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Popularity of choral evensong inspires survey

22 February 2019


The St George’s Chapel Choir rehearse before evensong and ahead of the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, in May last year

The St George’s Chapel Choir rehearse before evensong and ahead of the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, in May last year

THE growing popularity of choral evensong has prompted no few theories in recent years. Now a survey is going straight to those in the pews — and queuing around the block — for answers.

The survey, “The Experiences of Choral Evensong”, launched online last week, is one strand of the doctoral research of Kathryn King, a musicologist at Magdalen College, Oxford.

Many explanations for its growing appeal had been proposed, she said on Tuesday: “Some will say that it is just well-known services on the tourist trail, but the evidence seems to be suggesting that it isn’t the case. . . Is it something to do with the social and cultural context geographically, or the iconic nature of particular buildings?”

Clergy and musicians often pointed to “this sense of the numinous: you are entering a difference space”.

There was evidence for a resurgence, she said. Statistics from Church House suggest that 18,000 adults a week attend weekday cathedral services: a 35-per-cent increase since 2007 (News, 26 October 2018). Ms King said that she had personally seen evidence of growth — “If you go to Westminster Abbey, there are queues around the block from 45 minutes before the service starts” — but noted that this was not a universal picture. Other churches were reporting ten to 15 people “on a good day”, and asking “What is going on?”

People in Oxford, Cambridge, and London were not representative of the country, she said; “So one of my questions is: ‘Who are these people going to choral evensong?’” Questions in the survey explore the religious beliefs and identities, and socio-cultural, educational, and musical backgrounds of respondents, besides asking about their reasons for going.

Several people had asked whether, because they did not believe in God, they were eligible to complete the survey, she said, raising questions about “how many people feel it is OK to go”.

Interviewees tended either to consider themselves “typical” of people who attended (some suggested that the motivation was free entry to a cathedral, or the possibility of a free concert); or they were atypical, she said: they considered themselves “unusual”.

The survey’s list of possible reasons to attend extends to 24, and, without wishing to speculate on the outcome, Ms King suggested that “I won’t be surprised if what I find is a diverse range of people coming for very different reasons.”

Within a few days of its launch last week, 650 people had completed the survey, which will sit alongside other research methods, including an immersive evensong experience study, using a specially created virtual-reality evensong service.

The survey will run until June, and paper copies can be requested.


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