Sunday, 2 October 2016

Evensong

It isn't quite the BBC's longest running show - which is The Week's Good Cause. But it is the Beeb's longest running outside broadcast. 90 years ago on 7 October 1926, the BBC broadcast Choral Evensong for the first time. By the time I was old enough to be vaguely aware of ethereal singing mysteriously seeping out of the big valve radio in the corner of the living room, it had been going for more than 30 years. At the age of 90 it's more popular than ever.

Last week the national cathedral attendance statistics for 2015 were published. They showed a striking increase in weekday attendances, up by 18% over the past decade. This includes weekday celebrations of the eucharist and the daily office, including of course choral evensong. (Sunday attendance remains "stable".) In some choral foundations you have to turn up in very good time to be sure of a seat in the quire. 

What is it about evensong that continues to draw people to cathedrals, greater churches and college chapels? I can't put it better than the writer of a letter to The Times, quoted by one of the producers of BBC Choral Evensong, Canon Stephen Shipley:*

I turned on Choral Evensong by accident one afternoon a year or so ago and I’ve been listening ever since. The music is beautiful, but the special quality of Evensong lies in other places too, in the paradoxical contrast between the sinewy intricacy of 16th century language, and the simplicity of the thoughts it expresses: prayers for courage, for grace, for protection from the dark, for a good death. These are things to which our minds have particularly lately turned in the aftermath of recent terrible events, but they were there all the time in the psalms and collects of Evensong. For almost 500 years the same words have been repeated by people in times of trouble or of triumph. The presence of that cloud of unseen witnesses lends an intangible quality to Choral Evensong. You could call it calm or spirituality. You could call it holiness. But it’s very precious.

In retirement, I'm often asked what I miss most from my working life. It's a question that can be answered on many levels. There's so much that I miss, however rich life is also becoming in new ways. But in terms of the way time and prayer have been shaped and ordered day by day and week by week, I unhesitatingly say that what I miss most of all is daily choral evensong. After almost 30 years of full-time cathedral ministry, with six years before that living and working in a cathedral close, it's been fundamental to my praying. Days still feel oddly empty without it.  The incomparable blend of finely wrought words, music and architecture somehow touches the human soul in a very deep place - well, it touches mine anyway. Which is why the weekly broadcast of evensong on Wednesday afternoons on BBC Radio 3 has become such an important part of the spiritual life in retirement, as are our midweek journeys to Hexham Abbey to attend evensong there. 

I was first drawn into its powerful and redemptive magic as a boy chorister in the early 1960s. Once enticed, I never looked back. Even in my most fervent evangelical Christian Union days when I sat a lot looser to formal liturgy and relished the spontaneity of the prayer meeting, I never lost the sense that evensong was a wonderful gift of the English Church to her people. My farewell service in Durham Cathedral a year ago took the form of choral evensong with music by those quintessentially English church composers Herbert Howells and Edward Bairstow among others. Nunc Dimittis sung to the Gloucester Service felt extraordinarily poignant. A lifetime of evensongs seemed somehow to be gathered up that afternoon. Looking back, I wonder how I got through it.

There is something very Benedictine about Anglican choral evensong. In cathedrals and on the radio, you feel you are tuning in to the Opus Dei, the "work of God" that is the whole church's continuous offering of praise and prayer day by day and hour by hour. All its parts are in a beautiful and delicate balance with one another: music and words, praise and prayer, scripture, psalmody and silence. And let's scotch a myth about evensong straight away. People sometimes say that it's liturgy you don't join in. How wrong that is! You do join in. But in a contemplative way, by listening, paying attention, allowing yourself to be transported into another place by what you are hearing and experiencing. 

And when the Prayer Book psalms for each of the thirty days of the month are chanted in full, you catch Benedict's vision of daily prayer that is organised around the songs of the Israelite community that are collected up in the Psalter. Celebration, lament, despair, thankfulness, comfort, anger, trustfulness, bewilderment, joy, hope and love are all there in the Psalms. They gather up all the quotidian experience of life - as it was in ancient times and as it now. I used to say to choristers in the cathedrals where I served: make the Psalms your special joy. They are like Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, the 48 Preludes and Fugues. If you can play those, you can play anything. And if you love them, immerse yourselves in them, learn some of them off by heart, they will nourish you for a lifetime. 

