A colleague at Villanova (one much more cultured than myself) suggested that I attend an Evensong service at St. Paul’s while I was in London. Well tonight was the night we had the opportunity to go, and it was beautiful.
Before I share the Evensong experience, I thought it might be helpful to offer a little bit of history about St. Paul’s Cathedral.
St Paul’s Cathedral, London, is an Anglican cathedral, the seat of the Bishop of London and the mother church of the Diocese of London. It sits on Ludgate Hill at the highest point of the City of London. Its dedication to Paul the Apostle dates back to the original church on this site, founded in AD 604. The present Cathedral, the masterpiece of Britain’s most famous architect Sir Christopher Wren, is at least the fourth to have stood on the site. It was built between 1675 and 1710, after its predecessor was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, and services began in 1697.
Famous events at the Cathedral have included the funerals of Admiral Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Sir Winston Churchill and Baroness Thatcher; jubilee celebrations for Queen Victoria; peace services marking the end of the First and Second World Wars; and the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer.
One of the best known images of London during the war was a photograph of St Paul’s taken on 29 December 1940 during the “Second Great Fire of London” by photographer Herbert Mason, from the roof of a building in Tudor Street showing the cathedral shrouded in smoke. Lisa Jardine of Queen Mary, University of London, has written:
Wreathed in billowing smoke, amidst the chaos and destruction of war, the pale dome stands proud and glorious—indomitable. At the height of that air-raid, Sir Winston Churchill telephoned the Guildhall to insist that all fire-fighting resources be directed at St Paul’s. The cathedral must be saved, he said, damage to the fabric would sap the morale of the country.
And the Cathedral was saved.
So there is a rich history associated with St. Paul’s and one of its traditions is Evensong. Here is a description of the service from the church’s web site:
This is the one Cathedral service which is led almost entirely by music, with the Choir singing preces and responses, the psalm for that evening, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis of the Canticles and also an anthem.
The Magnificat (My soul doth magnify the Lord) is a celebratory and revolutionary text spoken by the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. The Nunc Dimittis (Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace), is the old man Simeon’s song of fulfilment on seeing the baby Jesus in the Temple and recognising him as the Messiah. It is also a prayer for our peace and protection.
Readings from the Old and New Testaments are led by the Canon in Residence and the prayers are led by a Minor Canon. On Sundays a sermon is also preached.
Choral Evensong takes place in the stalls of the quire, towards the high altar, a space which allows the music to resonate perfectly and foster a sense of calm. As there are usually more people than can be accommodated in the quire, some also sit in the seats under the dome.
We were lucky enough to sit in the stalls, right next to the choir. This allowed for a much more intimate experience, we felt like we part of the service.
Here are the songs that were part of today’s Evensong, along with the ones noted above (Magnificat and The Nunc Dimittis).
- Introit: Scapulis suis Malcolm Responses Radcliffe
- Canticles: Fifth Service Weelkes Psalm 94
- Anthem: Great Lord of lords Gibbons
It was a beautiful service, and the Cathedral itself is magnificent. It is by far the most spectacular church I have ever seen; here are a couple of pictures I found on the web that offers some sense of its beauty.
Following the pictures is a video of the beautiful voices of the St. Paul’s Cathedral.