Choral Evensong, lasting around 45 minutes, is a service held at the close of the day, allowing listeners time for peaceful contemplation.
It is the only Cathedral service led almost entirely by music, meaning that it is easy for a newcomer to participate, simply by listening. The interspersing of music between familiar passages of spoken liturgy lends a beautiful balance and completeness to the worship.
As an English language service, Evensong dates back to the time of the Reformation, using elements of the old monastic Offices of Vespers and Compline. The liturgy (a fixed set of words and movement) that the Church uses to this day was laid out in Archbishop Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, the first version of which appeared in 1549. The music took shape a few decades later, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
Cranmer created the liturgy of Evensong with the general public in mind, producing a short service which people could attend in place of several different monastic services. Its long history connects past ages to us in the present. As we come together in the choir stalls at the end of the day we join a vast community enduring both through time and in the same place, worshipping as generations of people have done before us.
The Cathedral uses the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the service contains the following elements: verses and responses, one or more sung psalms, and two lessons from the Bible – one from the Old Testament and one from the New. The Old Testament reading looks forward to the coming of Christ and is followed by the sung Magnificat (‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’), the words of the Virgin Mary celebrating the Incarnation. This joyful song links the two Testaments. After this, the second lesson is read, this time from the New Testament, telling of Christ’s life on Earth. The choir then sings the old man Simeon’s plea, the Nunc Dimittis: ‘Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace’. It is his song of fulfilment on seeing the infant Jesus in the Temple and recognising him as the Messiah.
The service continues with the Creed, verses and responses sung by the choir, the chanted Lord’s Prayer, spoken and chanted prayers (or ‘collects’), and an anthem appropriate to the Church calendar. There are sometimes one or two hymns sung by choir and congregation; and the organ is played before and after the service.
Choral Evensong at Peterborough Cathedral
Choral Evensong at Peterborough Cathedral takes place at 5.30pm from Monday to Saturday, and 3.30pm on Sundays. It is sung by the Peterborough Cathedral Choir during term time, and often by visiting choirs on Saturdays and during school holidays (when there is no visiting choir Evening Prayer is said). The music to be sung at the services in the coming week is listed on the Cathedral website.