Sunday evenings

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!

village church

village church

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.

choir at evensong

choir at evensong

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.

a robed choir

a robed choir

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.

benediction at St Silas Kentish Town

benediction at St Silas Kentish Town

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.

evangelical worship - band and singers

evangelical worship – band and singers

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.

plainchant adapted to Common Worship from the website of Fr Richard Peers trinitylewisham.wordpress

plainchant adapted to Common Worship from the website of Fr Richard Peers trinitylewisham.wordpress

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?



About Scott Anderson

Formerly an Anglican priest (ordained 1975) received into the Catholic Church in February 2012, and ordained to the Diaconate on 27th July 2013. I took early retirement, and divide my time between London and northern France. I am deeply committed to the Ordinariate as a gift of the Holy Spirit in the search for unity. Like many Ordinariate members I feel a personal gratitude to Pope Emeritus Benedict, together with loyalty to our Holy Father, Pope Francis. My blog tries to make a small contribution to the growth of the Ordinariate by asking questions (and proposing some answers) about the 'Anglican Patrimony'. I have always been fascinated by the whole issue of growth and decline, and therefore concerned for appropriate means of evangelisation in western Europe. I believe that the Holy Spirit is constantly renewing the People of God and that we must be open to him. My love of music and motorcycles will occasionally surface in my posts. On Saturday 19th October 2013, I was ordained to the Priesthood at Most Precious Blood, Borough, by the Most Revd Peter Smith, Archbishop of Southwark, for the service of the Ordinariate of our Lady of Walsingham. I continued to serve the Ordinariate group and Parish at Most Precious Blood until the end of 2014. Subsequently, I helped in the care of the Ordinariate Groups at Hemel Hempstead and Croydon, and in the Archdiocese of Southwark, until the beginning of September 2015. With the agreement of my Ordinary, Mgr Keith Newton, the Bishop of Amiens appointed me Administrator of the Parish of Notre Dame des Etangs (Pont Remy) in Picardie, France. This appointment is to last for a year, to give the Bishop the opportunity to assess the future of the parish.
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10 Responses to Sunday evenings

  1. Mgr Andrew Burnham says:

    Excellent account but one correction (I think). When I was young (so before 1965) lay people did not read the lessons at Evensong because they were not allowed to. There were occasional services in the Cathedral where lay people read but, though they were indistinguishable otherwise from Morning or Evening Prayer, they were usually called something else, so that they were not uncanonical. Thus the Mayor might read at the Mayoral Service &c. We forget what a huge breakthrough it was for lay people to be able to speak individually (as opposed to corporately) in public worship. To this day (though it is often broken) the rule remains that, though lay people may offer biddings, they may not in Catholic worship individually address God aloud.


  2. Father Richard Peers SCP says:

    Father, a very good blog. I think the chant comes from my own blog, perhaps an acknowledgement would be kind?

  3. sottocapo says:

    Sounds great but if you have a young family Evensong or evening services are a virtual impossibility . I wonder who has the luxury of time and lack of responsibilities to go to such services? I assume they are single or retired.

    • I have known couples who have taken it in turns to go to a quiet evening service, while the other looks after the children. They have found this helpful for both of them. I offer this suggestion with caution, as I am both single and retired!

  4. Rhiannon says:

    When I was around 16, (1950s) we noticed that a few young men, working away from home, were turning up to Evensong on a Sunday evening – so we (I) started a Youth Group in the Rectory. We played records on my little Dansette record player, drank (probably rather nasty) instant coffee, and invited speakers to visit us – from the St Pancras Housing Society, from the (then) rather new and exciting London Planetarium. Certain hymn tunes still give me vivid flashes of memory – the smell and weight of the huge jug of instant coffee, the curate reducing us to tears of laughter with his recording of Hoffnung at the Oxford Union, dancing the Twist and the Locomotion in the kitchen passage –
    How many young people now would come to Evensong, and then to these trivial forms of entertainment, on a Sunday evening? Some of the young men even caught earlier trains back from weekends away in order to join us

    • Yet if you go to places like Holy Trinity, Brompton, of a Sunday evening you will find it packed with 20 somethings. For the worship, yes, but also for each other, for the company, because Sunday evening can be a lonely time especially if you are young and single in a big city. Is there a Catholic equivalent? What happens Sunday evenings, say, in the Catholic chaplaincies of our universities?

  5. Rhiannon says:

    Interesting question. (By the way, I left home in 1966; a few years later, Evensong ended at that church and has never been reinstated. I’m slightyl surprised that it’s still in place in London churches.)
    Here in Wales, young Catholics can go to the Unversity chaplaincy any evening, but I doubt that there is Evensong. I’ll find out. There is Mass at 1600 in the local hospital chapel.

  6. Martin Hartley says:

    Father, in monastic circles, Sunday Vespers with perhaps Benediction is still, I believe, the usual. It is as suitable end to the Lords day. Now whether it can be introduced to a saecular parish, I am not sure. There are many obstacles, not least getting back, those who may have to travel a distance, however, it might be worth a try. There is something about Evensong which blesses the coming week. It can also be a service of Evangelisation like the similar service at Holy Trinity Brompton. We might consider it at MPB


  7. Rhiannon says:

    Here, with two priests serving eight churches, it would have to be a lay initiative. I know many who say Daily Office, but organizing a congregation to do that, let alone music, might be more difficult

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