In the provocatively titled article ‘Do Not Touch Me’: The Wisdom of Anglican Thresholds at The Telegraph, Steven Hough remarks:
The Church of England’s evening service, adapted after the Reformation from the monastic hour of Vespers, is a wondrous phenomenon. Even the word ‘Evensong’ is poetic, and it seems to chime in perfect harmony with England’s seasons: Autumn’s melancholy, early evening light; the merry crackle of Winter frost; Spring’s awakening, or the lazy, protracted sun strained through the warmed windows of a Summer afternoon.
Evensong hangs on the wall of English life like a old, familiar cloak passed through the generations. Rich with prayer and Scripture, it is nevertheless totally nonthreatening. It is a service into which all can stumble without censure – a rambling old house where everyone can find some corner to sit and think, to listen with half-attention, trailing a few absentminded fingers of faith or doubt in its passing stream…
Most religious celebrations gather us around a table of some sort. They hand us a book, or a plate, or speak a word demanding a response. They want to ‘touch’ us. Choral Evensong is a liturgical expression of Christ’s Nolle me tangere – ‘Do not touch me. I have not yet ascended to my Father’ (St. John 20: 17). It reminds us that thresholds can be powerful places of contemplation; and that leaving someone alone with their thoughts is not always denying them hospitality or welcome.
Last December, Catholicity and Covenant made a similar point in a blog about “reclaimers” and the renewed interest in choral compline and evensong:
Choral compline or evensong provide an accessible and non-threatening space within which young people can think about their lives and become accustomed to the idea of worship — to the possibility that worship might actually make sense.
In some ways, the Anglican choral tradition may well be entering a golden age — not necessarily a fresh, but certainly a refreshed and refreshing expression of Christian worship, fit for purpose in the 21st century.
That may appear counterintuitive, although recent research from the United States, which seeks to identify characteristic types of religious engagement among the young, suggests that a significant proportion of those becoming involved in Christian worship can be described as “Reclaimers”. Like many others, they seek religious experience rather than instruction or dogma, but, unlike some, they reject most of the elements of contemporary worship, seeking instead to reclaim established traditions, finding within them a refuge from the superficiality of much popular culture, and the onslaught of the commercial world.
This thesis finds strong support in the increased engagement with Anglican choral worship, where young people can reconnect with the depths of human experience, in a context that allows, indeed encourages, them to think things through for themselves. Unsurprisingly, under such conditions, many find an intelligent, imaginatively engaged Christian faith compelling.
Yes, the social context of Oxford and Cambridge is somewhat exclusive and Oxbridge college chapels are not parish churches. But there are points here worth considering – the place of non-eucharistic worship in giving space to meaningfully reflect on the Christian story; the counter-cultural nature of traditional liturgy, challenging the hegemony of the market and its culture; the phenomenon of the ‘Reclaimers’, suggestive of the extent to which in a post-Christendom society the Christian narrative can be authentically radical. And all of this, of course, is given expression through the Anglican tradition, which surely speaks of the potential of this tradition even in the midst of our debates and divisions.
In and amongst the photos of silver and smoke, we are invited to a mystery. Not so it can be explained away or talked to death—but that we can dive within it and find at the center of the mystery the key to our longing.