In Praise of Evensong

Stephanie Buckland CEO at Amana Living
The Reverend Dr John Shepherd AM | Dean of Perth 1990 – 2014

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The Anglican Prayer Book evolved from the First Prayer Book of Edward VI issued in 1549, and which was widely resisted. Mediaeval Catholicism had been neither decadent nor decayed, and its liturgies represented a vigorous and much appreciated tradition. The cataclysmic liturgical change of 1549 came as a rude shock. (See Eamon Duffy: The Stripping of the Altars for the full horror of the destruction of mediaeval piety). The new Prayer Book, the brain child of just a few reformist bishops egged on by continental theologians such as Huldrych Zwingli and Martin Butzer, was foisted on unsuspecting congregations with unrelenting fervour. It nevertheless contained some commendable features the use of the vernacular, the gathering of all services in one book, and the introduction of Matins and Evensong as public offices shared by clergy and laity. Evensong included two canticles taken from mediaeval Sarum services: the Magnificat from Vespers, the Nunc Dimittis from Compline. A more aggressive version of this 1549 book was produced in 1552. ‘Evensong’ was changed to ‘Evening Prayer’ in order to deter any hopes of the canticles being sung, and the destruction of organs and choral music other than the singing of metrical psalms began in earnest. A respite was achieved after Edward’s death in 1553. The mediaeval services were restored with Queen Mary and the choral tradition flourished once more. But after five years, Mary died, and the Edwardian book was restored in 1559. The same people went on to lead the early Elizabethan Church as had done under Edward, minus the ones whom Mary burned. However, Elizabeth froze these reformist bishops in their tracks, and began to reverse the process of liturgical destruction begun in 1549. It was the Queen’s idiosyncratic preservation of cathedrals and her maintenance of an elaborate choral tradition as part of her Chapel Royal that put paid to the reformers’ excesses. She kept her Chapel Royal choir singing, her composers producing quality music, and the cathedrals followed suit as best they could. Settings of the Evensong canticles, though simple, were composed and performed, and more complex anthems were generated by composers such as William Byrd. Increasingly efforts were taken to preserve musical quality. In 1602 the Dean of Westminster, Lancelot Andrewes, insisted on keeping the ‘Quire’ of Westminster up to strength because visitors to the Abbey ‘must not be disappointed in the music’. Between them, Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal, Westminster Abbey and the cathedrals fostered what is now known as the ‘cathedral ethos’: dedication to a regular round of beautifully performed ceremony and sacred music, and to a thoughtful consideration of the faith in a contemplative atmosphere. These institutions fostered an attitude to the sacred far removed from the Protestant emphasis on communal praise by the people, and they have continued to lead the way in establishing the contemplation of the divine through the beauty of liturgy, architecture and music as an authentic road to divinity. The title ‘Evensong’ was restored in the Prayer Book version of 1662, from which musical settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, and the anthems sung after the Third Collect, have evolved as works of great beauty. Much of Evensong is sung by the choir alone. This is not to say that the congregation is excluded, or that the service has become a concert. The congregation participates fully, but by listening rather than speaking. As any good conversationalist knows, listening is a crucial aspect of communicating. The idea that we are not worshipping unless we are actually saying something is a curious one. By our own quietness at Evensong we are given space to pray at a level of awareness deeper than that which can be expressed through ordinary speech.

No wonder that Choral Evensong is the most popular service in English cathedrals, and it deserves to be so in Australia. Already in this diocese it is flourishing at the cathedral, St George’s College, Christ Church Claremont, St John’s Fremantle, St Andrew’s Subiaco, John Septimus Roe Anglican Community School, and very likely elsewhere.

Evensong is particularly attractive to those who find a prescriptive, signposted theological motorway, straight as an arrow, to be an unconvincing route to divinity. It is also attractive to those who are repelled by the bleak certainties and bullying self-righteousness of much organised religion. In contrast, Choral Evensong, offered in the majestic, poetic language of the Book of Common Prayer, affords understated, gentle, accepting hospitality (Diarmaid MacCulloch: All Things Made New). It engages sensitively with those searching for a deeper appreciation of the rich tapestry of life and the presence of the divine. Recently in The Australian Weekend Magazine, Nikki Gemmel wrote of moments of solace ‘a bush sunset; the golden hour when the world softens and stills and we pause... and Evensong, and I’m not a churchgoer, yet here you’re brought down to stillness from a service mostly sung amid the cram of weekday city life, when the voice-tide washes over you and soars in challenge to its high ceiling and you close your eyes, and are repaired.’


Article published in October 2018 Messenger magazine