The ancient Office of Compline derives its name from a Latin word meaning 'completion' (completorium).
The Service or ‘Office’ of Compline lasts between 12 and 15 minutes. It is made up of prayers, readings, a psalm, a hymn and responses.
Compline is the final Church Service (or Office) of the day in the Christian translation of the canonical hours, which are prayed at fixed times. These being:
Matins: The first service of the day. Although this is during the night anytime from 2am but before 5am, the literal meaning is ‘Morning Song’ or ‘Morning Prayer’. It is also referred to as the vigil, which was originally celebrated by monks from about two hours after midnight to, at latest, the dawn
Lauds: A service in the early morning before dawn, at about 5am, in anticipation of daybreak of praise and glorification. Regarded as one of the oldest (also see Vespers) and first most important service of the day.
Prime: From the Latin word for "first", this service is at the first hour of the day; that is to say, the first hour of sunlight, or 6am. The service refers to the work, both spiritual and temporal, of the day that has just begun.
Terce: Derived from the Latin for "third", this service is approximately three hours after sunrise; typically at around 9:00 am. It contains references to the hour at which the Holy Ghost descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost. Therefore, appropriate just before commencing the day's work, invoking the Holy Ghost to bless and inspire the activities of the day.
Sext: From the Latin for "sixth", Sext is the midday prayer of the Church and contains text invoking God's help against the temptations and struggles we encounter during the heat of the day.
None: The "ninth" hour and is typically said in mid-afternoon around 3pm. It commemorates the ninth hour at which Jesus died on the Cross. It also looks forward to the ending of the day's work, and the evening rest.
Vespers: Also known as Evensong and as the name implies is the evening prayer of the Church. A service of praise and thanksgiving for the day. Therefore, should ideally be said at about sunset. Regarded as one of the oldest (as with Lauds) and second most important service of the day.
Compline: The last of the Canonical Hours, Compline is concerned with the ending of the day, and the entrusting of one's soul to the Almighty for safekeeping during the coming night. Its other preoccupation is with the soul's preparation for death, of which sleep is merely the foreshadowing. Therefore, the ideal night prayer, and should be said before retiring.
The Anglican usage through the Book of Common Prayer (first published in 1549 and through various revisions) to the most recent Common Worship have reduced the number of services to what Anglican congregations recognise as:
Morning Prayer or Matins; Evening Prayer or Evensong; Compline
The Catholic Church traditions within many monasteries have revised the Divine Office (or Liturgy of Hours) to five services. An example from Ampleforth Abbey, North Yorkshire:
Matins (6am); Lauds (7.15am); Little Hour (1pm); Vespers (6pm); Compline (8.15pm)
The Church of Scotland services as published in ‘Common Order’ (previously known as ‘The Book of Common Order, used since the 16th Century through several revisions until 1994) includes Compline as an Evening Service. The form or ‘order’ of the Compline Service is very much the same as in the service books of both the Anglican and Catholic denominations.
Traditionally, all involved in the sung service of Compline were male. However, in Catholic Convents the service was led and sung by the Nuns. Now, it is right and proper that everyone should be included and be given the opportunity to be part of this service. Therefore, those involved in the singing may be a collective of men, women and children.
Compline may be said. The readings, prayers, psalms and hymns should be encouraged to be given wide range of people.
The Congregation are invited to participate with the said Amen’s and other said sections where indicated.
It is above all a service of quietness and reflection before rest at the end of the day. It is most effective when the ending is indeed an ending, without additions, conversation or noise.
Once the service is over, those present depart in silence.