Anglican church music

Anglican church music is music that is written for Christian worship in Anglican religious services, forming part of the liturgy. It mostly consists of pieces written to be sung by a church choir, which may sing a cappella or accompanied by an organ.

Anglican music forms an important part of traditional worship not only in the Church of England, but also in the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church in Wales, the Church of Ireland, the Episcopal Church in America, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Australia and other Christian denominations which identify as Anglican. It can also be used at the Personal Ordinariates of the Roman Catholic Church.


The chief musical forms in Anglican church music are centred around the forms of worship defined in the liturgy.[1][2]

Service settings

Service settings are choral settings of the words of the liturgy. These include:

The Ordinary of the Eucharist
Sung Eucharist is a musical setting of the service of Holy Communion. Naming conventions may vary according to the churchmanship of the place of worship; in churches that tend towards a low church or broad church style of worship, the terms Eucharist or Communion are common, while in high church worship, the more Catholic term Mass may be used.[3] Musical pieces corresponding to the liturgical pattern of the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus & Benedictus, Agnus Dei) may be sung by the choir or congregation. Many English-language settings of the communion service have been written, such as those by Herbert Howells and Harold Darke; simpler settings suitable for congregational singing are also used, such as the services by John Merbecke or Martin Shaw. In high church worship, Latin Mass settings are often preferred, such as those by William Byrd.[4]
Morning Service
The Anglican service of morning prayer, known as Mattins, is a peculiarly Anglican service which originated in 1552 as an amalgam of the monastic offices of Matins, Lauds and Prime in Thomas Cranmer’s Second Prayer Book of Edward VI. Choral settings of the Morning Service may include the opening preces and responses (see below), the Venite, and the morning canticles of Te Deum, Benedicite, Benedictus, Jubilate and a Kyrie.
Evening Service
Evening Prayer, also known as Evensong, consists of preces and responses, Psalms, canticles, hymns and an anthem (see below). The evening canticles are the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis, and these texts have been set to music by many composers. Herbert Howells alone composed 20 settings of the canticles, including his Collegium Regale (1944) and St Paul's (1950) services. Like Mattins, Evensong is a service that is a distinctively Anglican service, originating in the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 as a combination of the offices of Vespers and Compline.[5] Choral Evensong is sung daily in most Church of England cathedrals, as well as in churches and cathedrals throughout the Anglican Communion. It is noted for its particular appeal to worshippers and visitors, attracting both believers and atheists with its meditative quality and cultural value.[6] A service of Choral Evensong is broadcast weekly on BBC Radio 3, a tradition begun in 1926.[7]

Preces and responses

The Preces (or versicles) and responses are a set of prayers from the Book of Common Prayer for both Morning and Evening Prayer. They may be sung antiphonally by the priest (or a lay cantor) and choir. There are a number of popular choral settings by composers such as William Smith or Bernard Rose; alternatively, they may be sung as plainsong with a congregation.


Morning and Evening Prayer and Holy Communion include a Psalm, chosen according to the lectionary of the day. This may be sung by the choir or congregation, either to plainsong, or to a distinctive type of chant known as Anglican chant by the choir or congregation.

Anthems or motets

Part-way through a service of worship, a choir may sing an anthem or motet, a standalone piece of sacred choral music, which is not part of the liturgy but is usually chosen to reflect to the liturgical theme of the day.


The singing of hymns is a common feature of Anglican worship and usually includes congregational singing as well as a choir. An Introit hymn is sung at the start of a service, a Gradual hymn precedes the Gospel, an Offertory hymn is sung during the Offertory and a recessional hymn at the close of a service.

Organ voluntary

A piece for organ, known as a voluntary, is often played at the end of a service of worship after the recessional hymn.


Almost all Anglican church music is written for choir with or without organ accompaniment. Adult singers in a cathedral choir are often referred to as lay clerks, while children may be referred to as choristers or trebles.[8] In certain places of worship, such as Winchester College in England, the more archaic term quirister is used.[9]

An Anglican choir typically uses "SATB" voices (soprano or treble, alto or counter-tenor, tenor, and bass), though in many works some or all of these voices are divided into two for part or all of the piece; in this case the two halves of the choir (one on each side of the aisle) are traditionally named decani (or 1, for the higher voice) and cantoris (or 2, for the lower voice). There may also be soloists, usually only for part of the piece. There are also works for fewer voices, such as those written for solely men's voices or boys'/women's voices.

