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It takes an outsider

February 3, 2012

Dr Perm, after reading the article below, asked: “Why are Christians such [fools]?”

I blame John Calvin and particularly John Knox, who took asceticism, stripped it of the mysticism given it by the Desert Fathers, and imposed the resulting grim practice upon men and women of good faith, trying to lead Christian lives in a fallen world. No Christmas, no candles, no smiling.

Our point: Christians can be such fools because they too often insist on believing that If it feels good and most people like it, it has no value.1

We disagree. Those of us who write this blog, as our readers will be well aware, believe not only that God can be seen through the beauty of worship and that He can touch the seeker via that beauty, but also that worship is at its most potent when the personalities of the individuals involved are the least visible. As George Balanchine correctly noted, “Classicism is enduring because it is impersonal.”

The liturgy of the Church, when observed daily according to the Book of Common Prayer, is the very definition of that enduring classicism. In not forcing the persona of the participants upon the faithful or the seeker, it is the very definition of evangelism and outreach as well.

Thus, we republish an article, composed by an Australian atheist, on the simple glory and power of Evensong.

1. Case in point: Our Father, who ART IN HEAVEN. Most everyone likes it, it’s a brilliant translation of the Gospel’s original text, and yet the conscientious bureaucrats who run the Church want to change it for reasons that, by and large, no one cares about. If a good Christian will overlook imperfections and love his neighbor, or his child, or his spouse, why can the Church not do the same with our perhaps imperfect but utterly lovely prayer?

Apostates for Evensong

By Dick Gross, published by the Sydney Morning Herald on September 5, 2011.

St Paul's Cathedral Choir, Melbourne.

There are many crimes that one would flay the Anglican Church for. The heinous felony that concerns me today is an appalling sin of omission. I accuse the Anglican Synod of concealment.

The secret of which I speak is Evensong. Daily in Anglican Cathedrals around the world, observant Anglicans sing and chant their way out of the working day in a short but outstandingly beautiful ceremony known as Evensong. It is a quotidian calming. It is an opportunity for rest and reflection at the end of a day’s travails. It would move the iciest atheistic soul as it indeed moves mine. In fact, I am a bit of an Evensong junkie having gravitated these Evensong ceremonies in the great choral centres of Anglicanism.

More accessible than the Sistine Chapel, more inspiring than the Western Wall, more easily reached than the Dome of the Rock, sung Evensong represents at once the most rousing and soothing aspects of faith.

In my home town of Melbourne, Evensong is celebrated at St Paul’s Cathedral at 5.10 (during school term) frequently to an almost empty house. St Paul’s is the sort of place that can look empty even when it is full. On occasions, the only attendees at Evensong might be the choir and other functionaries. This is an abomination. It is criminal PR neglect. And the risk is that if no one goes, it might be canned. That would be a disaster – a financially rational disaster but a disaster nonetheless. Evensong is practised less regularly in other cathedrals for example Sydney’s is on Thursday at St Andrews. Perth’s St George has one on Sunday.

Evensong also has costumes, solemnity and parading. In the capital city cathedrals, there will be a wonderful choir. In Melbourne, the choir is competent at times verging on sublime. Originally formed in 1888, the choir today consists of 20 boys (on scholarships) and 16 men. It must cost a fortune to fund.

When I sit in the cathedral, I see history, music and architecture paraded before me. One of the great duties of faith is to be the carrier of culture. Religions are the repository of our wonderful liturgical music and the majestic language of the King James Bible. The soaring architecture evokes images of both the Medieval roots of our European history and the Victorian English who, whether we like it or not, shaped much of the Australian persona. The art and painting, while less than genius, are the greatest of religious art (unfortunately to be found in other places). And the music is, for aficionados, deeply moving. It is the total package.

One can sit there at the end of the day and drain your brain of all earthly distractions and let it recover in this precious anachronism. The cavernous acoustics carry the peerless multilayered choral offerings to you and through you.

The irony is that when I speak to some Christians about Evensong they sort of pooh pooh it, arguing that such ceremony is about form not substance. They are Bible-centric believers for whom the archaic liturgy is a distraction from the text. I demur. Part of the power of faith is the excellent methods they have of helping the congregation transcend the daily grind. Music and architecture can be a legitimate method for reaching an emotional rather than logical state.

One of my most touching Evensong experiences was in King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. It was packed and I was stuck in the back. In front of me were two women — a mother and daughter. The daughter cried throughout. Clearly some trauma had assailed her and she and her mum had repaired to Evensong for sustenance. Parental love twinned with Evensong was the chosen balm. I hope it worked – her heaving sobs trouble me to this day.

If you go, you can think spiritual thoughts, or like I do, think secular thoughts about the history of Australians who carried the culture to this land, struggled to build mighty edifices and bothered to preserve this timeless liturgy. And even the costs of our culture are manifest with the war memorabilia and token nods to indigenous culture. It is a complete picture of a part of Australia that is disappearing down the drain. For all this sacrifice and achievement, the modern Australian ignores it. The poor old demoralised Anglican Church lavishes this jewel with institutional neglect. And we are in danger of losing what we don’t appreciate.

Well I am sick of it. I believe we need to support this glory box even though it goes right against my godless ways. I propose that we have a society, Atheists and Apostates for Evensong. And I further suggest that we gather and attend sung Evensong in every city that it is sung. None of us should let this atrophy continue.

Please blog me now on what gives you feelings of transcendence.
What gives you a sense of the non-logical, the spiritual and the numinous?

Is the search for mystical highs a noble one or merely a distraction from biblical truths?

Is it bad for Evensong that an incorrigible atheist loves it?

What rocks your spiritual world?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mark permalink
    February 4, 2012 20:13

    The students in my confirmation class, all grades 6 through 8, were given the opportunity to paraphrase the Lord’s Prayer in a group exercise. Every last one of them agreed that “who art in heaven” and every use of “thy” needed to be retained.

    I do hope that no one will try to expunge their sense and need for beauty in worship.

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