Evensong At Westminster Abbey
by Mark Branch | Aug 15, 2011 3:23 pm
Posted to: Arts & Entertainment, Religion
The choir of St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church in New Haven is in England until Aug. 22, singing for church services at Westminster Abbey, Windsor Castle, and Gloucester Cathedral. Mark Branch is keeping a journal of the trip for the Independent.
When our choir walked into Westminster Abbey to rehearse for the first time, I was reminded of the scene in the movie Hoosiers when the awed small-town basketball team sees the giant arena where they will play the state championship. Their coach (Gene Hackman) has his players measure the court to show them it’s the same size as the one they’ve always played on; the size of the arena makes no difference.
But the size of Westminster — multiple times longer and taller than our little parish church on Whitney Avenue — does make a difference, and we knew we would need to adjust our volume upward and also tune our ears to hear each other and the organ properly in that massive space.
A couple of rehearsals helped us work that out before the first of our four services in the Abbey.
When we weren’t rehearsing in the church itself, we were given the run of a pair of rooms over the gate to the Abbey’s cloister — part of a structure that has been around at least 700 years. We learned from a pamphlet there that Sir Thomas More — the 16th-century English philosopher who ran afoul of King Henry VIII — was held prisoner in those very rooms before being taken to the Tower of London.
Like all visiting choirs, we were put in the hands of one of the abbey’s vergers, a good-humored guy named James. A verger, carrying a staff (James’s had a gold figure of Edward the Confessor on top), leads the procession into a service. He also explained to us how to walk around the altar into the choir section (crisp, right-angle turns — “no cutting corners”), when to say “Amen,” when to bow, when to stand.
The liturgy in our Episcopal church is not that different from that of the Church of England, but there are small differences in custom and wording that might have tripped us up unless we were warned. (We got tripped a couple of times anyway.)
In the end, the services went beautifully. We sang Evensong — an evening prayer service that is almost entirely sung by the choir — on both Saturday and Sunday, and we sang for the Abbey’s main Sunday morning service. A service of Sunday morning prayer known as Matins was sung by Schola Antiqua, a group of nine people within our choir that specializes in music from before 1600. All the services attracted a good crowd. Just as we had heard, Sunday services at the Abbey are very popular with tourists, especially since the services are free and the church is not open for sightseeing that day. And the Abbey is still basking in the attention it got as the site of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April.
We were well aware, of course, that this week had begun with Londoners rioting in the streets. Prayers for the police, for victims of violence, and for the rioters themselves were part of this morning’s intercessions. And the preacher at today’s Evensong, the Very Reverend Peter Judd, gently asked if a not-so-Christian gap between rich and poor in Britain had anything to do with the unrest.
The underlying causes of the rioting, whatever they may be, are beyond easy solutions. But some of us in the choir felt happy that we were helping to make a space for comfort and reconciliation after a very bad week.