In 1549 the first English prayer book was printed, the work of the scholar Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII and Edward VI, and martyred under the rein of Mary. This prayer book took worship from Latin, the language of the priests, bring it into English and the vernacular of the day; it emphasised Scripture as the core of worship and is still the basis of how we as Anglicans express our faith today.
A great gift that Cranmer has left the Anglican Church is that of Evensong: a drawing together of the monastic services of Vespers and Compline, the prayers to complete each day before the monastic community roused at midnight to welcome the new day with Matins. Evensong is a variation of Evening Prayer, our own tradition’s way of marking the ending of the day and preparing for the coming of night. Evensong allows us to step away from the bustle of our daily lives, from the press of tasks undone and problems unsolved, from the worries of tomorrow, to end our day in reflection and prayer.
Along with readings from Scripture, the singing of the psalms is a core of Evening Prayer, and therefore of Evensong. These ancient songs give us words for joy and lamentation, for fear and loneliness and ecstatic praise of the Divine creator. The words of psalmists long-dead not only teach us of the greatness and love of the God we praise every time we sing; they tell us too of our own response to God, giving words to our very human lives as the people of the Divine. In singing the psalms, we are bringing to God our own experience of light and darkness, of suffering and celebration; we are offering these to God, and we are hoping that we sing in such a way to make the words come alive for ourselves and the congregation who share that sacred space with us, who allow us to colour their worship with our music.
The other joy of Evensong is, of course, the canticles — the Magnificat, the incredulously joyful song of the newly pregnant Mary, and the Nunc Dimitus, the song of Simeon rejoicing quietly at the dawning of the light of Christ. In these two canticles, the promise of God and its fulfilment in Jesus can be summed up, and we use music to re-tell, every Evensong, the story of the coming of the light of the world.
We have sung three Evensong services in as many days, and while we are often pre-occupied with the music, we must also be focused on ensuring that our singing is at least in some way worthy of the honour of contributing to communal worship. We are privileged to be singing in such a cathedral, and to be a part of people’s reaching out to the Divine. And we are given a gift each Evensong, as we join the long line of God’s people reaching to heaven and trying, in our best imperfect way, to bring glory to God.