Many more recent works were written for, or dedicated to, one of the many famous cathedral or collegiate choirs of England.


At traditional Anglican choral services, a choir is vested, i.e. clothed in special ceremonial vestments. These are normally a cassock, a long, full-length robe which may be purple, red or black in colour, over which is worn a surplice, a knee-length white cotton robe. Normally a surplice is only worn during a service of worship, so a choir often rehearses wearing cassocks only. Younger choristers who have newly joined a choir begin to wear a surplice after an initial probationary period. Cassocks originated in the medieval period as day dress for clergy, but later came into liturgical use. Additionally, choristers may wear a ruff, an archaic form of dress collar, although this tradition is becoming less common. In some establishments, including King's College Choir, Eton collars are worn. Whist singing the offices, adult choir members may also wear an academic hood over their robes. In England, young choristers who have attained a certain level of proficiency with the Royal School of Church Music, an international educational organisation that promotes liturgical music, may wear an RSCM medallion.[10][11]


Prior to the Reformation, music in British churches and cathedrals consisted mainly of Gregorian chant and polyphonic settings of the Latin Mass. The Anglican church did not exist as such, but the foundations of Anglican music were laid with music from the Catholic liturgy.

In the early 1530s, the break with Rome under King Henry VIII set in motion the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformation in England. The Church of England's Latin liturgy was replaced with scripture and prayers in English; the Great Bible in English was authorised in 1539 and Thomas Cranmer introduced the Book of Common Prayer in 1549.[12][13] These changes were reflected in church music, and works that had previously been sung in Latin began to be replaced with new music in English. This gave rise to an era of great creativity during the Tudor period, in which composition of music for Anglican worship flourished. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, musicians of the Chapel Royal such as Thomas Tallis, Robert Parsons and William Byrd were called upon to demonstrate that the new Protestantism was no less splendid that the old Catholic religion.[14][15]

Following the events of the English Civil War and the execution of King Charles I, Puritan influences took hold in the Church of England. Anglican church music became simpler in style, and services typically focused on morning and evening prayer. During the Restoration period, musical practices of the Baroque era found their way into Anglican worship, and stringed or brass instruments sometimes accompanied choirs. In the late 17th century, the composer Henry Purcell, who served as organist of both the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey, wrote many choral anthems and service settings. During the Georgian era, the music of George Frideric Handel was highly significant, with his repertoire of anthems, canticles and hymns, although he never held a church post.[13]

Up until the early 19th century, most Anglican church music in England was centred around the cathedrals, where trained choirs would sing choral pieces in worship. Composers wrote music to make full use of the traditional cathedral layout of a segregated chancel area and the arrangement of choir stalls into rows of Decani and Cantoris, writing antiphonal anthems.[13]

In parish churches, musical worship normally only consisted of congregational hymns, while prayers and psalms were normally said rather than sung. The tradition of a robed choir of men and boys was virtually unknown in Anglican parish churches until the early 19th century. Around 1839, a choral revival took hold in England, partially fuelled by the Oxford Movement, which sought to revive Catholic liturgical practice in Anglican churches. Despite opposition from more Puritan-minded Anglicans, ancient practices such as intoning the versicles and responses and chanted Psalms were introduced.[16][17] Composers active around this time included Samuel Sebastian Wesley and Charles Villiers Stanford. A number of grandiose settings of the Anglican morning and evening canticles for choir and organ were composed in the late 19th and early 20th century, including settings by Thomas Attwood Walmisley, Charles Wood, Thomas Tertius Noble, Basil Harwood and George Dyson, works which remain part of the Anglican choral repertoire today.

The singing of hymns was not an integral part of Anglican Orders of Service until the early nineteenth century, and hymns, as opposed to metrical psalms, were not officially sanctioned.[18][19] From about 1800 parish churches started to use different hymn collections in informal service like the Lock Hospital Collection[20] (1769) by Martin Madan, the Olney hymns[21] (1779) by John Newton and William Cowper and A Collection of Hymns for the Use of The People Called Methodists[22] (1779) by John Wesley and Charles Wesley.[18][23] Anglican hymnody was revitalised by the Oxford Movement and led to the publication hymnals such as Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861). The English Hymnal, edited by Percy Dearmer and Ralph Vaughan Williams, was published in 1906, and became one of the most influential hymn books ever published. It was supplanted in 1986 by the New English Hymnal.[24]

The popular appeal of Christmas carols owes much to Anglican musicians; published collections such as Oxford Book of Carols (1928) and Carols for Choirs, and the annual broadcast of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College, Cambridge have done much to popularise church music. Following the early music revival of the mid-20th century, the publication of collections such as the Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems encouraged renewed interest in 17th-century composers such as Byrd and Tallis.

