, we’re here to help. Check out our other resources on Compline. You can also check out DailyOffice2019.com, sponsored by Anglican House Publishing, for an online version of the Daily Office that you adjust to your own preferences.

Cover image by Sarah2, courtesy of Canva.

Author

Jacob Davis

The Rev. Jacob Davis is the editor of Anglican Compass. He is a priest in the Diocese of Christ Our Hope and lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as assisting clergy at Grace Anglican Church.

View more from Jacob Davis

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