Sunday, October 16, 2011
Thoughts on Choral Evensong
I have returned home from Choral Evensong at the Cathedral of All Saints downtown just now. The cathedral offers choral evensong once a month. Today, the service was sung in remembrance and thanksgiving for the gift of the King James Bible, which has been around for four hundred years this year, in 2011. The Cathedral has a boys and men choir which glorifies God through its offering of choral music. The Cathedral has been offering choral worship since its foundation in 1888 in downtown Albany (Also, the Cathedral of All Saints was the first cathedral built for the Episcopal Church), although the Choir of Men and Boys predates the building of the Cathedral, beginning in 1872. The choir consists of boys age 7-14 who sing the soprano parts and a group of professional older singers who sing the alto, tenor, and bass parts. The choir sings weekly at the main Cathedral service, Choral Evensong and other choral services and also in special concerts. The choral setting chose this evening was William Byrd's "Great Service," which is a considerably challenging piece, even for an experienced choir. If any of the readers of this blog are ever in New York's Capital Region, the Cathedral is a sight to see, located at 62 South Swan Street, Albany, NY 12210.
That serves as my advertisement for the Cathedral of All Saints (although there are other excellent and talented choirs all over the country!). Now I want to advertise Choral Evensong. I think Choral Evensong is one of those experiences which one has to experience. It must seem quaint to the non-Anglican observer being an intricate expression of Anglican cathedral worship, which tends to express itself in a peculiar English manner of pomp unknown in other liturgical churches, even Rome. The English cathedral tradition includes insights from the Reformers, the Caroline Divines, Tractarians, and Dearmerites, which creates a ceremonial which cannot be experienced elsewhere. It is a peculiarly Anglican service for several reasons. First, it is based on the Book of Common Prayer, although it diverges from this standard in certain points (including an introit and Office hymn, typically). It is rooted in English culture and expresses itself as such. It is also one of those services which bridges Anglican churchmanship battles, for just about everyone, even the staunchest Puritan can enjoy a good evensong on a summer night (even atheists enjoy it, as my last sentence alludes to a quote from Richard Dawkins).
Beyond the historical, liturgical, and cultural associations with Choral Evensong, there is also the theological richness of the service. Even when modified, the Book of Common Prayer is a nearly flawless service appropriating glory to God through praise, thanksgiving, and prayer, with a thorough dose of Scriptural content, in fact, I can think of no better way to honor the King James Bible than to sing the Prayer Book Office for Evening Prayer. I can only imagine at the service tonight, maybe some non-Christians had stumbled in to hear the choir, but at the same time, they were exposed to two Psalms, two readings, two biblical canticles, and a sermon exhorting the congregation to read the Scriptures in order to know God through Christ. Perhaps an effective way to evangelize in a different manner.
Not every church can afford a choir but I think every church can hold regular and well-performed Evensongs, if we remove the "choral" adjective, for "evensong" implies a sung service in contrast to "Evening Prayer" which can be said or sung. I think every parish should consider having an Evensong service as a way to reach out to unchurched people. One, it eliminates the awkwardness for newcomers to church when they approach the Communion rail, often not ready or not knowing how to receive. In addition, many are not baptized or in a state of sin and should not approach the rail. It creates a Gospel culture based on the reading of Scripture and prayers through the Prayer Book which exposes the unchurched crowd to the story of Scripture, using the power of music, which is a universal element in all cultures as something people enjoy. There are simple chant tones and hymns out there to start right away so that your parish will come to treasure this time-honored tradition in Anglicanism and join in mission together in a new way.