One of the great treasures of Anglicanism is the monastic office of Choral Evensong. Dating back to the English Reformation, this contemplative service which marks the transition from daytime to evening is almost entirely sung by the choir.
Here at Christ Church Cathedral Victoria, we offer Evensong every Sunday at 4.00pm (currently livestreamed) as well as on some weekdays. The service is either sung by our Cathedral Choirs, Young Choristers, or Choral Scholars (or a combination of forces). In the past twenty years, Evensong here has seen a significant resurgence in attendance, along with the same service at many other cathedrals.
Our neighbours up the street at the Church of St John the Divine have also recently started offering Evensong every Sunday at 5.30pm. Visit their website for more information: https://www.stjohnthedivine.bc.ca/programs/choral-evensong
We use the word “offer” very intentionally. Although Evensong is our most accessible service, in that it makes few to no demands in terms of congregational participation (and thus is our most concert-like service, attended by many non-Christians), Evensong is upheld as a regular offering to God, the divine creating force which shapes our universe and cares for the needs of our world.
By listening attentively to words and music sung by the choir and played by our organists, all those in attendance attach their thanksgivings and woes to this beautiful corporate offering.
Recently, several essays in praise of Choral Evensong have been shared via social media. This one in the Church Times, is excerpted from Simon Reynolds book Lighten our Darkness. Reynolds focuses on the hands-off, monastic nature of the service which draws in young worshippers:
Notwithstanding its rooting in the past, choral evensong seems to attract and invite today precisely because it is a gift — and a gift that demands little or nothing in return. As part of the diverse “mixed economy” of worship in the Church of England, people can stumble on it unexpectedly, or grow in familiarity after an initial and hesitant encounter.
Anyone attending evensong in a cathedral or large church can be confident that they will not be quizzed about their motives and beliefs, or pressured to leave their contact details.
The fact that it is possible to worship with a large degree of anonymity, and not be expected to conform to a pre-determined view of what it means to belong to the Church, is part of the attraction for many people.
Noted Canadian Church Musician Matthew Larkin puts Evensong into a Canadian context in a recent Facebook post:
Singing and attending Evensong from a very early age was a vital part of my Christian formation, and it is where I first heard the call to my vocation in liturgical music. In recent years, one might encounter it in only a handful of Canadian churches. Most have long since set it aside, if Evensong has been part of their worship cycle at all (in many cases, understandably so, with other areas of ministerial or liturgical focus, limited (or diminished) resources, their culture of worship, etc.).
Some others - where Evensong had previously been part of the pattern of worship - have set it aside for less sympathetic reasons: it's anachronistic, it's non-participatory, "we're not a cathedral", too much pressure on the parish or on the choir, it's too "British". I understand. I empathize with (some of) these reasons.
For most choirs, preparing a service of Choral Evensong is a lot of work, and for all who participate in worship, the ethos of Evensong is unlike that of other liturgies. That's what makes it so precious to some, but so disconnecting for others. Often, when we don't see the purpose of things, we find reasons not to engage. At the same time, it's a shared responsibility: those who offer the worship have a duty to do so in a way that engages the hearts and minds of those who share in it. Conversely, those who share in it have some work to do, too: if the aesthetic seems out of reach, maybe we have to search a little deeper for that connection.
Through my years as a liturgical musician, I can honestly say that preparing, experiencing, and offering services of this beautiful Office has connected me to my faith in ways that other forms of music have not. As a "musical" form of evangelism, there are ways in which it is unmatched. I know this, not only because it enveloped me when I was a young boy, but because I have seen it happen to others. In my time at Ottawa Cathedral, we were very fortunate to undertake several residencies in the UK and USA. On one such tour (to Washington, in 2015), a parent of one of our youngest choristers came to me and said with surprise in their voice, "I asked him what his favourite part of the trip has been, and he said, singing the Evensongs!". On another occasion, after recessing from the cathedral after singing Evensong on a late Thursday afternoon, I thanked the choir for their work, and one of the trebles came to me and said, "I want to sing in church for the rest of my life".
As the next months and years unfold, my hope is that as we continue to discern what is next for public worship, the worship experiences and traditions of our forebears will not be discounted or forgotten, but will be there to enliven and enlighten our present, guiding us through to a future that is brighter than today. Evensong isn't going to solve all the world's problems, obviously. But for a lot of people, it'll help.
For our part, we plan to uphold this Sunday evening tradition, and to continue to find opportunities to build on it, for the joy and solace it brings to humanity, and for the greater glory of God.
Choral Evensong at the cathedral can be watched online (and hopefully very soon in person!) at 4.00pm every Sunday on our livestream page.