Maybe the Anglican service of Evensong seems frivolous, in light of the needs and suffering in this world. Attending Evensong is an interior experience, one that is personal and private. It’s also a labor-intensive service, musically rich, but seemingly passive for the congregation. A few weeks ago, a sermon (during Eucharist, not Evensong, which rarely includes a sermon) about the power of gentleness to change our culture of violence made me think, however, that it’s not so frivolous after all to spend a few minutes exploring what makes this gentlest of worship experiences, Evensong, continue to be an important part of our tradition.
In fact, it was suggested to me that I write something about Evensong and expand on it a bit in relation to a class being taught this fall to people who are interested in learning more about the Episcopal Church. This uniquely Anglican/Episcopal experience, nurtured in just a few churches these days, is intended to be part of a daily spiritual practice, one which is part of a centuries-old tradition of having prayers said and sung on your behalf, much as monks and nuns have done in their daily services for even more centuries.
In this country very few people these days, no surprise, make the time for, or have access to, a daily service of Evensong. In the U.K. it’s a different story. Cathedral worship, and Evensong in particular, has been where the Anglican church sees growth, particularly among a younger generation who are finding meaning in mystery. One British study showed an increase of 60% in Evensong attendance in the past decade. Read more. We are fortunate in this area to have Washington National Cathedral’s daily offering of Evensong, and several other churches with weekly or monthly choral Evensong as well.
The choir’s music during Evensong is as much prayer as any spoken words and the prayers of Evensong become part of the fabric of the building. I think people can sense those prayers, soaked into the walls, when they walk into a church or cathedral. Whether spoken or sung, these are prayers which become part of the gentleness we send out into the world.
In 2013, while on sabbatical, I attended Evensong twelve times in seven different churches or cathedrals. For me, these were chances to experience glorious music written for God, sung beautifully by well-rehearsed choirs as part of a liturgy and not in performance. While I simply listened, I worshiped. I was able to absorb the beauty of the architecture around me, admire the composers’ craft, and appreciate the shape that liturgy takes in the hands of organists who have practiced many long hours. I even failed to notice the vergers (this is a good thing) who work to make liturgy appear seamless.
On a good day liturgy can come together to create flow – a psychological term that describes a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of an activity. In this case, the activity for me was participating in liturgy as a listener. I think sometimes we get so caught up in doing, and I am grateful for those times when I’m allowed to just be. That is what Evensong promises.
In the Episcopal Church our faith is expressed in words and symbols, in music and banners, in architecture and vestments. All of our senses will be engaged when worship is done well. But most important, our faith is expressed in the joy that radiates from each of us when we truly experience God in worship. The Episcopal Church has given us all a gift with Evensong, a way to absorb God’s gifts of beauty, to participate in corporate prayers, and to celebrate God’s transcendence.