In praise of Evensong
This is an illuminating, thoughtful and carefully researched book that holds history, theology, spirituality and mission in skilful synergy ! Its focus is Choral Evensong – one of our national treasures – and these ten chapters celebrate its place in our Anglican ecology. It combines scholarship with nourishing insight. Although an easy read and short ( 128 pages) the book is littered with post -it markers indicating places that this reader will return to for further reflection.
Simon Reynolds is well placed to be our guide. As a parish priest and former succentor at St Pauls Cathedral his knowledge of liturgy and theology and the arts are put to good use. He has mined a range of resources to illuminate and challenge. Chapter One offers an overview ( Echoes of Eternity – Evensong in Perspective ) arguing that as the Church has declined in recent years there has been a paradoxical increase in those attending Evensong. This is reflected across Europe and in the States. There is a spiritual invitation and quality in this service where language, music, Cranmers prose, ritual and scripture offer a glimpse of the divine and point us to the possibilities of spiritual flourishing. There is a strange difference, he argues, in these generous spaces that connects, surprises, holds and welcomes us into a deeper involvement that is both in and beyond the words. The chapter ends, ‘we may find that we are becoming enveloped by the worship, immersed in the glory of the God who created us out of love to reflect that same glory’ (page 26).
Chapter 2 unwraps evensong and puts it into historical perspective. We need to have some understanding of its history and how the music and words have evolved over time order that we can see how our own experience might be part of this developing story. We are reminded of the Reformation and taken on ‘visits’ to some of our great Cathedrals and Churches. This helped me to think a little of my ongoing connection with Salisbury Cathedral (as a near neighbour of Sarum College) and how much I have missed Evensong during these months of lockdown. Reynolds picks up some arresting themes – especially in the sections radical simplicity and enduring music. In doing so he helps put some of our hyper anxiety about decline into a more gracious perspective. He invites us to think about the present ( sometimes functional and managerial ) culture of the church which so often has a narrowing definition of membership and growth. We need a broader vision to draw people in. The chapter finishes with an explanation of the framework of choral evensong (pages 36 to 42).
Chapter 3 (An acclamation of praise) deals with the beginning of the service of evensong. Chapters four and five deal with the psalmody and the biblical readings. The commentary enables us to see how our lives connect with intelligence and insight into the extraordinary treasure of scripture. It is endlessly generative in yielding truth and challenge and the promise of transformation. In all of this we engage in the company of others listening to the life giving pulse of Cranmer’s poetic prose. Chapter 6 (revolution and retirement) look at the Jewish and Christian roots of the Canticles particularly the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis. We are introduced to the associated and equally spiritually powerful tradition of music which down the centuries has shaped the faithful discipline of prayer. We are reminded of the glorious inspiration that choral evensong has had on so many musicians and artists.
Chapter 7 continues to offer a commentary on the lesson litany, the Lord’s prayer and Collects. Again we are reminded that we bring into this service our primal yearning and our human need for both salvation and society. We gather so that our many needs can be names and offered. Chapter 7 explores the place of the anthem and its history and style. In its linguistic diversity ancient and modern musicians invite us into the spiritual activity across times and seasons of ‘unfettered praise to God’. As the liturgy of evensong draws to a close chapter 9 deals with the prayers of intercession, the final Hymn and the blessing. This is the parting gift within which we are invited to find our own voice of praise.
Finally chapter 10 comes back full circle as it reminds us of the significant renewal of choral evensong in this country and beyond. There are helpful resource links and suggestions for further reading.
I am glad of this book for a number of reasons. The first is that it will be a welcome addition to the reading list for Sarum College Ministry students. We always begin our residential weekends with Choral Evensong at Salisbury Cathedral. It is a new experience for some and this book will help them ‘locate’ and illuminate the service. I hope it will help us all to see the value of this tradition in Anglicanism and beyond.
The second reason is more personal. I was baptised and confirmed at St Helens Church Kelloe and nurtured in thefaith there by an extraordinary priest called John Rowlands. He loved the community as much as the Church.
I sang in the choir and loved Evensong. John taught me how to read scripture – and the only services I knew until I was in the sixth form at School were from the Book of Common Prayer. I learnt to love the language of the authorised version the the Bible and often was very baffled by some the names and phrases. I can still remember the large lectern Bible and the confusion of Roman numerals. This book took me back there to those years and the formation of faith.
From there Evensong has always been part of my life – at Kings College London, Westcott House Cambridge, ChristChurch Consett, Christ Church Oxford, Birmingham, Temple Balsall and St Georges Windsor. Now – of course – here at Sarum College and Salisbury Cathedral.
This is a wise and trusted guide. Thank you Simon Reynolds for your devotion, care and love in these pages.
One thought on “In praise of Evensong”
Appealingly succinct yet full. Evocative of my own experience.
I shall buy and also recommend.
Thank you for this useful start to my day.