It would have been nice to have attended choral evensong this evening, on the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, to hear the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, sung by the choir. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word:” a sense of completeness, of purpose, of order. Choral evensong on a weekday would have demanded a journey to Dublin, even on a Sunday its occurrence outside of Dublin is rare
In the North in the 1980s, Sunday evening worship in country parishes would have had a reassuring quality. A big countryman standing at the door handing out Books of Common Prayer and hymn books, a handful of people in the congregation, an organist playing familiar tunes, a clergyman reflecting on the texts read as the lessons of the day. There was always something special about church on Sunday evening; it was a gathering of enthusiasts, connoisseurs; it was without busyness and noise; it was unhurried, tranquil, reassuring.
The language of Evening Prayer, the Cranmerian cadences, the images evoked by the Songs of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of Simeon, the prose of the collects, has the capacity to lift one above the ordinariness of daily existence. The sense of continuity, of oneness with the preceding generations, of the communion of saints, has a power far more profound than the ersatz rock music and banal lyrics of the future Anglicanism proffered to us by those in the ascendancy in our church.
It is hard now to imagine the revolutionary nature of the Book of Common Prayer, of how putting worship into the hands of the ordinary people was a fundamental challenge to the hierarchy and the control of the church. The democratic revolution, represented by services accessible to anyone who picked up and opened the book, is now being reversed in a counter-reformation in the shape of the onward progress of worship “leaders.” Armed with media projectors and assisted by electronic musicians, they shape and control worship in their churches as powerfully as any medieval priest, regarding worship songs and their own utterances as preferable to prose that has stood the test of centuries.
What is odd is that the proposed formula for the future of our church has singularly failed to succeed beyond the suburbs. It has not brought in people by the thousand; it has not even filled most of the the places where it has been established. In the country, the regular services in the churches continue in their regular sequence. The prophets of doom, who told us in the 1980s that the old ways would disappear, made the wrong call, the churches constantly present while new ones have waxed and waned are those that are conservative, those that are traditional. Should anyone be disinclined to such a view, come to rural Ireland; we use the prayer book and church hymnal in our parish of three hundred and fifty people, at Christmas our congregations totalled four hundred.
The Prayer Book will still be with us when the last media projector is turned off.