By Colin Blakely
CHORAL EVENSONG is the unsung hero of the modern church. So much so that a new research project at Oxford University is being established to understand why it is that so many Britons enjoy the service.
The most recent statistics on Church of England Cathedrals from 2017 show midweek service attendance rose from a total of 7,000 people attending per week in 2000 to just over 18,000 people per week in 2017.
Meanwhile, BBC Radio 3’s weekly broadcast is showing its highest audience levels in its 92-year history.
One man who knows all too well about the popularity of Choral Evensong is Guy Hayward. He set up a national website to direct people to their nearest service.
“We realised that if you wanted to go around the country and go to an Evensong in a Cathedral or a parish church wherever you happen to be it would often be really difficult to find exactly when it’s on and what the music’s going to be.
“Often the information is buried seven clicks away and it’s very hard to find something, so we thought we need something that is uniform, which unifies all this in a single format. It is now easy to find the date, the times, the music list and even the type of choir.”
And all of the information is easy to find through a clickable map of the whole country. He was so committed to his idea that he spent two months trawling through 315 church websites to bring the information together.
Now that it is there, the site looks after itself and parishes can easily add their own information. But why focus on Evensong as there are other church services?
“We focused on them because we thought it would be for this growing group of people: the spiritual but not religious, but also for people who maybe don’t know much about the Church of England or what it can offer.
“It is a service that has a deep history and it is accessible: this is mainly music and people love it when they go. They love sitting back and letting it wash over them. Some people don’t feel comfortable coming into a church, and this is sort of coming through the side door. Often they end up going to other services, but it was through Evensong first.”
But central to the appeal of the service is that the music is spiritual. He observes that people like music in all sorts of ways: ‘they like rock music or whatever, but this particular music is important because it was written for the purpose of having a spiritual encounter’.
The former choirboy says that one reason for the success of Choral Evensong is its professionalism. Of course, services in London, Oxford and Cambridge, and the country’s 42 cathedrals, feature high quality musicians, but he maintains that these standards extend nationwide.
“Around the rest of the country it’s surprising just how many people take this seriously,” he says. So much so that the website currently has over 700 services listed.
“I come from a background of singing in an Oxbridge choir, but at the same time I wrote a PhD on group singing and how it forms community. I feel that there are two basic different ways of doing music: there’s presentational music, which is like the experts and they’d have an immediate listening audience, but then there is the participative music, where the main thing is just to get involved and just to sing.
“I love watching choirs singing because it clearly brings such joy to them. They are often all in it together and then that’s a great sense of bonding.”
In his doctoral research he compared different collective singing traditions all around the world in different cultures.
“I looked at the differences and similarities, and basically the similarity is that it is a way of unifying people: they have a common purpose and a common beat, so even if they’re singing different things at different times there’s this beat ultimately holding it all together.
It is for this growing group of people: the spiritual but not religious, but also for people who maybe don’t know much about the Church of England or what it can offer
“If you think about how this interview works you’re speaking and then I’m waiting for you to finish what you’re saying and then I start speaking. But when we are singing we can all do it together at the same time. That is what dissolves the boundaries between us, and it is a powerful thing.”
And the time of day is another important factor in Choral Evensong’s success.
“It was created from a contraction of the services of Vespers and Compline. It was a flagship service even back in the day, around 1549 with the Book of Common Prayer.”
He points out that over the last 10 years midweek services have been growing by 60 per cent. It is a good time of day: it’s just when people finish work and they might want to transition into the evening. But the success of Choral Evensong can be translated into every parish situation, he believes.
“I think if a parish is thinking of starting a choir then they should definitely run an Evensong service, because it’s got this perfect balance to it. It is a huge tradition. There are books out there that make Evensong easy to sing for any choir.”
And it is a powerful way to reach those on the fringes of the church.
“I think it’s a side door through which people who don’t feel comfortable in churches can go in and think: Wow what is that I’m hearing? Eventually people might be softened to the church: some can have an allergic reaction to church just because of the name. There is a barrier for some.”
But Choral Evensong can overcome that barrier. Not least because of the high quality of the music.
“Over the last 500 years our best composers have all cut their teeth creating Evensong music: the variety is astonishing and it’s all very, very good – great – music.”
For churches who do hold Choral Evensong services, he suggests doing some special events. “These can have a massive impact. For instance, put on an Evensong reception. They don’t cost much, but they fit in with the principle that says if you want to change the world throw a better party.
“Invitations to the mayor or journalists from the local press or head teachers from schools, hotels B&Bs; residents associations, universities, tourist offices, doctors surgeries, county councillors. You can invite all of these people and throw a party afterwards.
“We have seen these take place and they have always been a huge success.”
For more information visit www.choralevensong.org