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.