Compline in a Nutshell

An introduction to the ancient service of night prayer

What is Compline?

The term Compline comes from the Latin word ‘completorium’ or ‘completion’. Compline is also known as Night Prayer and is a contemplative service performed at the end of the day.

An ancient tradition

The tradition of saying or singing Compline goes back to at least the 6th century, possibly earlier. The early Church observed the practice of praying seven times a day. The Rule of Saint Benedict introduces compline as an additional final ‘hour’ for prayer, fixing the number of ‘offices’ or ‘hours’ observed in the monastic tradition at eight.

Compline after the Reformation

After the Reformation in England, the Book of Common Prayer reduced the eight canonical hours to two (Mattins and Evensong) some elements of Compline were absorbed into Evensong. Although officially abolished, there is evidence that some form of night prayer continued in some places of worship beyond the Reformation.

Over the last century, perhaps owing to its reflective and introspective nature, there has been an increased interest in Compline within the Anglican Church. The service is included in the Church of England’s Common Worship as well as in service books of other Anglican traditions across the globe. Compline does not require a priest and can be observed anywhere with any number of people. It is primarily a service of quiet contemplation.

The Great Silence

In monastic traditions, Compline marks the beginning of the ‘Great Silence’, during which monks and nuns remain silent until the first service of the following day. In recognition of this, it is traditional to leave the service in silence.

The structure of Compline

With some seasonal changes and other daily variations, Compline usually follows this pattern:

After a blessing and prayers of penitence, the service continues with the ancient hymn ‘Te lucis ante terminum’ (‘Before the ending of the day’) and three psalms (4, 91 and 134).

A scripture reading is followed by versicles and responses, ‘Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit’.

The Nunc Dimittis, a collect and the Lord’s Prayer lead to the final responses, which conclude the service with the words:

The Lord bless us and watch over us;
The Lord make his face shine upon us and be gracious to us;
The Lord look kindly on us and give us peace.

What is the music like?

Much of the service is often sung to ancient plainsong, including the responses and the Psalms.

The hymn, ‘Te lucis ante terminum’ can either be sung to the traditional plainsong melody or one of the choral settings of the text can be used (e.g. by Thomas Tallis).

There are many choral settings of the Nunc Dimittis, as this also features in Choral Evensong.

Experience Compline

Listen to this ancient service in a digital realisation sung by lay clerks from over 20 cathedrals. The service includes premieres of three brand new settings of the compline texts by leading composers: ‘Together in Unity’ by Bob Chilcott, ‘Nunc Dimittis’ by Joanna Marsh and ‘Te lucis ante terminum’ by Paul Mealor.