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In praise of evensong — more than an act of personal devotion

by
07 May 2021

It connects us with the Church’s worship around the world and through the ages, says Simon Reynolds

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The choir of Wells Cathedral rehearsing for evensong in the nave on Easter Day, 2016

The choir of Wells Cathedral rehearsing for evensong in the nave on Easter Day, 2016

THE growth being experienced by cathedrals and other places where choral evensong is offered is part of a much wider pattern of changing religious activity in Europe.

As the cultural influence of the historic Churches continues to decline, growing numbers of people are discovering that they want to speak about what they believe, what brings them fulfilment, and how the need for a “spiritual dimension” to life can be met.

However they express it, many people are asking whether they have a “soul” — and how it can be nourished and enlarged. This partly explains the rediscovery of pilgrimage, whether this is along one of the traditional routes or along routes of people’s own devising. Others have discovered the value and potential of monastic communities, with their emphasis on the balance between work, silence, prayer, and community interdependence.

Choral evensong can be seen as part of this momentum of pilgrimage and a monastic way of prayer. Not only did evensong evolve from the monastic pattern of daily prayer; it continues to offer a stable, reliable, and regular pattern of daily worship.

In one sense, it makes few demands because it is simply given. It usually happens at a time when people are heading home, and the axis of the day begins to turn from light to darkness. It offers a space into which the concerns, failures, and achievements of the day can be brought into the wide and generous orbit of the Church’s worship.


WHETHER a person goes to evensong alone, or with others, it is never an isolated activity. Of course, there are other people present — not least the choir, clergy, and others whose task it is organise and offer this worship. But there is a much wider — and deeper — dimension to this sense of being part of something greater than oneself — or even the present moment.

This is significant at a time when increasing numbers of people under the age of 35 are more likely to experience loneliness than those over the age of 55. At one level, evensong embodies a strong sense of continuity.

The words being said and sung, and the basic shape of the service, has been part of Christian experience from a very early moment in our history. It takes us back to our roots in the Jewish faith of Jesus and his followers.

At another level, the same (or very similar) words are being said or sung in many other places, at about the same time, all over the world: not simply in other cathedrals with glorious music, but by small groups and isolated individuals; in small country churches, hospitals, and immigration centres; in affluent societies or in places of grinding poverty and brutal persecution.

The worship in which we are involved inescapably binds us to other people, other cultures, and other times.

This is an act of worship that gently reminds us that, while each of us is infinitely precious to God, as 21st-century people we are not the centre of the universe. Others have been nourished and enlarged by this worship long before us — and will continue to be so long after our lives on earth have ended.

Evensong may be happening at a specific time and in a particular place, here and now; but we are inescapably part of the praying of countless millions of unknown and unknowable people with whom we share this worshipping experience across time and space.

This is why it is natural to speak of evensong as part of the Church’s worship rather than simply being an act of personal devotion.

This is worship that takes us out of ourselves and challenges our self-referential tendencies. It invites us to journey into unfamiliar territory, to discover the wider horizons of life, history, and faith, and to acknowledge that we share this fragile planet with others.


THE music that is integral to choral evensong is an obvious way of accentuating the sense of continuity underscoring this act of worship. Unless a piece of music happens to be receiving its first performance, the music that you will hear has been sung, and heard, many times before — possibly for centuries.

It is both inspiring and humbling to know that we are not the first (and will not be the last) people for whom this music has accompanied and articulated our longing, hope, and gratitude. Its regular repetition in many different places absorbs the prayers of countless generations of people.

I have often been most acutely aware of this on a Friday, when the service is sparser in feel (and traditionally sung without organ accompaniment) to recall the day of the crucifixion. It is a day when much of the music tends to come from the medieval and Tudor periods, and may also include plainsong — one of the earliest known forms of music used in Christian worship.

It seems to amplify the architectural space in which the worship takes place (in a cathedral dating from the Middle Ages, or earlier), where the music, as well as aspects of the worshipping environment, may be contemporaneous.

Even in a 20th-century cathedral, such as Coventry or Liverpool, there is a keen sense that music from an earlier period is gently challenging the tendency to imagine that Christian worship is purely of the present moment (or within living memory).

Similarly, the presence of contemporary music in an ancient cathedral, especially its more angular dissonance, serves as a reminder that the worship being offered, although in beautiful and ancient surroundings, is not remote from the anguished and urgent realities of the present day.


ONE of the ways music works its mysterious power in worship is to insist that reality is much more than what we may know or understand at this moment. Not only can it invite us to ponder the essential truth about our place in this vast and complex universe; it also opens a window through which we can glimpse the endless possibilities of eternity.

Understood in this way, music in Christian worship performs, in Keats’s words, a “priestlike task”. If we will let it, music can hold up an undistorted mirror to the human condition.

Harmony and dissonance, rhythm and stillness, as well as major and minor keys, provide their own commentary on the exigencies of life. It challenges us to embrace the whole world with all its dazzling beauty, all its devastating pain, and all its horrific injustice.

When words, architecture, and music come together in a large worshipping space like a cathedral, it can invite worshippers to inhabit a place to face reality at its most intense, and to be drawn more deeply into the orbit of God’s redeeming and healing love.

Choral evensong is not a modern invention designed to attract more people into church and stem the momentum of decline: it has evolved over many centuries.

Although several elements take us back to the worshipping experience of Jesus in the Jewish faith, the current framework of the service was largely fixed in the mid-16th century (with some minor revisions over the course of the next century or so).

After the great religious and political upheaval of the Reformation, which gave birth to new forms of Christian worship across Europe during the 16th century, evensong was one of the services that adapted the worship of the monasteries for ordinary people and their clergy to use together.

In that sense, it simply perpetuates what the Church has always done, without any attempt to make it more relevant, to adapt it to meet today’s cultural expectations, or to overlay it with endless explanation that may diminish its impact. Its language belongs more to the world of Shakespeare than to Twitter.

 

SOME of the music may not be “easy listening”. The readings from Jewish and Christian scriptures expose us to “another country” in the ancient Near East and parts of the Mediterranean. This is a world we cannot easily know, where human rights, antibiotics, and air travel were unimaginable.

Notwithstanding its rooting in the past, choral evensong seems to attract and invite today precisely because it is a gift — and a gift that demands little or nothing in return. As part of the diverse “mixed economy” of worship in the Church of England, people can stumble on it unexpectedly, or grow in familiarity after an initial and hesitant encounter.

Anyone attending evensong in a cathedral or large church can be confident that they will not be quizzed about their motives and beliefs, or pressured to leave their contact details.

The fact that it is possible to worship with a large degree of anonymity, and not be expected to conform to a pre-determined view of what it means to belong to the Church, is part of the attraction for many people.

Another aspect of choral evensong which makes it attractive is that, on the whole, it happens on most days of the week rather than being a Sunday-only occasion. Whilst the “traditional” Sunday may persist in many countries across the European mainland, it tends to be much more fragmented in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Not only do many (especially younger) people feel they must work on Sundays, but the competing demands of sporting activities, as well as the complexities that surround life for divorced or separated parents, or the relentless demands of working in the gig economy with zero-hours contracts, means that worship on Sundays can be problematic — if not impossible — for many people.

Being able to slip into worship, as the working or learning day is ending, can be as liberating as it is convenient.

 

This is an edited extract from Lighten our Darkness: Discovering and celebrating choral evensong by Simon Reynolds, published by Darton, Longman & Todd at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.29).

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