Evensong. I love it, or I can’t stand it. How can that be? Well, it can be done in two very different ways: either as a choir concert, or as communal prayer sung by the whole congregation. I basically can’t stand it in a concert setting. Few things do less for me than standing mute while a choir sings the Magnificat or the Responses in the Suffrages to some Anglican chant setting, and few do more for me than being part of a congregation singing the Magnificat to the Tone 8 plainsong setting (S185 in the Hymnal 1982) or the Tonus Perigrinus setting (S242 in the ’82 Hymnal). I basically just do not relate at all to worship as spectator sport. Oh, I appreciate the wonderful heritage of Anglican chant, and I’m glad that it is kept alive by the dedication of some choir directors and members. It’s not that it is too difficult for me; I can and have done that as part of a choir. Perhaps my aversion stems from the concert version being the only way Evensong is even conceived of these days and offered as a church service.
To contrast it, I’ll describe a high point of my liturgical life since becoming an Episcopalian 55 years ago at the age of 20. It was Solemn Evensong and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament at St. Paul’s K Street on Sunday evenings at 6 p.m. during about 1975 to 1980. The congregation sang the entirety of the sung parts of the service. There was sometimes a small pickup-choir of from four to six people. They didn’t sing the service by themselves. They led the congregation and sometimes sang one anthem. The psalms were sung from the Plainsong Psalter, and the preces, the suffrages, the magnificat, and the nunc dimittis were sung to the plainsong settings in the hymnal. This high point receded when a new music director came and decided to form a boys choir and to have them sing the psalms to anglican chant instead of leading the congregation in plainsong chant. As the service was slowly transformed into a choir concert, I moved on. But what I had learned there was applied a few years later, when Jonnie Sue and I were members at St. Andrew’s in Arlington.
For about five years, between about 1995 and 2000, we led a small group in a Sunday Evening Prayer service at 6 p.m. which included singing the Mag and the Nunc, the Preces and the Suffrages and a hymn. We didn’t chant the psalms, not having enough copies of the Plainsong Psalter. Everyone learned to set for the service, mark the lectern bible for the readings, and to serve as reader, cantor or officiant. It was all a capella. There was a small electronic piano in the little chapel where we met, but I refused all suggestions that we try to find someone to play it. That would have made us dependent on having someone to play each week and would have stunted our growth towards proficiency. As it was, the little group of regular participants, about 10 to 20 in number, became adept, skilled even, in unaccompanied singing. At the end of the five years we were singing regularly from over 200 hymns in the hymnal. You would be surprised at how many hymns you know and can sing quite well unaccompanied. It was far from professional quality, of course, with many a missed or flat note, but the point was that we were doing it, not watching someone do it for us.
Afterward we had potluck supper in the undercroft. Both the service and supper were completely do-it-yourself. No one set up the chapel for us for service, and no one set up anything for us for supper. We moved and set up the tables and chairs, spread the table cloths and washed up and put away everything when we were done. Interestingly two marriages resulted from this five year long gathering.
I’ve often had pangs of longing for that little service and wondered how to do that somewhere else. I think it is supremely important that Episcopalians reclaim the Daily Offices, and that every Episcopalian be so familiar with the offices that he or she can lead a service with just a few minutes of preparation to find the propers. I’m not situated now to do so, nor does St. Alban’s have an opening for another service, but perhaps you will be inspired to consider it somewhere and some time in your life. You don’t even need a church. You can do it with a small group in your home; at St. Andrew’s we often did that too.
I can’t close a Cup without a suggestion for further reading, so here’s one for today. “Grace at this Time: Praying the Daily Office,” by C. W. McPherson, Morehouse Publishing, especially Appendix A: Who Gets to Do This? and Appendix D, Music in the Daily Office. Available on Amazon, of course, for about $5.00.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 20-August-2013.