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Requiem for Evensong

29 May 2017

Most Sundays on our way from church we listen to the radio (SAFm) in the car, and we usually catch the last part of that annoying opinionated man on Facts of Faith, and the first half of the broadcast Sunday service. Sometimes it was from our “home” parish of St Nicholas of Japan in Brixton, Johasnnesburg, but the last time they tried it to record it there there was too much interference from the transmitters at the Brixton broadcasting tower.

If we miss the announcement, we try to guess which church it is, but usually they all sound the same, with twanging guitars drowning out the words of rather sentimental “worship” songs, followed by a sermon.

But last Sunday was something completely different — Anglican Evensong from St George’s Church, Parktown, I think. At the beginning they announced that it was from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. It sounded a bit odd to have Evensong in the morning, And even odder to have it from the 1662 Prayer Book. I’ve been to St George’s a few times, though many years ago, and they used the somewhat revised South African Prayerbook, then.

All that is by way of introduction to this article, which I think is a classic, a must read for anyone interested in church history — A Church that Was by Peter Hitchens | Articles | First Things:

English Protestantism, with its secret enjoyment of the chilly, the grim, and the frugal, was killed in fifteen years by supermarkets and TV commercials, fake Italian restaurants, cheap holidays in Spain. The Church’s loveliest and most accessible service, Evensong, was killed off in many parishes because, in the days before VCRs, worshippers preferred to watch a dramatization of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga on TV.

If that rings any bells with you, go on and read the rest of the article. I think it’s not just true of England, but in some ways of South Africa too. Missiologists often speak of inculturation, the way in which Christianity becomes indigenous to a culture. What this article explains, however, is more like disinculturation.

It reminded me of 1973, when I was invited by the Revd Arnold Hirst to be assistant priest at St Martin-in-the-Fields Anglican Church in Durban North. I agreed, and on my first Sunday in the parish there were 200 people at Evensong. Well, not actually Evensong; back then it was something called Office II, but it was in the evening, and people came. Arnold Hirst was a bit scornful about two neighbouring parishes, Greenwood Park and Umhlanga. The former had dropped Evensong, and the latter, a new parish, hadn’t started it.

In 1975 the SABC began television broadcasts, and at the beginning of 1976 the full service was due to start. The Rector suggested that we drop Evensong (which by then was Evening Prayer from Liturgy 1975), because, he said, no one will come. He had a point. The average attendance on Sunday evenings was down to about 40, and full TV broadcasts hadn’t even started yet. We suspected that part of the reason was that he himself wanted to watch TV.

Evensong was stopped for a while, and then restarted, but by then only about 20-25 people were coming.

Then we became Orthodox, and we had Vespers, on Saturday evenings rather than Sundays, because the liturgical day begins at sunset the evening before. But many Orthodox parishes don’t have Vespers either. Some have Vespers and Matins combined, one following the other, in the Vigil service. Orthodox Vespers differs quite a lot from Anglican Evensong. It is always sung, and there is always incense, and there is never a sermon. I find it is a good thing to invite non-Orthodox friends to, to introduce them to Orthodox worship.

But this post is not about Orthodox Vespers, but about Anglican Evensong, and it seemed a bit strange to me that I should read this article the day after Anglican Evensong reappeared like a ghost from the past on the radio yesterday morning.

A few years ago in England there was Flash Evensong. People would call on cell phones and invite people to form a flash mob for evensong, or they would announce it on Twitter @FlashEvensong. But now it seems that even that has died. The last post there was in 2012.



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