The Glory of Evensong
The Very Revd Dr John Shepherd AM writes about the beauty of the Evensong Service
The Very Revd Dr John Shepherd AM
It was recently my privilege to return to St George’s Cathedral for a Sunday Evensong. Once again I was struck by the sheer beauty of this Service. Deeply embedded in Anglican spirituality, it has held a treasured place in our worship since it appeared in the First Prayer Book of Edward VI in 1549.
This Prayer Book was the work of various reformers under the guidance of Thomas Cranmer, egged on by the continental theologians Huldrych Zwingli and Martin Butzer. It contained some commendable features - the use of the vernacular, the gathering of all services in one book, and the introduction of Mattins and Evensong as public offices shared by both clergy and laity. Evensong included two canticles taken from mediaeval Sarum services: the Magnificat from Vespers, the Nunc Dimittis from Compline.
With Edward’s death, Queen Mary froze the reformers in their tracks, but her influence was short lived. On her death in 1558 Elizabeth came to the throne and her desire to preserve cathedrals and maintain an elaborate choral tradition put paid to the reformers’ hopes of extinguishing choral music altogether. She kept her Chapel Royal choir singing and her composers producing quality music. The Chapel Royal, Westminster Abbey and the cathedrals fostered what is now known as the ‘cathedral ethos’: that is, dedication to a regular round of beautiful ceremonial and sacred music and to a thoughtful consideration of the faith in a contemplative atmosphere.
These institutions provided a balance to worship far removed from the Protestant emphasis on communal praise by the people, and continues to lead the way in establishing 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.
The worship of a cathedral is different from the worship of most of our churches, but that does not mean it is out of touch with historic Anglicanism. To the contrary, it represents a sheet anchor independent of transient moods and impulses and detached from trendy enthusiasms in spirituality and liturgy. It is also detached from the (let us hope) transient poverty of the English language so often on display.
The worth of Evensong becomes particularly apparent in the words of the psalms, taken from the Great Bible produced by Myles Coverdale in 1539. A welcome antidote to the shrivelled language of the Gradgrind bureaucrat, this translation of Coverdale’s is stylistically accomplished, rich in imagery, and appeals to what T S Eliot calls ‘the auditory imagination’ - that ‘feeling for syllable and rhythm, which penetrates far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word’. As Rudolf Otto has it in The Idea of the Holy, this is the only way concepts of the ‘transcendent’ can become ‘designations for a ‘wholly other’ reality and quality, something of whose special character we can feel, without being able to give it clear conceptual expression’.
The Coverdale psalms, so deeply embedded in Evensong, have a rhythm and musicality that is in sharp contrast with liturgical rhetoric which is lifeless and ineffectual. Rhetoric, which as Eliot put it, ‘astonishes in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial and the pedantic’.
Evensong, with the Coverdale psalms as their centrepiece, gives permission to imagine what cannot be made explicit: the fascinans, the mysterium tremendum, the ‘beyond’ of the divine, whereby the mind is exalted to explore and engage with the holy.
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 an extraordinary 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 actual speech.
It is sometimes suggested that the conservatism of cathedrals in liturgical matters is an indication that it is out of touch and that they should forgo choral settings to allow for greater congregational participation. My experience of cathedrals is that they have warmly welcomed the idea that services for special groups, including diocesan occasions, should be specially devised to meet their particular needs, and take it for granted that these should have congregational singing without the choir. These special cases aside, most of those choosing to worship in a cathedral would expect (and all, I think, should have the good sense to expect) to participate in the cathedral’s tradition.
It is also true to say that Evensong is particularly attractive to those who find a prescriptive, signposted theological freeway, straight as an arrow, to be an unconvincing route to experiencing the divine. It is also attractive to those who are repelled by the bleak certainties and bullying self-righteousness of much organised religion, whose strident dogmatism continues to repel.
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). Its patterned liturgical beauty sensitively encourages those searching for a deeper appreciation of the divine. Again MacCulloch: ‘Less strident and less excluding than the Christian invitation to approach the eucharistic table, Evensong’s understated presentation of the sacred may yet be the solace of those who find other, more demonstrative, expressions of Christianity beyond their powers of assent’.
In the words of A N Wilson, The Faber Book of Church and Clergy, ‘to the new noddle Born Again believer all this would seem to have little to do with true religion, but for centuries has formed an authentic and welcome part of the life of the Anglican church’.
Choral Evensong is the most popular service in English cathedrals, and it deserves to be so in Australia.