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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

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.



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