In all but the smallest churches the congregation was until recently confined to the singing of hymns. Over the past half century or so efforts have been made to increase the role of the congregation and also to introduce more "popular" musical styles in the evangelical and charismatic leaning congregations. Not all churches can boast a full SATB choir, and a repertoire of one-, two- and three-part music is more suitable for many parish church choirs, a fact which is recognised in the current work of the Royal School of Church Music.

Anglican churches also frequently draw upon the musical traditions of other Christian denominations. Works by Catholic composers such as Mozart, Lutherans such as Bach, Calvinists like Mendelssohn, and composers from other branches of Christianity are often featured. This is particularly the case in music for the Mass in Anglo-Catholic churches, much of which is taken from the work of Roman Catholic composers.

See also


  1. Unger, Melvin P. (2010). Historical Dictionary of Choral Music. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 9780810873926. Retrieved 29 August 2017.
  2. Brand, Dr. Clinton A. "Anatomy of an Evensong". Our Lady of Walsingham Catholic Church, Houston, Texas, U. S. A. Archived from the original on 30 August 2017. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  3. Chryssides, George D.; Wilkins, Margaret Z. (2014). Christians in the Twenty-First Century. Routledge. p. 175. ISBN 9781317545583. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  4. Temperley, Nicholas (1983). The Music of the English Parish Church:. Cambridge University Press. p. 333. ISBN 9780521274579.
  5. "Evensong Explained, by W.K. Lowther Clarke". Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  6. Fraser, Giles (28 February 2014). "If religion exists to make raids into what is unsayable, musicians penetrate further than most". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 24 August 2017. Retrieved 24 August 2017.
  7. Howse, Christopher (8 October 2016). "Sacred Mysteries: The longest-running outside broadcast on the BBC". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on 24 August 2017. Retrieved 24 August 2017.
  8. A Basic Church Dictionary. Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. 2001. ISBN 9781853114205. Retrieved 2 October 2017.
  9. "Chapel Choir and The Quiristers". Winchester College. Retrieved 2 October 2017.
  10. Leuenberger, Samuel (2004). Archbishop Cranmer's Immortal Bequest: The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England: An Evangelistic Liturgy. Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 215. ISBN 9781592446797.
  11. Malloy, Patrick (2007). Celebrating the Eucharist: A Practical Ceremonial Guide for Clergy and Other Liturgical Ministers. Church Publishing, Inc. p. 49. ISBN 9780898695625. Retrieved 11 September 2017.
  12. Procter, F.; Frere, W. H. (1905). A New History of the Book of Common Prayer. Macmillan. p. 31.
  13. Hoch, Matthew (2015). Welcome to Church Music & The Hymnal 1982. Church Publishing, Inc. pp. 2–11. ISBN 9780819229427. Retrieved 23 August 2017.
  14. Unger, Melvin P. (2010). Historical dictionary of choral music. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press. p. 116. ISBN 9780810873926. Retrieved 3 September 2016.
  15. Williamson, Magnus (2003). Commentary: Robert Parsons (d.1572), The First Service: Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (PDF). Oxford: Published on behalf of the Church Music Society by Oxford University Press. ISBN 0193953803. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
  16. Rainbow, Bernarr (2001). The Choral Revival in the Anglican Church (1839-1872). Boydell & Brewer. pp. 3–10. ISBN 9780851158181. Retrieved 23 August 2017.
  17. Gant 2017, pp. 285-6.
  18. "Hymns Ancient and Modern". 15 February 2007. Archived from the original on 2 August 2018.
  19. H. Eskew, H.T. McElrath, Sing with Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Hymnology, 1980, p. 135
  20. The Collection of Psalm and hymn tunes, sung at the Chapel of the Lock Hospital. 1770.
  21. Olney hymns
  22. A Collection of Hymns for the Use of The People Called Methodists
  23. James Moffatt, Handbook to the Church Hymnary, Oxford University Press, 1927, p. 404
  24. Wilson-Dickson, Andrew (2003). The story of Christian music : from Gregorian chant to Black gospel : an authoritative illustrated guide to all the major traditions of music for worship (1st Fortress Press pbk. ed.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press. ISBN 9780800634742.
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