Faith Institutions

Evensong sees a surge even as British church attendance declines

Evensong service during the "Primates 2016” gathering in Canterbury Cathedral on Jan. 11, 2016, in southern England. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Anglican Archives

LONDON (RNS) — The line of locals and tourists stretches about 400 people long, and one might think they are waiting to get into a play, a museum or even for ice cream.

But these people want to go to a church service.

In Britain, where churchgoing is mostly in decline, what has drawn the crowd on a late afternoon in August is evensong, the hymn-heavy evening service of the Anglican church taken from the Book of Common Prayer. This line was headed for the service at the famed Westminster Abbey, sometimes called England’s parish church.

Abbey officials estimate that there can be up to 700 people at evensong when the main choir is singing. Similar crowds can be found across Britain in cathedrals such as York Minster and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and in Oxford and Cambridge.

But even in much smaller churches, evensong attendance is growing, attracting people who might otherwise never enter a church, and bucking the British trend in declining congregations. Some clergy are hopeful that it may be a way people are drawn into a deeper relationship with the church.

A choir practices for evensong at York Minster in northen England. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

What’s behind the evensong upsurge? Much credit goes to a website, Choralevensong.org, that helps people find a service near them. Since its creation last year, more than 500 churches, cathedrals and colleges have been included, each with their own pages. Hundreds more have requested to be added.

Around 11,500 visits a month are made to the site, with interest growing steadily. After listing on the site, one church found the numbers turning up for evensong rose from 20 to 200.

Said Guy Hayward, the editor of the Choral Evensong website: “A lot of people don’t want to directly engage with the church, they don’t want to go in through the front door, as it were. They are looking for a side entrance and choral evensong provides that. They are attracted by artistic expression and then by osmosis they find it spiritually appealing.”

Evensong is a creation of the English Reformation, derived from monastic prayer traditions. Its liturgy is drawn from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, created by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1549. It usually lasts about 45 minutes and includes Scripture readings, psalms and the Nunc Dimittis (Song of Simeon) and Magnificat, both taken from the Gospel of Luke.

Some of the greatest choral music sung at evensong was written at the time of Queen Elizabeth I, soon after its liturgy was first designed, by composers such as Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. The works of other English composers, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Richard Ayleward, Hubert Parry and Herbert Howells, are also frequently featured.

From left, choristers Abby Cox, Poppy Braddy and Chloe Chawner practice for an evensong performance on Jan. 22, 2014, in Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, England. The singers were part of the first all-female choir to perform at the cathedral, ending the centuries-old all-male tradition. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

At Westminster Abbey, the crowds sat near the choir and in temporary seating placed next to the high altar — at which Prince William married Kate Middleton in 2011 — to accommodate the overflow.

Among those attending was Julia Mellow, from Adelaide, Australia. “I am not really religious,” she said. “I came for the music and the history.”

For Alejandro Calas de Lexedon Zangnonit and his family, from the Rioja region of Spain, the church service did matter. “We are Christians. It was important to my parents to be at a church service, and this is very beautiful,” he said.

Another couple, Lee and Marie Johnson, from Colorado, described themselves as more spiritual than religious, and the spirituality of the service appealed to them. “There is a reverence about it,” said Lee Johnson. “It is a moment when you can pause in your daily life. When you can stop. The choral music is so important for that.”

“It brought tears to my eyes,” said his wife. “I used to go to church more when I was young but the rules, the judging of people put me off. But the church here, with a service like this, brings people together.”

The dean of Westminster, John Hall, described evensong as a starting point for some people to engage with Christianity.

Henry VII’s Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey in London. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Herry Lawford

“Even though the majority of the worshippers will be unfamiliar with Evensong, there is generally a very respectful and even prayerful atmosphere. We assemble at the west end to farewell people and often have very positive comments and also questions,” he said.

“We do from time to time have evidence of the impact of the experience. I profoundly believe that attending a beautiful act of worship whether Evensong or the Eucharist has converting power.”

Then there’s the more practical reason to come to evensong. Cathedrals in England often charge high admission fees — about $25 in some cases — so some tourists opt instead for evensong, which is free.

About the author

Catherine Pepinster

20 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • I can relate to that. As a child I visited the cathedral in Seville and I formed a lasting interest. I also periodically enjoy listening to Gregorian chants and some of Bach’s religiously-themed music.

  • What a great idea: give people the kind of church services they want, at a convenient time, and advertise them! Give them great music, beautiful language, history, ceremony in fancy dress, things they can’t get in the secular world, with no strings attached so they can participate on their own terms, advertise, and they will come.

    For the past half-century mainline churches have taken the opposite tack. Liturgical revision, taking away all this good stuff that people liked and forced stuff on them that they didn’t want. In the interests of ‘relevance’ they adopted contemporary English the pop idiom of the secular world and made church services dull and prosaic. All this was supposed to attract what, 50 years ago they called, ‘Modern Secular Man’—especially ‘young people’. And mainline churches collapsed.

