Barry A Orford on getting Evensong right


I am no lover of streamed Church services, but since our cathedrals have opened again, I have gratefully taken advantage of the screened opportunity to share in their offering of Choral Evensong.

Those familiar with Choral Evensong are unlikely to deny that it is one of the most glorious achievements of Anglican liturgy. In a remarkable way, it retains an ability to speak to those of different ages and from varied backgrounds, not least during times of hardship and distress. The singer/composer, Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, has written, “In this fast-changing and often unsettling world, I imagine I’m not alone in finding great comfort in the words of the traditional Choral Evensong which have been spoken or sung in churches, chapels and cathedrals for centuries. As the mother of two choristers, I have had the joy of attending evensong at St John’s College, Cambridge, several times a week and of hearing many different composers’ settings of each part of the service. From the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis to the Preces and Responses, every moment of Choral Evensong offers us all that much-needed opportunity for stillness and reflection.”

A great strength of Choral Evensong is that by being rooted solidly in our history, it gives a reassuring sense of continuity and stability in a world and a Church where so much is chaotic and uncertain. Its structure, its content, its words, its music are wholly satisfying, and have made it proof against the depredations of modernisers, except when officiating clergy insert too many intercessions, usually with a jarring shift to inferior contemporary language prayers.

Because Choral Evensong is relatively undemanding in its outward form, it is able quietly to ease those who are uncertain about matters of faith into an awareness of a reality transcending everyday concerns. Beauty, dignity, reverence and (dare we speak the word?) formality are not much valued in the counsels of the Church of England now, but they are at the heart of the worship offered in sung Evening Prayer. There must be many people who have found their way to Christian faith, and even (as I did) into the Anglican fold, through an encounter with this service.

Yet there is more at stake here than æsthetics, and even devotion. It is becoming increasingly difficult today to answer the question, “what holds the Church of England together?” The managerialism which has us in its strangling grip can at best tell us to line up behind some ill-defined ideal such as Mission. Previous generations, faced with the question, would immediately have replied that the bond uniting us was the services found in the Book of Common Prayer, Evening Prayer prominent among them.

It is not sufficiently recognized that the shift to greater variety in our services has come at considerable cost. Despite its good intentions, Common Worship has paved the way to a situation close to liturgical anarchy. As a result, much of our Anglican identity is being lost, for its historic roots have lain primarily in its liturgy. 

In such an unstable and unfocussed situation, we need to recognize that Choral Evensong has a role of particular importance. Here is a form of worship which is able to speak to the present with the voice of our heritage. It unites us with generations who have been fed by its music and its prayer. 

It follows from this that attendance at Sung Evensong, whenever possible, might be not only a pleasure but also a spiritual discipline and an act of honour to our tradition. The cathedrals, chapels and churches which maintain the round of Choral Evensong deserve our appreciation, gratitude and support. They will not get them from the bishops and others who put their faith in choruses, guitars and otiose Church “plants”. Showing how much we value this act of worship is also the best way to remind those who lead it of their duty to seek excellence and reverence in what they offer.

The standard of music in our cathedrals is mostly outstandingly good, and other churches, even small ones, make an impressive job of Evensong. To our choirs falls the work of singing the Responses and the Canticles, and also the privilege of singing the Psalms. The Psalter is at the heart of the Office, and any attempt to reduce the quantity of psalmody needs resisting. Singing the Psalms to good Anglican chant maintains a unique part of our liturgical inheritance. We have every reason to be proud of our singers, organists and music directors.

And what of the clergy, who have the responsibility for leading Evensong? Sometime we need reminding that setting the tone of a service is something which lies with us. We too must seek excellence and dignity – the latter not always easy at present, when so many clergy still feel obliged to struggle with ugly and mostly pointless face masks. (Or worse. I have seen one cathedral where some clergy entered in surplice, scarf, hood, and a plastic face visor attached to a head band, indicating a serious failure of a sense of the ridiculous.)

One of the most important tasks for clergy during Evensong is the reading of the lessons. Watching streamed Evensong, I have been struck by the difference in standards here. Sometimes the reading is frankly depressing, either with AN almost total failure TO appreciate correct verbal stress, or in a tone of voice which suggests terminal boredom in the reader. Other times, the reading is done with sensitivity to language and meaning which is uplifting. Such practical details have a significant impact on the offering of worship to God.

The historian, G. M. Young, pointed out that if we try to ditch our history, then we lose interest in ourselves. At a time when the Church of England is showing almost no interest in its history, the gift of Choral Evensong needs to be treasured, both as an act of worship and also as reminder of what the Anglican offering of praise and prayer should be like.

Fr Barry A. Orford writes from Hampstead