Is choral evensong an as-yet untapped opportunity for Canadian churches to reach out?
Last spring, All Saints’ Anglican Church in Huntsville, Ont., decided to try something new. Spurred by a parishioner now in his 90s, the church began offering choral evensong four times a year.
The parishioner, who has since moved to another city, had always loved evensong and had wanted his fellow congregants to experience it, says the Rev. Lynda Mee, a vocational deacon who serves as the church’s office administrator. He suggested it to the church’s priest at the time, who approved the idea. They engaged a local choir, along with some of the church’s own talent, and advertised the services locally and on All Saints’ Facebook page. As the Anglican Journal was going to press in February, the church had held four evensong services, with another one planned for March.Levels of attendance at the services might surprise anyone who takes evensong for an out-of-date relic.
“We’ve been getting somewhere between 90 and 110 people that are coming out to this service—on 4 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, which is probably not the most popular time for people to be wanting to go to a church service,” Mee says. Attendance on a typical Sunday Eucharist at All Saints’ is normally in the order of 70 people, she says.
Many of those who attend are parishioners of All Saints’, and some of them bring family from out of town to the services. But it’s possible that some of those who come aren’t even churchgoers, Mee says. She sees the popularity of the service as a sign of the potential of evensong to bring more people to Anglican churches.
“This service is a great way to reach out, probably, to people who don’t attend regularly,” she says.
Clearly, those who come are drawn by the music, Mee says. But there’s something else about evensong’s appeal that she finds hard to put into words.
“I can’t say it’s the quiet of the service—because it isn’t quiet, because of the music…. The words aren’t coming to me…. It’s something that I think you can almost soak yourself in.”
‘The way it…washes over you’
On a late winter Sunday evening in Toronto, wet snow falls on slushy sidewalks. It’s been a messy day, and vehicles and people are sparse. But inside St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, the air is warm, rich and layered. A choir of some 30 voices chants psalms and sings canticles from the Bible. The small congregation joins in on prayers and hymns. Voices dip, hover and soar, and incense penetrates the vibrating air.
There’s something about evensong that leaves Canon David Brinton, interim priest at St. Thomas’s, also somewhat at a loss for words—and, like Mee, settling on the image of immersion to describe the experience.
“It’s not—what is the word—it’s not very rational. It’s about the feelings, the emotions and the way it…washes over you,” he says.
Evensong originated with the Church of England in the sixteenth century, though its roots go considerably farther back. Early Christians followed the Jewish tradition of praying at fixed times of the day; from this tradition vespers (evening prayer) and compline (night prayer) evolved in the Middle Ages. The English reformers established evensong by borrowing elements of both vespers and compline, Brinton says.
The service is centered around two canticles, or songs from the Bible: the Song of Mary or Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), which had been the traditional vespers canticle; and the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32), also known as the Nunc dimittis, which was the traditional canticle for the night office. Sunday evensong typically includes a sermon, though daily evensong services through the week normally do not. The Eucharist does not form part of evensong, although—rarely these days, Brinton says—Eucharist may follow it.
Evensong is unusual among Canadian churches; Brinton says he knows of only two in Toronto—St. Thomas’s and the Cathedral Church of St. James—that offer it weekly. The service has been growing in popularity in the UK, however. In a February 2019 article in Cathedral Voice, a UK journal, Oxford University musicologist Kathryn King wrote that choral evensong “appears to be experiencing a renaissance.”
Five or six hundred people come to evensong at Westminster Abbey every weekday, King wrote, with more than 1,500 or more attending the service on Sundays.
By and large, this trend does not yet seem to have reached Canada, says Matthew Whitfield, director of music at St. Thomas’s. Even apart from the devotional aspect of the service, it’s unfortunate that more Canadians aren’t attending evensong, he says, because it gives life to a long and rich tradition of music.
“The material within evensong, especially the ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc,’ have been inspirational for composers for centuries,” he says. Music at St. Thomas’s, for example, could include compositions ranging from the medieval abbess and mystic Hildegard of Bingen to present-day Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.
“Within evensong you can cover six centuries in a single service…. Musically, there’s a vast body of work that people are missing out on by not being here.”
Whitfield says he believes evensong’s resurgence in the UK may have to do with the combination it offers of beautiful music with a low demand for participation—a draw for people who may feel uneasy about taking part in church ritual.
‘Music that’s dedicated to a higher purpose’
For this reason, he says, it could be a significant but as-yet largely unexplored way for the Canadian church to reach out to the unchurched.
“There’s a huge potential for evensong,” he says. “It’s a service that anyone who appreciates the aesthetic, and especially the music, of the service is welcome to attend—you don’t need to be baptized, you don’t need to be a firm believer. It’s as difficult as opening the front door.”
At least one other reason has been given for evensong’s English renaissance: a 2017 Religion News Service article cited a website, launched in 2015, that allows evensong enthusiasts to locate the services being performed nearest to them, saving them the effort of searching on a church-by-church basis.
Choralevensong.org, co-founded by former music student and chorister Guy Hayward, provides evensong times and other details as well as general information and news updates. It now regularly gets 400,000 hits and 10-12,000 unique visitors per month, Hayward says.
The site currently covers the UK, but Hayward says he would like to expand its search capability to other countries, including Canada, and is interested in finding a Canadian partner to help him do this.
Hayward says he began working on the site partly out of gratitude for what sacred choral music has given him spiritually over the years, even though he’s not a churchgoer.
“I really like the idea of music that’s dedicated to a higher purpose, and I think that’s what choral evensong is,” he says.
Popular atheist author Richard Dawkins admitted to having “a certain love” for evensong, in a 2013 interview with the magazine The Spectator, and Hayward says he doesn’t believe it’s necessary to be a Christian to enjoy and benefit from the sense of transcendence that evensong powerfully conveys.
“You experience the music resounding in these beautiful buildings, echoing in the stonework and the beautiful stained-glass windows, and the robes, and the liturgy, and the repetition through time—the linking with all the humans that have done this before you. It’s quite a full-on experience, actually, that goes way beyond specific kinds of beliefs.”