Liturgical Centers: Illusion or Fantasy?

In late May, I participated in a faculty seminar in Cambridge, UK. On our first day, we attended evensong at King’s College. Evensong was listed as optional for most of the days of the retreat, at multiple Cambridge chapels.

For Episcopalians and Anglicans wondering why I’m making a big deal out of evensong, a brief biographical explanation might be helpful. The vast majority of my liturgical experience has been in the Byzantine Rite. Certainly, I have attended Mass and Eucharist in a variety of places, and immediately appreciated the Liturgy of the Hours at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville during my semester as a fellow there (in 2017). But I had never been to evensong, so King’s College introduced me to this tradition.

Prior to the trip, I knew of the choir’s international reputation, having heard them perform sacred music and Christmas carols. Joining them in evensong was a completely different experience. My first impressions – and these are important – evoked thoughts of Egeria’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and the reports of St. Volodymyr’s emissaries from their observation of liturgy in Hagia Sophia.

I sensed that I had the rare privilege of praying in an authentic liturgical center.

One could compose thousands of words in praise of evensong at Kings College. The service was solemn, and the ars celebrandi of the liturgical leaders was impeccable, elegant, eloquent, beautiful. Somehow, the ministers enunciated the orations without embellishment, but with enviable clarity. The special prayers were timely, intercessions for Muslims observing Ramadan. And, of course, the choir, and not just the stellar performance of the appointed canticles. The choir’s antiphonal chanting of the appointed psalm was otherworldly, unearthing the emotions in this stereotypically stoic Orthodox Christian.

It was heaven on earth, an ideal marriage of elegant space and sound. Only one element felt wrong: the requirement to remain still in one seat without ritual movement. But this is my Eastern Christian bias, and I was happy to obey the law of the rite, as a guest invited to join worship in a Church of the Western tradition.

Afterwards, I wrestled with a question: what are the limitations of such liturgical experiences? Can they really be duplicated, or establish patterns for others to follow?

Or are such liturgical experiences confined to urban centers that host thousands and millions of visitors, providing them with that taste of heaven, a happy memory, an experience that cannot and should not be copied?

Liturgical centers that influence practice far beyond the borders of their walls have always existed. Supporters of such centers might appeal to the capacity of a solemn ars celebrandi that somehow manages to fuse eloquence and clarity without demanding verbosity and creating a cult of personality focused on the ministers. Prayers employing only the words that are needed, that create space for the people of God to hear and listen for God’s response – an oft-ignored dimension of true prayer – are at a premium. Briefly, liturgical centers inspire and challenge everyone else to perform the community’s portion of the ritual with excellence.

Nevertheless, it is crucial to remember that human quality of prayer. The ministers and choristers at king’s College are flesh-and-blood humans, just like us. They confront the same daily challenges we engage each day. And together with them, we confront the harsh reality of the limits of excellent ars celebrandi: extraordinary liturgical aesthetics do not make extraordinary and holy people.

For those who visit reputable liturgical centers, returning home can deliver a letdown. The pastor deviated from the lectionary and used too many words in the sermon. The prayers were incomprehensible. The altos were flat and the choir was imbalanced.

As we try to overcome the letdown of human deficiencies in our local parishes, we can take solace in the one thing promised in each liturgy: the active presence and outpouring of divine grace by the one true God, the Just One in our midst. Inasmuch as one is inspired by the extraordinary aesthetics of a major liturgical center, there is no limit to our gratitude for the salvation given freely by our God.

Where, then, does that leave us with evensong at King’s College, or any liturgy celebrated at a major liturgical center? These centers encourage us to offer worship that inspires, edifies, and uplifts all who join us for prayer. But more than anything else, I will remain grateful for the privilege of being counted worthy as a guest invited to partake of a local liturgy that was a foretaste of God’s reign in this troubled world.

6 comments

  1. I know that the phenomenon you describe here will resonate with many. For musicians this occurs frequently after attending a conference with one’s peers.

