My first encounters with choral evensong

While reading Lighten our Darkness: Discovering and celebrating Choral Evensong (DLT 2021) by Simon Reynolds (briefly reviewed in my blog ‘Books for Today’ posted in May) I was reminded of my first encounters with choral evensong as a nineteen year old fresher at Jesus College, Cambridge, the alma mater of Thomas Cranmer, who was responsible for creating Evensong as we know it.

Although the Cambridge colleges of King’s and St John’s have their own schools training boy choristers, what is not commonly known is that the choir at Jesus College many years has had boy choristers drawn from local Cambridge schools and who together with the men (and now women) form a really good college chapel choir. Again, what is also not commonly known is that although much smaller than the huge chapels of King’s and St John’s, the chapel at Jesus is much older than either of the two larger chapels – indeed, it is the oldest university building in Cambridge, dating from 1157 when it was part of a Benedictine convent, which was dissolved by Bishop John Alcock in 1496 to become a college. Significant alterations were carried out under Alcock, transforming the cathedral-sized church into a chapel for a small group of scholars. It was here in this intimate space, lit only by candles and filled with the wonderful sounds of organ and choir, that I first encountered Evensong.

Evensong at Jesus was always held just before evening ‘hall’ (‘dinner’). In some ways I am surprised that I went to Evensong at all, for at time I was a dyed-in-the-wool Nonconformist. I never went to chapel on a Sunday – on Sunday morning I would be worshipping in a Baptist church, and on Sunday evening I would either be at Holy Trinity for the CICCU (Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union) ‘sermon’ or at Great St Mary’s, the University Church, to hear some famous preacher. But during the week I would often attend Evensong. There would not be many of us: in addition to the choir there would be the dean and the chaplain, and a handful of dons and students, all almost invisible, sunk into their seats.

As Anglican followers of this blog will know, the 1662 form of Evensong is relatively fixed. Every evening the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis are sung. Many of the prayers and responses are the same, evening after evening – although the collect and some of the prayers of intercession will vary. At the heart of the service are the Scriptures: along with the sung psalm or psalms of the day, there are the two main readings in which passages from the Old and New Testament are read in succession, evening by evening – this form of lectio continua ensures that the whole Bible is read. At Jesus, in my day at least, there was no sermon – nor was there even an introductory comment: instead, the Bible was allowed to speak for itself.

Compared to my accustomed ‘quiet time’ in which the reading of Scripture and prayer was very much a personal experience, something done within the privacy of one’s own room, Evensong – along with other forms of morning and evening prayer – is a corporate experience, in which Scripture reading and praying are done together. What is more, Evensong is full of Scripture. Baptists like to think of themselves as Radical Believers (the title of one of my books on the Baptist way of being the church), who root their life together in Scripture, but the reality is that Anglicans tend to read much more Scripture than Baptists. Indeed, in my experience the more ‘Bible believing’ Baptist churches are the less Scripture they tend to read in their services!

However, what kept me attending Evensong was not the reading of the Scriptures and the praying, but the setting. Although Jesus is present wherever two or three are gathered in his name (Matt 18.20), whatever the setting, there is something special about a chapel which has been a place of worship for over 700 years. For me such a place becomes a ‘sacred space’, where often the boundaries between heaven and earth are at their ‘thinnest’. Secondly, for me the music of choral evensong often stirs my soul – indeed, it has been said that music is to the soul what food is to the body. Of course, here I am talking of a particular type of music which I fully recognise is alien to many, who would perhaps feel more at home in a charismatic worship celebration where the beat and volume are much more popular in style. Thirdly, in the dark days of winter, I found the light of the candles encouraged me to engage in a more reflective approach to worship. For me the sacred space, the uplifting music, and the flickering candles all made a profound impression upon me. Some might argue that choral evensong in such a setting was just an aesthetic experience –however, for me there were times when it also became a spiritual experience, helping me to worship God not just with my mind, but with my heart and with my soul.

For all that, choral evensong is only one medium through which we may encounter God. For myself I can think back to a host of very different occasions when, with Isaiah of old, I saw the Lord “sitting on a throne, high and lofty” (Isaiah 6.1). A very traditional Baptist Union Assembly of Wales, singing the praises of God in minor key; a Spring Harvest celebration, charismatic in flavour, with brass sounding and drums rolling; a quiet celebration of the Lord’s Supper with only a dozen or so people in a remote Lake District chapel; an overflowing expectant congregation celebrating God’s praise in the context of a baptismal service – on all these occasions and many more God has broken in and I have felt caught up into heaven itself. For worship is the business of heaven. In worship we anticipate the day, when in the words of St Augustine, “we shall do nothing other than ceaselessly repeat Ament and Alleluia, with insatiable satisfaction”. It is in worship that heaven invades our world, and we discover ourselves in the presence of Almighty God. What an experience! What a privilege!

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