What Sunday services were held in a tyical English parish church before the Reformation?
The Catholic Church in England prior to the Reformation generally celebrated Mass, Matins and Evensong (Vespers). There were differences in times due to the historical environment the faithful lived in those days.
The public services on Sunday in a parish church were Matins, Mass, and Evensong. We do not propose more than to take an outside view of them; the reader who cares to do so may without difficulty obtain a missal and breviary, and study their contents. We may, however, make two remarks bearing upon the important general question of the popular religion of these Middle Ages. The first is that there is a widespread error on the subject of the “Mass” in the minds of those who have never opened a missal. It is taken for granted that it was the most corrupt and idolatrous feature of all the Roman corruptions; on the contrary, the Eucharistic service of the Mediæval English Church was very little altered in substance from that of the sixth century, and is so sound that it is inconsistent with some of the modern Roman corruptions in doctrine and practice. The Matins and Evensong of those times consisted of an accumulation of several of the “Hour” offices; and the Morning and Evening Prayer of our Prayer-book consists of a condensation of those same “Hours;” so that the regular popular services were far more free from corruptions and superstitions than is commonly supposed. These were to be found chiefly in glosses on the services, and additions to them.
It is probable that the Sunday services were attended with fair regularity by the majority of the people. Not only did the clergy exercise more authoritative oversight over their people than they do in these times, but it was the duty of churchwardens to present people who were flagrantly negligent of their religious duties, and of the Ecclesiastical Courts to punish them.
The times of service varied in different times and places, but they were earlier than our present usage.
It is certain that matins always preceded the Divine service, and it is probable that the normal time for the latter was nine o’clock; it was not considered right to celebrate it after twelve o’clock.
If not every Sunday, at least at certain times a sermon was preached, about which we shall have to speak more at large presently. All the people who were of age and not excommunicate were communicants, but the vast majority only communicated once a year, at Easter, some pious people a little more frequently, but the most devout not oftener than twelve times a year. But at every celebration a loaf of bread, the “holy loaf,” was blessed, and broken or cut in pieces, and given to the people. Here comes in a question whether the laity attended mass fasting. It would seem that it was not necessary, since they did not communicate, but that they may have done so out of reverence is suggested by a note in Blunt’s Annotated Prayer-book, that those who had not come fasting to the service, did not eat their portion of the “holy loaf,” but gave it to another, or reserved it for future consumption. People dined no doubt immediately they reached their homes after service.
Probably the evensong at about three in the afternoon was not so well attended as the morning service; people who have some distance to go in all weathers from their homes to the church do not usually go twice a day. It was probably the general custom to catechize the children in the afternoon.
Parish Priests and their People in the Middle Ages in England
Liturgical life in England was a little different than that of the general usages of the Roman Rite Liturgical usage as there were a number of different Liturgical Rites or more precisely Liturgical Usages of the Roman Rite on the British Isles back then.
The most commonly and most widespread Rite known Liturgical Usage was the Sarum Rite. But other usages of the Church in Medieval England were the York Usage, the Durham Rite, and the Aberdeen Rite.
All these liturgical variants in England were generally considered variations of the Roman Rite.
Take the Sarum Usage as an example:
As in the traditional Roman Rite, the hours are preceded by several prayers recited in silence. The officiating priest begins with Deus in adjutorium meum intende, to which the choir answers with Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina and Gloria Patri. The Sarum Use directs the choir to turn to the altar at several points in the rite, including whenever the doxology is sung. Strictly speaking, the Sarum Use also envisions that the entire hour of Vespers—with the exception of the Responsory—is said while standing. We allowed the clergy and congregation to sit for the psalms, but no chairs were set out for either the singers or the altar servers.
The “heart” of Vespers is five psalms; however, the group used for First Vespers of the Purification in Sarum is different from that of the Roman Rite. As in the Dominican Use, Sarum assigns the Psalms of the Christmas octave: 109, 110, 111, 129, and 131 (in the traditional numbering). Each psalm is preceded by a semi-doubled antiphon, intoned by five different clerics in descending order of seniority. Each cleric is individually approached by the Precentor, who pre-intones for them as needed.
During the responsory, the candlebearers begin lighting the candles of the side altars, which were soon to be incensed. Because of the expense of candlewax before the modern period, it was common for the candlebearers to blow out the processional candles when they were not being used, and to only light candles on side altars when necessary.
The hymn Quod chorus vatum follows the responsory. Tallis only set the second and fourth verses to polyphony. For the first, third, and fifth, we set the plainchant to notation in the program and accompanied them with the organ for the congregation to sing. During the hymn, silken copes are brought to the officiating priest and one other, whom the officiant designates to assist him in incensing the altars.
After the hymn, two cantors sing a versicle. Unlike the Roman Rite, the choir does not sing the response, but recite it privately. The Precentor approaches the officiant to help him intone the antiphon before the Magnificat, which is sung in full before and after the canticle. The Precentor returns to the choir and the two priests approach the altar to begin the rite of incensation, first making a prostration and kissing the altar step.
At the end of Vespers, the Collect is said by the officiant at the foot of the altar, flanked by the candlebearers. Two cantors sing Benedicamus Domino; as with the versicle, the response Deo gratias is made privately.
A Description of Sarum Vespers
Here is a YouTube video of Vespers according to the Sarum Rite for Christmas: Sarum Use Vespers - Candlemas Eve: Feb 1, 2020 at St Patrick's Church, Philadelphia This Liturgical Rite is not as defunct as many believe.