    It always seems to me that there are two dangers when we have the opportunity to worship in these situations: 1) liturgiolatry, in which we confuse the modes via which we worship/pray with the object of our worship/prayer; 2) amnanesis (yes, I meant to spell it like “amnesia”), in which we forget that many of the folks in a smaller local setting often do not have the same liturgical-spiritual aesthetic sensibility or response as we do.

    Nowadays, I welcome these sorts of liturgical opportunities, but I simultaneously remind myself that I ought not envy them or think I should strive to emulate them.

  2. I would push back against the idea that complexity and virtuosity are primary markers of a liturgical center (musically speaking). As you note, some of the most striking music at King’s College was the chanting of the psalmody. In my experience, what makes a “liturgical center” special is an intense focus on the liturgy, without fluff, chatting, announcements, mis-steps, etc. I have most often encountered that in monastic communities, and in fact, the musical polish was sometimes lacking in those experiences. But the liturgy was mesmerizing because of the care, reverence, and focus by all present. A good example of what I’m talking about is the broadcast Vespers on French KTO (available on YouTube), which now that Notre Dame has burned feature a Parisian monastic community.

    If anything, I think sometimes the glorious music at some of these centers (Westminster Cathedral, etc.) may obscure what really is at the heart of making the liturgies memorable. And focus, care, attention to detail, and reverence can certainly be emulated by other churches – whether or not they have world-class choirs. I suspect that if King’s College liturgy was disrupted by casual chatting, announcements and interjections by the presider (as the Mass so often is), people would be less blown away. After all – most of us have access to world-class choirs in concert settings of musical perfection. What makes the liturgy different? That difference is what I would focus on in looking for an explanation of “liturgical centers”.

  3. What we must strive for in parishes is – the best that can be done with local resources. Much damage has been done to Roman Catholic worship over the years by attempts, particularly by musicians, to transplant worship music into an inappropriate situation. The experience of Mass in Scout Camp, while quite different from the above, can be comparably inspiring to participants. As can Taize, or Iona. We used to try for King’s College or the Sistine Chapel, over the last 50 years we have tried guitarists from Scout Camp. These experiences simply do not transplant. Attempts at transplanting look like badly grafted interuptions to the liturgy.
    It is even the case that Taize chants don’t transplant to Iona, which is cooler wetter and windier.

  4. One of the characteristics of a liturgical center like the Oxbridge collegiate chapels and UK cathedrals is the regularity and givenness of the liturgical offerings done there. The sheer daily-ness of choral Evensong struck me when I had the blessing of singing in a summer replacement choir at St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, for a week one summer. These weren’t special liturgical events for which a large audience was sought: it’s the daily worship in that place, offered in its fullness and precisely on time whether there were hundreds present or no one but choir and clergy. Evensong is unfolded and offered faithfully and beautifully because it’s time to do that and it’s what is done here. No need for wordy explanations from the provost. The psalms given for that evening are the ones sung, as regularly as the appearance and gradual movement of the evening sun on the stone and wood. Those attending may enter in as they wish, with rapt attention and devotion or simply letting themselves be washed and renewed during this offering by the waves of beauty and the words of Scripture and prayer. For attendees, some of this is similar to the Compline experience in St Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle, or other such offerings in parishes, where all are welcome to come in and simply be, not asked to contribute or perform but join in through their presence and some level of attention. Evensong’s effect can be immediate or can be a gradual soaking…mostly aesthetic or a focused experience of entering into a community’s intercession, or indeed a striking gift of a phrase or passage that convicts or excites.

  5. The strong faith and robust community life at most liturgical centers is possibly the most difficult thing to transplant, yet it buttresses everything else they do.

  6. I may be wrong, but I seem to remember reading that one of the things that led to the setting up of the Ordinariates was the impression that attending Evensong in Westminster Abbey made on Pope Benedict.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYmwvLOoQRU
    I was fortunate to sing Evensong daily (with the standard Anglican cathedral repertoire) when I was a member of my university chapel choir – it has left me with a love of the psalms that has never faded. Evensong was one of the reformers better ideas. Fifty years later the memories are still vivid.

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