In 2012, the Church of England published a report which revealed that, despite a widespread decline in parish attendance, the number of people participating in cathedral services had risen steadily since the millennium.
Why? Partly because cathedrals are fascinating places to visit, treasure troves of history and beacons of architectural magnificence. But partly too because cathedrals up and down the United Kingdom have retained a pattern of worship which is historical, accessible, and beautiful, weaving together the mellifluous prose of Cranmer’s Prayerbook with the sparkling genius of centuries of musical composition. This is the service of Choral Evensong, and I believe it to be among the most valuable traditions that Anglicanism preserves.
‘Let nothing, then, be preferred to the Work of God’. So said St Benedict in his Rule, which set the lasting pattern for worship in the Western church. Evensong, otherwise known as Vespers or Evening Prayer, fits into a broader cycle of ‘offices’ which echo the Psalmist’s injunction: ‘seven times a day shall I praise you’, and ‘at midnight I rise to give you thanks’ (Psalm 119: 164, 62).
Cathedrals were originally monastic foundations, and though many no longer observe the full cycle of prayer recommended by St Benedict, the Morning, Evening, and Night Offices are almost universally retained. Choral Evensong has evolved from this monastic observance, combining the meditative chanting of Psalmody with the singing of Canticles, the reading of Scripture, and the offering of intercessory prayer.
In Anglican cathedrals, this ancient inheritance is infused with centuries of musical development, enriching the purity of monastic plainchant with the multi-layered harmonies of choir and organ, which brings out the inner movement and feeling of the narratives of Scripture.. This makes concrete the status of Christian liturgy as the prayer of the universal church, the many voices of the choir echoing the myriad of believers giving glory to God in the silence of their hearts and the witness of their lives.
Liturgical music springs from our encounter with God’s Trinitarian joy; once again, we echo the words of the Psalmist, ‘Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn! I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations’ (Psalm 57:8).
‘Cantare amantis est’, said St Augustine: ‘singing is a lover’s thing’.
Life and faith have their ups and downs, and sometimes religious language seems to make very little sense of the realities we encounter and endure.
But, in the midst of it all, there is the love of God. It is this truth to which our evening praise attests, in the joy and delight of music. Singing is a lover’s thing, and perhaps the curious cathedral visitor is drawn down the nave by just this fact: that they are loved, unconditionally and without limit, and that they are invited to echo God’s melody of desire. After all, isn’t that enough to make anybody burst into song?
By Taylor Carey, SCM member at the University of St Andrews