Why are we here?
Why are we here? 9 July 2023
A sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
(2 Samuel 2:1-11, Luke 18:31-19:10)
Why are we here? I don’t mean “Why are we here” in the existential sense of “What is the meaning of life,” but “Why are we here” in a literal sense. Why are we here this afternoon, in Salisbury Cathedral at this service of Choral Evensong? I would imagine that, for each of us gathered here, there might be a different answer to that question, and that there could be as many answers as there are people, even if some common themes were to emerge.
Yesterday, after Choral Evensong, I met the author Ken Follett, who attended the service. I’ve read his famous novel, Pillars of the Earth (1989), set in medieval times, about the building of the fictional Kingsbridge Cathedral- so I was quite excited to meet him. Follett is clearly absolutely inspired by and loves medieval Cathedrals such as this one. It was this love that inspired him to write the Kingsbridge novels.
Follett does not believe in God and would never receive communion, but describes himself as a “lapsed atheist.” He grew up in a repressive sect of the Plymouth Brethren, an experience he describes in a piece he wrote for Granta Magazine back in 2016 entitled “Bad Faith,” and so has good reason to be wary of religion. But there was something that continued to draw him to Cathedrals and other churches, long after he’d finished writing Pillars of the Earth. He found himself enjoying church services, and his favourite is Choral Evensong.
“Why do I go?” he writes in the Granta article. “The architecture, the music, the words of the King James Bible, and the sense of sharing something with my neighbours all work together. What they create, for me, is a feeling of spiritual peace. Going to church soothes my soul. And, I have at last figured out, that is exactly what it’s supposed to do.” (Granta Magazine of New Writing, Issue 137, Autumn 2016).
I’m not surprised that Follett is a fan of Choral Evensong. My first time attending Evensong was when I was 14, in our village church. It was shortly after my grandad had died, and my mum wanted to reconnect with Church and faith, so- being from a musical family- my mum, sister and I all joined the choir. I still remember, at a formative time when I was discovering Shakespeare and other beautiful works of English literature at school, how I was blown away by the music and the language of Evensong when I experienced it for the first time. Even though the congregation wasn’t huge, it didn’t matter- just to sing, and be part of it, was amazing.
I don’t think that I was totally unique, as a young person, to feel that way. In a choir I sang in a bit later, I remember a fellow soprano saying that- even though she was not church going, or religious- for her there was something different about singing a service, like Evensong, from singing in a concert, say- something that moved her, and that she liked- even though it was hard to describe exactly what that was.
What is it about Evensong that touches us so deeply? What is it that speaks to a young person, to a writer who’s deeply sceptical about religion, or a singer who is not a church goer?
It clearly has something to do with the awe-inspiring, resonant beauty of ancient buildings such as this one. And it has something to do with the power of music and the thrilling sound of the human voice. Evensong has inspired some of this country’s greatest composers, whose music speaks to our emotions and seems to lead us effortlessly into prayer.
It may also have something to do with hearing and reflecting on the ancient wisdom of Scripture, that’s at the heart of the service. We begin with the Psalms, the great prayer book of the Bible, and then move on to another part of the Hebrew Scriptures, telling us of God’s relationship with his “chosen people,” in this case the history of King David and his anointing as king of Judah in 2 Samuel. Then on to the New Testament, telling us of Jesus Christ. Evensong leads us through the story of salvation, and it draws us into that story, just as the characters we heard about in Luke’s Gospel- a poor blind beggar and a young, rich and presumably quite corrupt chief tax-collector- are drawn into it by Jesus himself.
Perhaps the appeal of Evensong also has something to do with its history rooted in the daily worship of Cathedrals and monasteries. Evensong was created in the sixteenth century and is the fusion by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer of the two ancient services of Vespers and Compline. The rhythm of daily prayer he drew upon has been tried and tested and has sustained people for hundreds of years. At Evensong we tap into that tradition and feel part of something much greater than ourselves, this continual offering of prayer and worship. There is something significant about people coming together for this shared experience, or the sense of reaching out towards something bigger or beyond ourselves, however one would choose to describe that.
This week, Year 8 Students in our Cathedral School had their last day of term, and one of our choristers reflected that it’s the sense of doing something together, and of other people relying on you, that they will take away from their experience of singing services like Evensong here day by day- of being part of that collective experience and shared offering of worship.
A further reason why, in an age of decline in Church going, Choral Evensong retains its appeal it’s largely passive- unless you happen to be singing in the choir of course, or leading it! It doesn’t demand too much of us; in that sense, Evensong speaks perhaps to an era in which many people see themselves as spiritual not religious. There’s very little in it for the congregation to say or do; but if we allow it to, Evensong allows a moment of peace in our busy lives when we can quietly bring ourselves and our lives before God. Perhaps more than any other of the regular services, it’s about handing ourselves over to God, and creating the time and the space for God to speak to us.
In another of his books, about Notre Dame Cathedral (Notre Dame, 2019), Ken Follett talks about other authors to be inspired by Cathedrals, such as Victor Hugo or Anthony Trollope, or William Golding whose novel The Spire is of course based here on Salisbury. Each writer, he comments, is captivated by something different. For him, it’s about what motivated people to work on these vast, complicated buildings. The Cathedral, he writes, is “a kind of communal enterprise that captures the imagination of an entire society” (Notre Dame, Chapter 6). It’s about “what people can achieve when they work together.” But there’s also the spiritual element, “a human being’s need to aspire to something above the material life.” Now, like pilgrims of the past, we come to Cathedrals to see and gasp at their beauty and to educate ourselves, but we come also, he writes, to allow ourselves “to experience something miraculous, otherworldly, eternal.”
I finish with a quotation from another, very different, writer about Cathedrals, Joanna Trollope- and as we listen to her words about Choral Evensong and Cathedrals, may we hand ourselves over to God, to speak to us, as we seek the peace that this brings:
Every man and woman in England has a birth-right. Walk into any cathedral at around teatime, on just about any day of the week, and you will hear the most exquisite music beautifully sung. In the streets outside people are scrambling to get to the shops before they close, unaware perhaps that, behind this decorative medieval façade, a religious event of the most timeless beauty is about to take place. Choral Evensong is part of our cultural heritage… Something extremely precious, to be jealously guarded by those who sometimes need to be still, to think upon their divine creator, and to discover the immense capacities of the human soul.