Monday, April 28, 2008

Evangelical Evensong

The congregation of College Church in Wheaton enjoyed a beautiful service of Evening Prayer last night. We could have called it Vespers; we could have called it Evensong. It seemed best to call it by the simple and descriptive, “Evening Prayer.” For one thing, we have been emphasizing and incorporating prayer into our evening services since the year began. For another, there is something that still sounds a bit like performance in Choral Evensong. Ultimately, though there is choral music prepared, and the prayers also by the ministry staff, it is a service of prayer for all who attend – who sing, listen, participate, and receive.

Using the historical pattern, the Chancel Choir sang Psalm 122 in an Anglican chant (“Let Us Go to the House of the Lord” Benjamin Hutto), and responses to the scripture readings were Vaughan Williams’ Magnificat and nunc dimittis. For a prayer anthem we sang the lovely Stephen Paulus “Pilgrims’ Hymn” and for the offering (not the ‘offertory’!) DuruflĂ©’s “Ubi caritas.” The Choir was in fine form and sang beautifully.

But it was the hymn singing of the congregation that really carried the service. Not to take anything away from the lovely expressivity of the chant (they did this so well) or the mystical character of the Paulus piece (never better by this choir). Certainly not to discount any of the choral singing. But to hear the congregation sing evening hymns, the Lord’s Prayer (to LANGDON), and to end the Prayers with “I am Thine, O Lord,” was a glory. Then to top it off, Robert Hobby’s organ setting for congregation, “Abide with me,” well it was all so satisfying. The service was framed by a harp solo prelude and a freshly written postlude on EVENTIDE, for organ and harp.

The College Church ministry residents and pastors also brought deeply personal praying into the service. The Confession, Petitions, and Thanksgiving were prepared from scripture and congregational life. They had a Prayer Book character but were entirely from pastoral hearts. No Anglican would have confused them for BCP, but would have been at home with them. And they were completely natural for this congregation, where public prayer is taken very seriously and joyously. A 20-minute sermon was the perfect length to make this the "compleat worship service."

The response to this service has already surprised me. Where we go from here is still to be considered. But I think we have learned that we need not fear a form so long as we bring our biblical and pastoral hearts to it, and treat the congregation as full participants in the tapestry of prayer and worship.

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