ONE of the remarkable things about the Church of England remains its buildings, especially its cathedrals. If 2020 taught us anything, it is the importance of these buildings not just as aesthetically pleasing historical artefacts, but also as living symbols of presence, hope, and service.
At the centre of all this, of course, is the daily round of worship that is offered in our cathedrals and parish churches. And the jewel in this crown, arguably, is choral evensong. Day by day, all year round, music of great variety and complexity is offered to God, and to any who wish may listen, as part of the routine daily cycle of the Church’s year. Visitors to choral evensong (and they are on the increase, apparently) are eavesdroppers, briefly entering into a liturgical rhythm that will carry on regardless, in a form of words and music which has been constantly evolving for a very long time indeed.
This can be a confusing experience, and Simon Reynolds has produced a very useful guidebook (Features, 7 May) for the uninitiated — and also a good reminder for those who think they know what they are doing. After placing evensong in a broader context of the Church’s mission and worship, he breaks up the various component parts of the service, and clearly and succinctly explains their history and purpose. He introduces the reader to the riches of the musical textual repertoires used. Each of the short chapters has some passages for reflection.
From time to time over the years, I have officiated at countless choral evensongs in various cathedral settings. When chatting to people afterwards, I have been struck again and again by how many have been affected in ways that they were not expecting: far from being a nice free concert or a way of getting to look at the place without paying for entry, people have often been caught by some sense of what might be called “God”, or have been moved to think a bit more deeply about something important in their lives, or to find out a bit more about what it’s all about…
Reynolds has provided the ideal introduction for such people. A very well-produced book, too; I hope that the cost does not deter, as the contents deserve wide circulation.
The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.
Lighten our Darkness: Discovering and celebrating choral evensong
Church Times Bookshop £15.30