The Atheist’s Favorite Service: The Wonder of Choral Evensong

Here’s a niche audience waiting for a need to be met: If you’re in the UK, AND you want to hear choral evensong services near you, there’s a new site just launched called, and it’s a searchable directory of evensong services throughout England.  If you’re into choral music, there’s no better place to hear it sung than choral evensong services, for several reasons.  First, they generally feature the best choirs in the country, especially in the larger cathedrals and chapels where the music is truly magnificent.  Second, you get to hear this music sung in places that have the best acoustics for it, and when you hear early Renaissance settings you’re hearing music that is almost half a millennium old sung in places for which it was originally written.  Third, they’re free (with the exception of an offering, of course).

evensongSo we all know that I’m a bit of a choral evensong nerd.  I can’t not be, seeing as how I’m leading a tour of cathedrals and church music in England in May.  It’s the perfect combination of the two things about which I am most passionate – music, and history – and makes me just about explode.   So what is Choral Evensong, and how do you get to attend these wonderful services?

We can thank Thomas Cranmer for our Evensong services.  He was responsible not just for granting Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and working with Cromwell to start the Protestant Reformation in England, but he also gave us the most popular church service in England.  The churches in pre-Reformation England followed a set of seven daily services set by monasteries, called “hours”.  There were services for almost every time of day, and it was a cumbersome system for most people to follow because there were more services than anyone could possibly attend, they were all in Latin, and not enough Scripture was read.  They were also way more elaborate than most people could follow.

The average monk’s daily service routine started out in the pre-dawn hours with Lauds and Prime.  Then there was Terce, Sext, and Nonnes, roughly three hours apart.  Then there was Vespers, and Compline.  Followed by a midnight rising for prayers.  This just wasn’t doable for the average farmer, or anyone outside of a cloistered community, and so Cranmer, wanting to make the services more accessible to the average person, turned the morning services into Matins, and the evening ones into Evensong.  He did away with the mid-day ones completely.

The services in the monasteries were similar to those practiced in the church from the time of the earliest Apostles, and those Apostles, in turn, used the synagogue services as a guide.  Cranmer’s great puzzle was how to simplify these services, rooted as they were in tradition that was thousands of years old, and make them available to the common people, which was really what much of the Reformation in England was about.  It should, of course, be noted that Henry’s Reformation was mostly about simply becoming the Head of the Church in England, but for those who deeply believed the tenants of the Protestant Reformation, the goal was to make the services much more accessible.

That meant translating the services into English, and improving the services so they could be understood by everyone.  Cranmer wanted to include a lesson from the Scripture, psalms, the Lord’s Prayer and other prayers, and sung responses.  He combined the psalms sung, and the verses read at the different services, and added in readings so that the modern Evensong service has a long lesson from both the Old and New Testaments at each service.

Evensong at Canterbury Cathedral

Evensong at Canterbury Cathedral

Going to Evensong is an experience that ultimately connects the worshipper to thousands of years of tradition, and the very early Protestant church as well.  It is unique to Anglicanism, thanks to the hybrid Catholic/Protestant tradition.  Recent reports on church growth in the UK show weekday evensong services as the fastest growing segment.  The Choral Evensong program on Radio 3 is the longest running radio show in the UK.  Many people describe Evensong as the atheist’s favorite service because it is essentially a free choral concert with very little demanded of the worshipper.  It allows God/Source to move people in their own way, gently, without any perceived pressure.  It is a service that gives and asks for almost nothing in return. 

So the next time you’re in London, at Westminster Abbey, skip the long queues to tour the cathedral.  Instead, simply wait for 3pm (on a Sunday – 5pm on weekdays), go up to the front door, and announce, “I’m here for service” to the attendant keeping the tourists out.  You will be expected to go directly to the choir area and won’t have a chance to poke around and view all the tombs, but you will have the most transcendent musical experience possible.  Who needs all those stone tombs with dead people in them when you can have glorious living music which has been recreated daily for a thousand years, and you can spend an hour just soaking in the glorious music and the luxury of anonymity – it’s just you and your Creator and the music is a powerful link to bring you closer together.   And if you’re in the UK, you can always search and get a searchable listing of services near you.

And, of course, check out bigworld to see our choral evensong tour in Spring 2016.