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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Monday, 9 July 2018

In Praise of Choral Evensong

How easily I could become nostalgic about evensong! It takes me back to my days as a chorister and my first ever evensong one November night when I put on a probationer’s cassock and walked in with the choir. I wasn’t ready to sing, but I never forgot that initiation into Prayer Book liturgy: the responses (Smith of Durham), the psalms, the readings and the canticles – Walmisley in D Minor. It was a recognition that I somehow knew would have consequences for the rest of my lifetime.
I spent six years teaching theology in Salisbury, living in the Close and singing as a priest-vicar choral and sometimes in the back row of the choir. After five years in a parish, I came back to cathedral life where I was immersed full-time for thirty years, first Coventry, then Sheffield and finally Durham. Prayer Book Evensong became a daily fact of life. I never tired of it, not once. It was a time to offer to God the day’s work, recall my fundamental duty to be a person at prayer, be thankful for all that was good in the day’s affairs, slough off its inevitable irritations and frustrations. I’m sometimes asked in retirement, what do I miss most from my life at Durham? There is so much that I loved in that great place. But in the end, it came down to choral evensong. When I heard the Howells Gloucester Service on BBC broadcast evensong not long ago, I was taken by surprise at the sense of loss, for it was sung at my farewell evensong at Durham. That service felt like a gathering up of the fragments of the whole of my life from that first day as a chorister onwards.
Why do we love evensong? Not simply the words of the Book of Common Prayer, with its instinct for harmony and balance, rhythm and cadence, pace and pause, the English language at its best where every word seems right. Nor is it simply the music of the service, though the English choral tradition is beyond price. Nor is it our great cathedrals, abbeys and churches that are normally the places where we encounter evensong nowadays. Nor is it choirs to sing the service beautifully, though our choral foundations are the envy of the world. Nor is it its place in the cycle of each day, that magical threshold when afternoon turns towards evening, and “the shades lengthen and the busy world is hushed”. No, I think it is a unique alchemy of all these things acting on one another and on us who, for an hour or so, are a community at prayer that inhabits holy time and space. Who would have thought that a simple arrangement of Psalms and Bible texts (which is all that evensong is) could have created such a good, profound enchantment?
But there is more we need to say. Forty years ago, Philip Toynbee wrote a famous essay in the magazine Encounter with the title “Evensong at Peterborough”. He and his wife dropped into the Cathedral one day to break a long car journey. Evensong was taking place in the quire. They sat in the nave to listen. “Sometimes the memory of that Evensong seems almost unreal, as remote in time from the England we had been passing through as it had immediately seemed remote in space. Yet there were elements in the celebration itself which showed very clearly that it belonged to our own age: a modern translation of the Bible had been used; a hymn sung in a thoroughly modern manner; a merciful absence of parsonical droning… The dominant impression is of a gracious, holy but esoteric ceremony being performed in the choir at Peterborough, massively isolated from the modern city outside… Yet we had not been only spectators of that deft performance; in so far as each of us had found it possible we had also been participants.”
Evensong is sometimes criticised for being aloof, remote from ordinary worshippers, denying them the right to take part. We should challenge that allegation. In liturgy, we “take part” in different ways. Often it’s by active engagement, joining in the spoken words, singing the music together in many styles: classic hymns, worship songs, gospel, responsorial psalms, TaizĂ© chants. But the spiritual tradition teaches us that our participation has another dimension alongside the active. This is its contemplative aspect. Contemplative means being silent before God, learning how to listen and pay attention so as to deepen our awareness. All this evensong teaches us by inviting us, not to be a passive audience enjoying a concert, but to become an engaged community that is entirely involved in the liturgy in a contemplative way. That’s what Philip Toynbee meant by saying, we had been participants. Even sitting in the distant nave of the cathedral, they felt involved, committed to the act of worship, taking part in it in the deepest possible way.
In my years in cathedrals, I discovered something rather remarkable. It was that among the worshipping community were people who had found their way into Christian faith as a result of evensong. Some told a similar story to mine, for they too had been choristers, and something about the spirituality of choral worship wouldn’t let them go, even if it took many years or decades to find their way back. Others were parents of choristers who had attended services to see and hear their children sing and found that they too were drawn to become curious about faith. Others had wandered in, Toynbee-like, because they loved music and found that behold, something greater than music was here.
Toynbee’s article illustrates how evensong is part of the church’s mission. What he is wanting to write about is not evensong itself but what that afternoon in Peterborough led him to think about as he pondered it in the following weeks. Fundamentally, he is asking, how can Christianity be credible in a secular age like ours? How do we understand the presence of God among us so that we can commend faith as a living reality, not a nostalgic memory from a past age. Maybe in its quiet, gently persuasive, even contemplative, way, evensong can speak to people in ways that the Sunday morning eucharist can’t quite do. You can slip into evensong anonymously, hide behind a pillar if you want to, not have to pass the peace with the person next to you, not have to sing words you don’t understand or believe in, think your own thoughts. This is liturgy at its most generous that invites us to respond in whatever way we can at that moment. Some evangelism can feel coersive. But not evensong, which even as it works on us to bear witness to good news, respects the integrity of each person.
Find your own place in this hospitable service, it seems to say. Yes, it would be wonderful if you come in time to the fulness of faith and Christian commitment. But for now, let it invite you in. If you are not a believer, let it persuade you that faith is worth exploring. If you are a half-believer or an ex-believer, let it entice you to taste it and see what happens. If you know and love God, let it offer you space to rest, to contemplate, be thankful, deepen your awareness, give you time for the work of prayer and lead you to enter more profoundly into the ocean of God’s love. To find our own level of response is the gift of the Prayer Book, to respect our humanity, honour our integrity, and draw us on to become better, wiser people of "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit", as we heard in our second lesson, people for whom evensong is a rehearsal for the worship of heaven when we shall know as we are known in that great love that has no end.

Michael Sadgrove
Winslow, 8 July 2018

Romans 14. 1-17

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