NEW statistics released last week indicate that attendances at weekday cathedral services have been rising since 2007 (News, 26 October).
I have been indulging in some mild Twitter correspondence about the potential health benefits of choral evensong, forwarding the suggestion that it should be available on prescription and provoking some amused responses from evensong afficionados.
It is obvious that those who go regularly to cathedrals for evensong are very different from Sunday-morning churchgoers, although you can identify distinct groups. There are parents of choristers, proud and anxious; off-duty musicians and clergy in mufti on days off; and visitors and tourists, some not speaking much English, rather bewildered by the Prayer Book or service sheet and baffled when everyone around them turns east for the Creed. There are more men, and of all ages, than there are at Sunday services.
Not surprisingly, those who attend weekday evensong do not talk to each other much. They come and they go, yet they are there. I suspect that they represent a large constituency who have more or less given up on other forms of church life, and who, in time past, might have gone to morning or evening prayer on Sundays in their parishes, but less often to holy communion.
They are often people who like to attend church on their own. They don’t want to be jollied along, made to shake awkward hands with their neighbours, or sway their bodies or clap their hands. They are not looking for sermons or for instruction in the Christian faith. They come for God, I think, relieved that no one is going to get at them. The music is important, of course, but so is what the rhythm of speech and music does for them: that slowing of the heart rate and breathing, the quietening of the mind, the sense of space and mystery and presence.
The praises and laments of the psalms reflect the seasons of the human spirit, and the canticles break in with the good news of the gospel. The scriptures are read in dignified English. And all this is contained within about 40 minutes (unless you are keeping the BCP’s provision for the 15th evening, in which case allow 50). The prayers at evensong, if I may be prescriptive, should be composed of sharply phrased biddings which speak to the moment, followed by thoughtfully chosen collects — not more than three, if possible. This is not the time to pray for everything and everyone.
One of my academic colleagues at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, used to say that the miracle of choral evensong was that, no matter how flustered, furious, or exhausted you were when you turned up, by the time you got to the grace at the end you were a different person. As one Twitter correspondent suggests, choral evensong is the church of last resort.