It is sometimes said that ‘Evensong’ or ‘Evensong and Benediction’ is the typical worship of the Ordinariate, at least in the UK. Certainly, it is more familiar and easier to find your way around than the Ordinariate Form of the Mass. But it may be just a generational thing – Evensong being familiar to me because of my age!
Fifty years ago you would have found Evensong (or Evening Prayer) as the Sunday evening worship is almost every Church of England parish. In many Evangelical and Central parishes there was a different congregation in the evening – people who went to Evensong as their Sunday worship. The growth of the Parish Communion movement between the wars had made its mark, and in Anglo-Catholic and Prayer Book Catholic parishes (forgive the distinctions – they seemed real and important in those days) the majority of people went to the Parish Eucharist at 9.30 (probably fasting, and so the parish might provide breakfast after, so that all could make their Communion). Before the Vatican Council the ‘Papalist’ Anglo-Catholics would still have maintained the 11 am High Mass, with people going to Communion at an earlier Mass.
So Sunday evening worship across the Church of England was remarkably similar. The Prayer Book service was used with little alteration. In the 16th century Archbishop Cranmer had conflated the evening Offices of Vespers and Compline to form ‘Evensong’ or ‘Evening Prayer’. After the penitential introduction the familiar words, ‘O Lord, open thou our lips’ were sung, and the psalms were sung. These were usually to the music known as ‘Anglican chant’, a form of harmonised chanting developed in the C of E from the 16th century onwards. Of course, fifty years ago most Anglican churches still had a robed choir, sitting in the chancel between the congregation and the altar. In many churches only men and boys sang, in imitation of the Cathedral choirs.
In ‘low’ churches women supplemented the boys to provide the soprano and alto line. The Old Testament reading followed the psalms, and was read from a lectern, often in the form of an eagle, opposite the pulpit; the readings were usually read by lay-people, perhaps the churchwardens. The Magnificat (either to chant or to a choir setting) followed, though in more ‘Catholic’ churches the Office Hymn would be inserted, sung to plainchant, or more likely to one of those 18th century tunes which the English Hymnal had found in French Service Books – tunes which are only known now to Anglicans over 50! The New Testament Reading and the Nunc Dimittis followed, and then the Creed, Our Father and three Collects. The last Collect which begins, ‘Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord,’ was one of those Cranmer compositions widely known and used across the English-speaking world: it had entered into the English tradition of prayer. The Office proper ended at this point, bu the evening service usually continued for another 20 – 30 minutes. In most churches a sermon would be preached, intercessions and a collection interspersed with hymns, and a final blessing given. In some churches, mainly in London and the urban areas of the midlands and north, the service of Benediction followed. It has to be remembered that even fifty years ago, most Anglican Bishops frowned on the use of the Blessed Sacrament for any other purpose than the Communion of the Sick. The Place of Reservation was normally a side chapel, not the High Altar. Nonetheless, in some churches the Host was placed in a monstrance at the end of Evensong, censed while the people sang O Salutaris and Tantum Ergo (but in English) and then the priest, donning the humeral veil, would bless the people with the Host. In his book ‘Paths of Spirituality’ John MacQuarrie describes (movingly and positively) his first expererience of ‘Evensong and Benediction’ while visiting a church in NW London (almost certainly St Andrew, Willesden Green) in the 1940’s. He remarks on the liturgical satisfaction of the Office (the word of God) being completed (by adoration of the Word made flesh), in the sacramental service of Benediction.
Patterns of Sunday evening worship changed very quickly after the 1960’s. In many churches evening worship was simply abandoned: the Evening Mass did not catch on among Anglicans, who preferred the ‘Parish Eucharist’ tradition on Sunday mornings. Evangelical Anglicans developed a quite different approach, once they felt able to abandon liturgical worship, and to replace choirs and organs with singers and bands. Evening worship then became a place of outreach, as they believed that younger people would come more easily on Sunday evening.
What, then, of the Ordinariate as it seeks to retain the best of its Anglican heritage of liturgy and worship. It seems to me that we are unlikely to see any major revival of Sunday evening worship based around the Office as opposed to the Mass. For myself I would value being able to go to Vespers/Evensong on Sunday, but I would be looking for something simple and reflective, rather than long and elaborate – more along monastic lines, though the chant and polyphony of Westminster Cathedral is tempting. And 5 pm gets my vote rather than 6.30 – the traditional time. Evensong is more likely then to be a weekday devotion, as it is in my own Ordinariate church, being sung before Mass on Thursday evening. What about festivals? We have had attempts to marry together ‘Cathedral Evensong’ (Smith responses/Dyson in D/Anthem by Charles Wood – sort of thing!!) with Anglo-Catholic traditionalism, copes, incense, birettas – and Benediction. Magnificent, but expensive (with the collapse of voluntary choirs in the 60’s music now costs hundreds of pounds) and hardly possible for the congregation to participate in.
It is perfectly possible to recognise good – even great – music and not like it: I’m a bit like that with the Anglican choral revival of the 19th century. Having spent my formative years with the Kelham Fathers my own taste is for plain-chant as the supreme music of the liturgy – and the music of the people if they are taught it and encouraged to sing. But that is, perhaps, another post.
And is the experience of the Evangelicals – using Sunday evening worship for oureach and fellowship, especially with students and young people – worth us investigating, and developing in a Catholic worship context? What do you think?