Why I didn’t enjoy evensong at Durham Cathedral

I went to Choral Evensong at Durham Cathedral a few days ago. It was very beautiful, sure, but I felt that the choir stole the whole service from me, including – horribly enough – the Lord’s prayer(!) and the Magnificat (which just feels weird to take away from the people, considering its content). Here is the order that was used, from the Book of Common Prayer. Of that we got to say exactly two things; the Creed and the grace at the end.

I can (sort of but not really) understand that the choir sings the Biblical psalms. But just about every response? I felt unwelcome and alienated. I felt that it wouldn’t have mattered one bit whether or not I was there. And that is not a feeling you want to have in Church. I felt like I was at a concert, not a prayer. I have prayed vespers for years and I came to evensong to pray the service, and I was denied that.* There wasn’t a single hymn to sing either, and the anthem was of course also the prerogative of the choir for some reason. Suffice it to say that I probably won’t be back for another evensong at the cathedral. I’ll prefer to actual be allowed to pray vespers when I’m at vespers. It’s not supposed to be a show or a prerogative for ‘professionals.’ It is the prayers of the people but it felt like the prayers of an elite.

* Well, almost. As the choir sang the psalms and responses I didn’t listen. I said them myself, out loud. Well, not loud per se, but in a low voice. I was there to pray, I wasn’t there to listen to Palestrina.

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One thought on “Why I didn’t enjoy evensong at Durham Cathedral

  1. Unfortunately, this is the result of many English cathedrals deciding to butcher the 1662 prayer book (if they use it), by omitting the confession, Lord’s Prayer and kneeling at the beginning of Evensong and Mattins. Peter Hitchens talked about this 20 years ago in his The Abolition of Britain, so it has clearly been going on for a while.

    Many CoE clergymen are extremely hostile to the 1662 prayer book, and what they see as the excessively penitent nature of the confessions at Evensong and Holy Communion:

    MINISTER

    DEARLY beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy. And although we ought at all times humbly to acknowledge our sins before God; yet ought we most chiefly so to do, when we assemble and meet together to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul. Wherefore I pray and beseech you, as many as are here present, to accompany me with a pure heart and humble voice unto the throne of the heavenly grace, saying after me:

    A general Confession to be said of the whole Congregation after the Minister, all kneeling.

    ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father, We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord: And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

    The Prayer Book was wiped out in most parish churches from the 1960s onwards, but obviously it’s much harder to attack Cathedral services, so they just omit the incredibly penitentiary opening (which is the price of admission). As you rightly say, it leaves the service feeling like a concert.

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