  • Better be careful Jim. Atheists are an endangered species already. You be listening to Gregorian and Bach on Monday, and your name disappear off the Atheist List by Friday!!

  • People have a longing to connect with God, at least One of their limited conceptions. The repetition of liturgy in the regular Sunday service and the many competing demands on the limited time of modern (wo)men may make the evensong a worthwhile activity.

  • Anglican Evensong, especially with a choir, is very beautiful. But the words alone, the liturgy, has its own unique Shakespearean- like oral beauty. Evensong was crafted by that genius writer of clear, beautiful language Thomas Cranmer the first protestant Archbishop of Canterbury. He melded together at least two of the services that had been used by the monks from their many daily services, five I think, if my memory is right. Matins or Morning Prayer, also written by Cranmer is almost as beautiful and fluent of meaning as Evensong.
    For me the highlight of Evensong is the Magnificat, or Song of Mary, usually followed by the Nunc Dimittis, or Song of Simeon – they say so much !

  • The atheist population will grow but will always be small and many will remain in the closet. There will be a lot more Nones but not necessarily naturalists. I’ve had an interesting journey to get to where I am and it’s definitely a one-way trip.

  • Of course, there had to be one couple woo informed us that they were spiritual more than religious.

  • The Bach B-minor Mass may be the most glorious piece of music ever written and this Jew cannot get enough of it. I recommend the John Elliott Gardiner performance on YouTube.

  • If you are in NYC, there’s Choral Evensong at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine (Episcopal/Anglican) on Sundays at 4PM. There are also Evening Prayer services Monday – Saturday at 5 PM. Choral Evensong is an extended version of the service for Evening Prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer. Trinity Church Wall Street also has Evensong on Thursdays at 5:15!

  • As well as St John the Devine and Trinity Church/Wall Street, St Thomas/Fifth Avenue has choral evensong four times as week: Sundays at 4:00 pm, and Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 5:30 pm, September thru May.

  • The mainline Protestant churches have danced to the secular world’s tune (and coated it with a pious veneer) for too long. Their congregations responded by stampeding…right out the door!

  • I firmly believe that in our modern secular age, the only way for churches to survive is to offer something ‘otherworldly’. The desperate attempts at ‘relevance’ in the last fifty years such as dumbed down liturgy, ‘worship songs’, Powerpoint presentations in sermons, no vestments and a rejection of anything ‘churchy’ have turned the church service into something with all the charm of a motorway service station.

  • I think we should not underestimate the significance of being able to avoid entrance fees for cathedra by attending Evensong. Places like King’s College Cambridge charge at least £10 for entry, and Westminster Abbey is not even open for visiting on Sundays unless you attend a service. Although a revival is to be welcomed, I do think a lot of it is to do with tourists keeping their expenses down. Evensong at parish level does not seem to be experiencing such a big increase in numbers. My country parish church has a monthly Evensong which is rarely attended by more than about 15 people.

  • Yes, yes, yes! Of course people aren’t looking for anything this worldly in church because all secular things are readily available in secular society.

    But how do we get that message out? There is no evidence that ‘relevance’ has kept people in the Church, or got new people in, and plenty that it hasn’t. Yet the institutional Church(es) just keep pushing it–and churches close down. For Christ sake, and I mean that literally, how can we miserably lay people get that message across? How do we start the revolution?

  • I have no grand plan and I don’t think there will be a ‘revolution’, but I think the tide will eventually turn away from secularisation as the generation that really started it in the 60s/70s/80s loses hold. My own plan is to welcome what I call the ‘outer circle’ – the people who are interested in churches but feel they are not part of the ‘inner circle’ of highly dedicated believers. These are the people that like Evensong . My village also had a ‘blessing of the seas’ ceremony which was hugely attended, as was the Remembrance Day service. We need to do more for these people instead of trying to convert them into some sort of ‘saved elect’ as the more evangelical churches do.

  • Statistics suggest it’s not going to happen: the youngest cohort is much more secular than earlier generations at their age. I agree though that welcoming the outer circle is what’s wanted and think that in fact that one thing that drove people away was clergy overreach: ‘No you cannot get married in this church just because you live here—you have to go through the premarital counseling program’, ‘No you cannot just get your baby “done”—you have to go through this huge fandango’.

    I’m still ready for the Revolution. In the US, where I’ve been, they’re averse to ‘blessings of the seas’ and the kind of culture-religion activities welcome the outer circle. They promote Cursillo and are trying to import the Alpha Course. How do we set these people straight???

2019 NewsMatch Campaign: This Story Can't Wait! Donate.

ADVERTISEMENTs