When Palestrina wrote his Mass settings and motets, or J.S. Bach his cantatas and passions, they could not have imagined the ways in which their music would be heard today. We can now access sacred music in our living rooms, at work and on the commute: an hour-long compilation of the choir of New College, Oxford performing the Agnus Dei has four-and-a-half million views on YouTube.
Spotify and smartphones may eliminate the need to visit a church or chapel to hear these works, but visit we still do. While overall church attendance has fallen by two-thirds since the 1960s, attendance at traditional choral worship in the UK is on the rise, and has been for the past two decades.
Evensong services at Magdalen College Chapel in Oxford, where I have the privilege of ministering, are resolutely popular. Numbers at our weekend Evensongs are well into the three figures, and have been for around 20 years. My colleagues in several other college chapels report similar turnouts.
The trend is not confined to university towns. It is thanks largely to their weekday choral services that Britain’s 42 cathedrals have seen such a remarkable resurgence in popularity: figures are up by a third in a decade, and that’s excluding the tourists.
Evensong has barely changed since the publication of the Book of Common Prayer in 1662. It is perhaps not a coincidence that attendance at traditional choral services started to surge as modern life began to seem most removed from their world of candles, canons and communal reflection: Evensong offers an antidote to the modern age of instant digital gratification.
For a generation who struggle to sit in silence without taking out their phones, quiet reflection is hard to come by. So, too, is community: under-35s are more lonely than those over 55. Attending a choral service offers an oasis in the busy working day — not just because it is an escapist 45 minutes, but because it is a participation in something significantly other to ourselves. It points towards the transcendent, and forges a bond between all in the sacred space by the shared experience of the liturgical rite.
For me, the music enhances the words of the service, giving beauty and character to the heartfelt words of the Psalms, to the joyful thanksgiving in Mary’s song of praise and liberation (the Magnificat) and to the prayers of the Collects. But you need only glance at the statistics to know that not all of those who attend Evensong are Christian. Choral services do not coerce the attendee into any particular doctrinal confession: even Richard Dawkins admits to having a ‘certain love’ for Evensong. People are free to choose the extent to which they engage with the worship, which is in many respects more passive than in Sunday services: at Evensong, the focus is on listening, and worshippers do not take communion.
What some will hear through Christian ears is still beautiful heard through secular ones. Choral music within the liturgy is one of our greatest cultural and religious heritages; it is every bit as sincere and meaningful on a wet Tuesday in March as in a Christmas Nine Lessons and Carols. Pop in.