Evensong – ending the day with God at the centre

As a student at Jesus College, Cambridge, during the week I often attended Evensong, just before evening ‘Hall’ (dinner). The chapel of Jesus College is the oldest building in the university: for it was begun in 1157 and completed in 1157. Initially the church of a Benedictine convent, it became a college chapel in 1496 when Bishop Alcock established Jesus College. On winter nights the only light in the chancel used to come from the candles which exuded a sense of warmth and mystery.

Evensong at Jesus was a great musical experience – with the organ and the choir playing their part. In such a setting the ancient words from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer seemed highly appropriate. For a young man brought up in traditional nonconformity, it was a wonderful aesthetic experience – although to what an extent it was a spiritual experience for me, I am not so sure.

Later, when two of our sons became choristers at King’s College, I began to attend Evensong again when visiting them in Cambridge. There were times when I felt Evensong at King’s was more a performance than anything else, for many of the visitors seemed to come just to hear the choir rather than to worship God. Yet in the words of the King’s service booklet:

Some, finding limited opportunities for organised congregational participation, imagine these are not so much services as liturgical concerts. But each service is an act of worship addressed, as worship must be, not to you but to God, the Father of Christ and our Father; an act of thanksgiving for the love He has shown towards man, an act of intercession for all men. As Henry VI intended when he established the Chapel and the Choir, this worship goes on daily, whether people come or not, because the love of God is a continuing, living and unconditional reality.

Evensong takes some understanding. It has its roots in the round of monastic services, where seven services a day were the norm – just as they had been the norm in the worship of the Temple in Jerusalem (see Psalm 119.161). However, at the time of the Reformation Cranmer turned the early morning offices into ‘matins’, while ‘vespers’ (which featured the daily singing of the Magnificat) and ‘compline’ (which featured the daily singing of the Nunc Dimittis) became part of ‘Evensong’. Along with the prayers and responses, the staple diet is Scripture: the psalms are sung (the Psalter is divided between matins and evensong in such a way that every psalm is sung within any given month) and two long ‘lessons’ from the Old and New Testament are read. According to W.K. Lowther Clarke, the first archbishop of Melbourne: “It is sold food for grown men, and one of the greatest gifts which our part of the Church Catholic has to offer to its sons (sic – but these words were written in 1922!)”

Today Choral Evensong (as distinct from said Evening Prayer) as a daily officer tends to be the preserve of cathedrals and Oxbridge chapels. According to Angela Tilby, for over twenty years a producer in the BBC’s religious department: “The music is important, of course, but so is what the rhythm of speech and music does for them: that slowing of the heart rate and breathing, the quietening of the mind, the sense of space and mystery and presence”.

However, at a private service of evensong held at King’s this summer to celebrate the retirement of Sir Stephen Cleobury after 37 years as director of music, it was the music which proved to be the gateway into the presence of God. To say that it was a sublime experience is an understatement. It is not often that worship moves me to tears, but on this occasion to my great embarrassment tears rolled down my cheeks. The choir on that day was made up of over 100 past choristers and choral singers, together with some women to make up the treble part (there were no boy choristers present). The settings by Stamford to the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis were exquisite. The choir literally thundered out Psalm 150. The anthem was sung just by the men – and what a sound they made. Then as a congregation we were given the opportunity to sing ‘Praise my soul the King of heaven’, and we all sang our hearts out. Finally, the magnificent organ pealed out Widor’s Toccata. The huge doors at the west end were opened and brilliant sunshine poured in. Caroline and I– along with everybody else present – were overwhelmed. This was an unforgettable Evensong.

2 comments

  1. I love Choral Evensong – and just recently have twice sung it as an “Ecumenical Supernumary Honorary Vicar Choral” (or something!) at our local parish church. We didn’t have an evening service those nights and I like singing – although the standard did leave a lot to be desired!

    I would make a couple of points. One is that it is quite difficult to separate the aesthetic, spiritual and emotional at a service like the one you describe. I am rarely emotional in church; but last year I was in floods of tears having been hit in the solar plexus by the magnificent Welsh National Opera choir in Prokofiev’s “War and Peace”. Equally I have been very moved by simple said services in ancient places. In your case everything – including your sons’ former involvement at King’s – came together at once.

    I would also say that Choral Evensong needs to be done well. All right, we once attended a service at Exeter Cathedral when the choir was a visiting one from a church situated in a poor area of London. The men and lads did their best bit it wasn’t wonderful, musically speaking; however knowing the background whence they came and seeing the enthusiasm with which they sang made a big difference to the way we perceived it. However it would have been hard to stomach them on a regular basis!

    Finally, I do quite often listen to Choral Evensong on the radio. While I respect the way that the services fit into a line that has continued for centuries, and realise that some people are indeed transported to glory through it, I can’t help thinking that, for many people, it must come over as inaccessible, elitist and irrelevant. I don’t think that all church services must be chatty, informal and use modern worship songs – but that approach does seem to communicate God better to many folk (especially younger ones) than Evensong.

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