This past Tuesday evening, my wife and I found ourselves outside St Paul’s Cathedral, London, 15 min before Evensong. Being lovers of Evensong, how could we resist? Plus, it meant getting into one of the grand churches of Anglicanism without having to pay an evil fee.
We were cheerily directed to the Choir where we sat on a little bench in front of the stalls (which were full already — but the little bench had better back support!). We walked through this glistening white space, beneath its large dome where music can resound and ring like the voices of the angels of heaven. In the choir we sat in the gilded space, mosaics gleaming down from above us, the Holy Table with its canopy at the far end.
I like the Holy Table at St. Paul’s; it has yet to be marred by a modern, swanky cross; let us hope it stays that way. It is beneath a large canopy, calling to my mind the ciborium in the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. Hanging from the canopy are carved cherubim, calling to one’s mind the Temple of Solomon (although his would have had a more Near Eastern feel, not Renaissance). These cherubim bring to mind the reality that Christ’s sacrifice, which we commemorate and (in a way) recapitulate in the Eucharist, is the culmination and fulfilment of Israel’s Temple worship of old.
I also noted that in the aisles flanking the choir, the ceiling is decorated with mosaics of angels. Appropriate — a reminder that we are joined by them as we worship Christ on his heavenly throne, the God-Man depicted in the mosaic on the half-dome above the altar.
But my words cannot do the Baroque majesty of St Paul’s justice. The cathedral website can at least try.
Evensong, as you well know, is an ancient service. The creators of the pew cards at St Paul’s believe that it traces its roots to the monastic worship developed in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. However, as Robert Taft points out in The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, it has its roots in earliest Christianity, possibly even Judaism, and was developed both in monastic hours of worship and in Cathedral worship, the latter being the time for the whole Christian community to gather in prayer before and after the work of the day.
The service as it was sung at St Paul’s that night was substantially Thomas Cranmer’s as originally produced in 1549 — a simplification of the two services from the Roman Breviary of Vespers and Compline with the addition of space for two substantial readings of Scripture. And, of course, in English.
Although they cut a few things, such as the prayer of confession at the beginning (despite the Prologue to the service saying that ‘we ought most chiefly so to do’ at times of common worship), one of the strengths of this service, in contrast to Westminster Abbey the night before as well as to St Mary’s Cathedral and a couple of Edinburgh’s Anglo-Catholic communities, was this very fact that the service was entirely in the English tongue, rather than ‘in a tongue not understanded of the people’, thus following Article of Religion 24. Well done, St Paul’s. Keep it up.
Furthermore, they provided us with Psalters to use during the service. Thus, although we did not join for the Psalm-singing (the congregation only joined in for the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed), we could follow along. This made the Evensong feel more like a church service and less like a choir concert — unlike Westminster Abbey the night before.
After the requisite collects, we were led in a few prayers, including a lovely one from the Venerable Bede.
The choir was magnificent. It was mixed men’s and boys’ voices, bringing us the full range of luxuriousness and texture and beauty that the English choral tradition can provide. Thus we found Cranmer’s beautiful words — paired, of course, with Coverdale’s beautiful Psalter — matched with beautiful music in a beautiful cathedral. If there had been more congregational worship, perhaps the perfect production of the BCP?
Now, St. Paul’s Cathedral was begun in 1675 after the Great Fire of 1666 and finished in 1711. These dates are notable as we consider this 350th year of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the most influential and widely-used edition of the Prayer Book for three centuries of Anglicanism, and still substantially the Prayer Book of the Church of England (though never of the Scottish Episcopal Church).
This Prayer Book of Prayer Books balances Catholic with Reformed in a way never seen before, avoiding the extremes both of Cromwell’s Puritan rites and of Mary I’s Sarum rite.* It has room for beauty, though, beauty in the language, beauty in the humility of penitent sinners making their confession, meekly kneeling upon their knees. Beauty in Coverdale’s Psalter. Beauty in the phrasing of the Collects, in the Prayer of St. Chrysostom, in the majestic language of 1611’s KJV to be used for the Lessons.
Alas, however, this period of the apparent triumph of the Prayer Book, the period of the Restoration of the Monarchy, the days of rebuilding St. Paul’s, are precisely when the Anglican experiment changes tack. Having produced a liturgy that is theologically consonant with the Reformed point of view, the Church of England at this time makes it possible for non-conformists to preach and worship outside of the Anglican hierarchy and to construct their own chapels. Thus, the bulk of the successors to the Puritans eventually leave, removing their voice from the Anglican conversation and becoming Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists.
This is the backdrop for Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s where you can hear sung Cranmer’s beauteous liturgy beneath a gilded mosaic. These figural representations of angels (not Saints, my friends!) and of our true King, Jesus Christ, are part of an Anglican conversation where Laud and Charles I (the Church of England’s sainted martyr!) are triumphant, and where majesty can rule as the Church seeks a balance between tradition and reform, part of an Anglican conversation diminished by the loss of some of her participants.
*Technically the Sarum Use of the Roman Rite.