The surprising thing is this. I've found that choral evensong can be a powerful tool for evangelism. I've met many people over the years who have found faith through coming to this service. Maybe they came tentatively at first, not quite sure what they would find, relieved perhaps that they didn't have to open their mouths and sing or say very much. Gradually they found themselves drawn into the inward logic of prayer which is that it takes us to places beyond our immediate experience, and by doing so, helps us to see things in a new and life-changing way. For some, this has come as nothing less than a fresh expression of lived Christianity. Looking back, I think the seeds of faith were sown in me at evensong too. 

Among those who became committed Christians have been the parents and families of choristers themselves. They came at first simply to enjoy the music and support their children. As a former chorister parent myself, I can entirely understand that. Gradually, they began to see that there was more to this strange world of prayer and worship than they had imagined. Perhaps the growth in attendance at evensong is precisely because cathedrals offer the possibility of "liminality" - finding your own way of approaching the thresholds of faith and making the journey from being a member of an audience towards being a participant and a pilgrim. 

Late in life, I am still on that journey. I'm profoundly thankful for this lifetime of choral evensongs. Thank you to the cathedrals, greater churches, college chapels and other places of worship - not just in the UK but across the world - that guard our precious "English choral tradition" so lovingly and so well, and contribute so much to the rich spirituality of Anglicanism. And thank you to the BBC for its continued commitment to broadcasting the service week by week. Happy 90th birthday!

9 comments:

  1. A very moving comment. And of course, people ca find God when they didn't know him before by coming to the services. It is the great strength of the CofE. People who maybe don't believe, nevertheless come. But, I prefer what an organist friend used to call "Evensaid". I enjoy the evening prayers. And I know Cathedral canons who avoid the sung services, as they are at tea time and they have families, but they come to the spoken services. And, just to play devil's advocate, if people don't come unless the choir is singing, they ain't coming to meet God. Mind you, you may be right about some folk encountering him eventually. Fine. But in that case, why do so many Cathedrals exclude girls?

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  2. I left the Exclusive Brethren in my early twenties a convinced and determined atheist. And then I discovered Choral Evensong at a local church and found something which 45 years later is still a source of blessing. It is now my privilege and joy to lead services of Evensong as a C of E Reader.

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  3. I left the Exclusive Brethren in my early twenties a convinced and determined atheist. And then I discovered Choral Evensong at a local church and found something which 45 years later is still a source of blessing. It is now my privilege and joy to lead services of Evensong as a C of E Reader.

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  4. Please may I have your kind permission to reprint this splendid article in the January edition of the Bexhill Parish Mag?

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  5. Thanks for comments. Athena: points taken, but even if people begin by coming "only" for the music, they can make a journey from the aesthetic to the spiritual and many do. I agree about girls and hope that all cathedrals will emulate the cathedrals I have served in by introducing girl choristers (Durham Cathedral inaugurated the girls' top line during my time as Dean, something of which I was/am very proud.) Great to hear John Puxty's story: yes, choral evensong goes on giving and giving. Father David: yes of course, anyone is welcome to print the piece citing the source please.

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  6. Thank you, most kind. I shall, of course, acknowledge the source.

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  7. Thank you so much. When I retired recently from a post where I shared the Daily Office (BCP) with colleagues it was a major deprivation. I was brought into Anglicanism through Choral Evensong. The novelist and scholar, Robertson Davies, said that the BCP showed him how much religious feeling depended (for him) on invocation and splendour of language. Choral Evensong gives both, which is why I treasure it, along with the opportunity for contemplative sharing which you mention. How sad that in some cathedrals (NOT Durham, where I attended Evensong recently) the conduct of lay clerks, rather than of the boys or girls, conveys a sense that they just want to get it over with. Maintaining the blessing of Choral Evensong is a great responsibility for all of us.

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  8. Would it be possible for me to publish this in the Prayer Book Society Magazine - The Prayer Book Today

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    1. You are most welcome to publish it.

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