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Evensong sees a surge even as British church attendance declines

By: Catherine Pepinster Religion News Service
September 17, 2017 Updated: September 17, 2017 at 4:15 am
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Caption +
Choristers Abby Cox, from left, Poppy Braddy, and Chloe Chawner practice for an Evenson performance on Jan. 22, 2014, in Canterbury Cathedral, in Canterbury, England. The singers were part of the first all female choir to perform at the cathedral, ending the centuries old all-male tradition. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

LONDON - The line of locals and tourists stretches about 400 people long, and one might think they are waiting to get into a play or museum.

But these people want to go to a church service.

In Britain, where churchgoing is mostly in decline, what has drawn the crowd on a late afternoon in August is evensong, the hymn-heavy evening service of the Anglican church taken from the Book of Common Prayer. This line was headed for the service at the famed Westminster Abbey, sometimes called England's parish church.

Abbey officials estimate that there can be up to 700 people at evensong when the main choir is singing. Similar crowds can be found across Britain in cathedrals such as York Minster and St. Paul's Cathedral in London, and in Oxford and Cambridge.

But even in much smaller churches, evensong attendance is growing, attracting people who might otherwise never enter a church, and bucking the British trend in declining congregations. Some clergy are hopeful that it might be a way people are drawn into a deeper relationship with the church.

What's behind the evensong upsurge? Much credit goes to a website, Choralevensong.org, that helps people find a service near them. Since its creation last year, more than 500 churches, cathedrals and colleges have been included, each with their own pages. Hundreds more have requested to be added.

Around 11,500 visits a month are made to the site, with interest growing steadily. After listing on the site, one church found the numbers turning up for evensong rose from 20 to 200.

Said Guy Hayward, the editor of the Choral Evensong website: "A lot of people don't want to directly engage with the church, they don't want to go in through the front door, as it were. They are looking for a side entrance and choral evensong provides that."

Evensong is a creation of the English Reformation, derived from monastic prayer traditions. Its liturgy is drawn from the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer, created by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1549. It usually lasts about 45 minutes and includes Scripture readings, psalms and the Nunc Dimittis (Song of Simeon) and Magnificat, both taken from the Gospel of Luke.

Some of the greatest choral music sung at evensong was written at the time of Queen Elizabeth I, soon after its liturgy was first designed, by composers such as Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.

At Westminster Abbey, the crowds sat near the choir and in temporary seating placed next to the high altar - at which Prince William married Kate Middleton in 2011 - to accommodate the overflow.

Among those attending was Julia Mellow, from Adelaide, Australia. "I am not really religious," she said. "I came for the music and the history."

Another couple, Lee and Marie Johnson, from Colorado, described themselves as more spiritual than religious, and the spirituality of the service appealed to them. "There is a reverence about it," said Lee Johnson. "It is a moment when you can pause in your daily life. When you can stop. The choral music is so important for that."

"It brought tears to my eyes," said his wife. "I used to go to church more when I was young but the rules, the judging of people put me off. But the church here, with a service like this, brings people together."

The dean of Westminster, John Hall, described evensong as a starting point for some to engage with Christianity.

"Even though the majority of the worshipers will be unfamiliar with Evensong, there is generally a very respectful and even prayerful atmosphere," he said. "We do from time to time have evidence of the impact of the experience. I profoundly believe that attending a beautiful act of worship whether Evensong or the Eucharist has converting power."

Then there's the more practical reason to come to evensong. Cathedrals in England often charge high admission fees - about $25 in some cases - so some tourists opt instead for evensong, which is free.

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