Harrowing Of Hell
February 9, 2014


Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

In the name of God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

For nearly 600 years, people have sought out the experience we are having tonight, in cathedrals and churches across the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States, and many other sacred places. 

Today, evensong, or “evening song,” is said or sung daily at many cathedrals. Essentially, it thanks God for the day just past and asks God’s protection during the coming night. It is a quiet, reflective set of prayers, songs, and psalms, asking the worshiper to be still in spirit.  In its full expression, the choir sings much of the service on behalf of the congregation.

This service is intended for the glory of God and the spiritual benefits of those participating, whether by singing or simply sitting – listening and praying. Evensong is among the oldest liturgical worship forms still practiced in the Anglican Communion worldwide.  At Epiphany, we have Evensong several times a year and it is always a beautiful respite from the world, a break in our normal routine, and a calming sacred space in which to seek refuge.

Choral Evensong is a centuries old tradition dating to the time of the Protestant Reformation. It came about when Britain’s King Henry VIII wanted a divorce from Catherine of Aragon.  The Pope at the time rejected his request, but Henry did it anyway.  It was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer who authored the divorce plea and was instrumental in England’s break from the Catholic Church and subsequent forming of the Anglican Church of England.

Cranmer followed his king, and was the one who put together the Anglican liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer. Knowing it would not be politic (paul-i-tic) to appear “too Catholic,” but recognizing people were accustomed to praying at the canonical hours, Cranmer combined the evening prayers of Vespers and Compline into a single act of worship called Evensong.

Evensong is one of the quintessential worship forms of Anglicanism. Although the service is sung with some regularity in this country, its use in the United Kingdom is widespread and ongoing. Evensong is one of the most traditional services known; it is an art form of rare and mystic beauty that transports the worshipper to the roots of the Anglican Church, when the most beautiful music of England’s late Renaissance period was composed specifically for Evensong.

It is the sung form of the ancient office of Evening Prayer. In the UK Evensong is offered in many cathedral and collegiate chapels daily, sung by choirs, some of which rehearse and sing every day. It is an integral part of the ethos of Anglicanism as expressed throughout the world.

The traditional choirs for whom volumes of Evensong settings have been composed consisted of all male singers—from boys of seven to grown men. Although this choir formation continues strongly in the UK and parts of Europe, many mixed-gender choirs perform beautifully in collegiate chapels, parish churches, and cathedrals. Top-quality Girls’ Choirs are also now flourishing in many parts of the UK, after centuries of male-domination!  US residents are fortunate that outstanding Evensong services are sung with excellence in many parishes and cathedrals of our country.

The service emphasizes scripture and is similar to the service of Vespers in the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches. The traditional canticles, usually sung by the choir, are the Magnificat, the song the church remembers that Mary sang when the Angel Gabriel announced that she was to be the mother of Jesus, and the Nunc Dimittis, the song the church remembers that Simeon sang in the Gospel of Luke, when he beheld Jesus being brought to the temple to be presented to the Lord. Volumes of music have been composed over the centuries as settings for the canticles.

It has been said that the service of Evensong has brought more of humankind to the church than any other form of worship. In its finest state, Evensong is a significant jewel in the crown of liturgical worship.

A couple of years ago, Bishop Alan Wilson wrote an excellent article about Evensong for the Guardian, a British national daily newspaper.  In it, he talks about the ancient custom of clergy in observing matins and evensong every day.  The clergy were to ring the church bell as a public sign that the day was being observed, as well as an invitation to any parishioners to join them, if so inclined.  Bishop Wilson points out that most people were not so inclined. The funny thing is, evensong does nothing except mark the passing of another day, “a liturgical padding off to bed with a good novel and a cup of cocoa” according to Bishop Wilson.  He suggests “the English have perhaps rather relished the fact that evensong has no particular sacramental significance.” 

“Grace Davie, a sociologist of religion, sees the key feature of English religion as vicariousness – a profound sense of belonging without believing sustained over hundreds of years by clergy “saying one for me”. Evensong is the perfect vehicle for vicarious religion. Even the singing is done on your behalf, carving out a rich emotional space in which to think your own thoughts.”  I can imagine this service becoming almost a background for meditation for those who attend weekly or even daily, much like the sung compline service at St. Mark’s Cathedral every Sunday night.

As Bishop Wilson writes, “Today, evensong is the most used part of the Book of Common Prayer, largely untouched by the liturgical reforms of the past 40 years. It continues to inspire and support some of our culture’s most sophisticated musical endeavours. The passions that surround its observance are implicit, but it provides a firm peg on which to hang deeply personal reflections and memories.”

Tonight, we turn our hearts to the need in our community and the impact this Christian community can have upon the Kingdom of God beyond these walls.  As we say around here, in the Kingdom of God relationship is primary.  We are in relationship with the East Cherry Street YWCA, and with Operation Nightwatch, and Teen Feed, Wellspring, and others.  These relationships are so deeply important to the building up of the kingdom because they stretch us and take us to a new place.

As the music of this beautiful service moves in your hearts tonight, let us pray about the impact our abundance and blessings can have upon the world.  And let us be moved from a place of deep conviction to serve and support our neighbors with the gift of our time and our resources.

Wilson, Alan.  “The Book of Common Prayer, Part 5: The Importance of Evensong.”