This piece appeared in the May-June 2014 edition of Salisbury Cathedral News
I’ve always preferred the intimate parish church community to a cathedral’s grandeur. I came to mature faith in Belfast’s city centre parish of St. George’s, walking past the door of the Cathedral to do so.
Since arriving in Salisbury last summer, I’ve yet to attend a Cathedral Sunday service: the Lord’s Day finds me across the Ring Road, inhaling incense as an altar server at St. Martin’s.
But I’m addicted to weekday Choral Evensong. In a ‘bad’ week, I get to the Cathedral twice; in a good week, every night. And I’m not alone. The recent report on church growth confirmed that weekday Cathedral congregations are the fasting growing part of the C of E.
Some say the anonymity appeals; others that Evensong congregations want a free recital without ‘real’ religion. I think that’s true only in small part.
We Anglicans are reticent about celebrating our strengths. I see weekday Evensong as ecumenical, interfaith and vital for a growing, healthy, Church.
For many visitors to this country, Choral Evensong at one of our great Cathedrals is their only experience of the Church of England. Many come from countries where Anglicanism barely exists. It can be hard to explain our hybrid Catholic/Protestant identity to a Spanish Catholic or Latvian Lutheran with limited English. Evensong says all that is usually required.
That is just as true for people of other faiths or none. Choral Evensong has for good reason been described as ‘the atheist’s favourite worship’. It gives much and demands little. A Muslim or Buddhist can simply sit back and luxuriate in the glory of what our Creator has wrought in the world and in humanity.
As ‘success’ for the Church is often defined as convincing people intellectually of the truth of Christianity, Evensong is countercultural. It allows God to speak in beauty directly to people’s hearts.
An unacknowledged reason for weekday Evensong’s success is its time slot. Many young adults need to work on Sundays to fund their education. Divorced parents drive for hours to be with their kids on Sundays, getting home late and tired; kids want to hang out with Mum or Dad, not go to church. We may lament the end of the traditional Sunday, but these trends are here to stay.
Evensong is not necessarily undemanding. It gives tremendous space for daily study of Scripture, and disciplined prayer sustaining a life of Christian service.
Maybe Choral Evensong needs to grow in depth and geography. Can we help more parish churches provide a weekday Evensong, perhaps weekly in larger towns and monthly in rural areas? And can we help people grow in depth and knowledge of faith when we see them mainly across the choir on Tuesday nights, and never on a Sunday?