Understandably, Evensong is about the ending of the day. As I have written before, it offers a space for reflection and prayer rendered in words that are centuries old. Once a staple ingredient of the worshipping diet of the Church of England, fewer and fewer churches hold the service with any regularity. Cathedrals still maintain its place as a mainstay of their existence and many are rewarded with appreciative congregations. York Minster saw many hundreds of people at its Easter Sunday Evensong, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
Recently I attended Evensong in the pretty port town of Whitby. I was fortunate in that my stay coincided with the one Sunday in the month when Evensong is held in one of the Anglican churches. This information wasn’t difficult to find on the internet – but I note that the local paper, the Whitby Gazette, no longer carries a listing for local church services. The publication has always felt a little retro (I’ve no idea how common the practice is) but until the pandemic there was always a sizeable entry reporting all the service times for Whitby and the surrounding villages for the forthcoming Sunday.
‘The other response to decline has been the creation of complex patterns of rotation of services’.Bruce, S. (2011). Secularisation, church and popular religion. The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 62(3), 543-561.
The service I attended took place at 6 pm in the large Victorian church of St Hilda, built in 1844. As I have found with a number of churches at service times, there was no external indication of what was about to take place. Admittance was by a modest door that stood open, but with no signage inviting entry. Coming to this service required a confident churchgoer. While there was no one there to greet worshippers, books with a service pamphlet were prepared and waiting on a table. Arriving just a few minutes before the service time I found that I was one of three worshippers sitting in the nave. On the hour a crucifer and robed choir in double figures entered via what appeared to be a side chapel, and the service began.
It was a good service. Three hymns were sung, all familiar to me and strongly led by the choir. There was no sermon. Yet in a town of thirteen thousand souls, with many more visiting as tourists on a Bank Holiday weekend, the congregation never rose above three (two of whom were clergy). I’m not very interested in nostalgia, but there may well be a place for lament. For Evensong aficionados the service was listed in the Choral Evensong website, but that made no discernable difference to the attendance. Although over a decade old, I think Steve Bruce identifies accurately many of the problems of religion in these coastal communities, and more widely. Numbers have dwindled; clergy are fewer; sustaining services across multiple benefice parishes has led to complex timetables; as churches have closed a wider network of folk religion has diminished. In all the counting done by church strategists, the existence and role of popular religion is mostly neglected. The people whose children went to Sunday school; who attended the Carol services and coffee mornings; who turned to the church for occasional offices. Throughout my ministry, this group has been a vital part of my pastoral ministry, whether as residents in a Lancashire suburban parish; as patients in hospital; or amongst the people now living into their tenth decade and beyond. The mood music of the C of E seems to require this group to make a decision: be a disciple or be gone.
‘a notional sense of affiliation and occasional and peripheral involvement in churches and chapels requires that there be functioning churches and chapels close at hand’.Ibid.
While there are groups now fighting a rearguard action, such as ‘Save the Parish‘, the spiritual capital already squandered through closure, complexity and theological withdrawal, will not be regained. It was built over centuries and lost in a generation. To many of us the ‘disciple’ mantras from the centre sounds like an ever-narrowing agenda. The ark may have escaped our reach, but we are downsizing to lifeboats in order to accommodate the faithful few and float over an ocean of the un-saved. This pays little regard to the everyday sacred; the resources of our churches as wonderful places to ‘be’ (when they are open); the honest striving of people to make sense of their lives.
In the glories of High Church Victoriana, Evensong can feel like the faithful performance of am-dram Shakespeare. A mystery play forged through the fires of Reformation England, with local actors adding their accents to the long, long tradition of Anglican spirituality. Words that name our wretchedness, speak of the dead and lay hope in the resurrection. In a town where the physical landscape is used to such good effect, and where jet became the jewellery of mourning, I wonder if there is any chance that new life might be breathed into this ancient worship? Before we give up the ghost on this liturgy, perhaps we should consider the possibility of new links and relationships. Surely, if any piece of worship was ever made for the Goths who congregate in Whitby, it’s Choral Evensong.