In amidst the various stories of ecclesiastical decline, one counter-trend stands out clearly: the rising popularity of cathedrals. It is a trend with which I can empathise.
I was an atheist when an undergraduate at Cambridge many years ago, yet I went to choral evensong because I found it uplifting. Whatever your religious beliefs, or lack of them, no one is going to question you when you go to evensong.
The Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees, himself an agnostic clearly feels the same way. “Every evensong is a chance to be inspired by the liturgy and music of the Anglican Church – and by the choral tradition that should be cherished. Attending Evensong makes me specially mindful of ‘the spacious firmament on high’ – its wonder and its mystery.”
I suspect this is the reason why attendances at cathedrals for midweek services, primarily evensong, have increased by over 60% in the last 10 years.
Music communicates powerfully, vividly, directly in a way that circumvents the processes (and defences) of words and logic. Writing of the (very different) music that moves him, novelist Nick Hornby once remarked that he “tr[ies] not to believe in God, of course, but sometimes things happen in music, in songs, that bring me up short, make me do a double-take.” I suspect that is what precisely happens to many people in Evensong.
Choral Evensong is one of the great cultural and religious treasures of the Anglican Church, albeit one of which most people are today largely unaware. At the Reformation in the sixteenth century, when services were first conducted in English instead of Latin, Archbishop Cranmer developed the format for the new service by combining two of the evening services in the monastic tradition, vespers and compline. Great Elizabethan musicians like Thomas Tallis and William Byrd developed exquisite polyphonic choral music for this service, and with its sixteenth century language and wealth of musical settings it has been performed by choirs in cathedrals, abbeys, churches, and chapels ever since.
Almost every day in cathedrals across England, well-trained choirs sing extraordinary beautiful music echoing around great sacred spaces in candlelight, the 45-minute service often being followed by an organ voluntary, commonly one of the great works of Bach. Evensongs in London, at Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, are usually well-attended, but in some cathedrals on weekdays, there may be thirty people in the choir and three priests, while the congregation may number only half a dozen. Most people simply do not know that these services are happening. But happen they do, not for money, or for human glory, but for the glory of God.
The effect is to be heard not only in cathedral cities. This service may be attended on Sundays in hundreds of parish churches throughout the land. And most Oxford and Cambridge colleges have student choirs of a high standard, who sing Choral Evensong on weekdays as well as Sundays, and where the choral scholars receive a thorough musical training. Moreover, there is a knock-on effect on church choirs elsewhere, when former choral scholars move on after graduating, forming a pool of talented, experienced singers, and staffing increasing numbers of churches with excellent professional choirs.
Choral Evensong is not, self-evidently, the future of the Church of England, but it surely has something to contribute to that future, perhaps by helping us hear, once again, that which music can convey and words finds so inexpressible.
Dr Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of 11 books, the most recent being The Science Delusion. His website is www.sheldrake.org
A new online portal www.choralevensong.org makes it easy to find where choral evensong services are happening throughout Britain and Ireland, when they begin, and what music will be sung.
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