Reflections on Reflections: Transcendence, Beauty, and the Quest for the Holy in Worship

Evensong in York Minster

Recently, two interesting articles have been published reflecting on the appeal that Evensong has for many millennials and young Christians (and non-Christians). One from The Living Church by the Rev. Clint Wilson, an Episcopal priest, speaks of the “gift” of Evensong, and its potential as a source for further involvement in God’s mission within the Church. While carefully noting that solely viewing Evensong “as a tool for outreach and for making disciples” is dicey because it “instrumentalizes Evensong, making it something other than a gift given to God as worship,” Wilson does admit that there is something enticing about the service, which through its worship in the beauty of holiness, offers to God the best that humans can muster. In this human offering, done out of love for God, there is no reason to discount someone (Christian or non-Christian) encountering God in a radical new way and being inspired to service in God’s Name. After all, we are spiritually fed in worship when we participate in liturgy, which then is supposed to send us out reinvigorated and re-made into a new whole as the Body of Christ. Can’t Evensong do this? Can’t sublime beauty offered in God’s Name, as a human attempt at depicting the perfection of God, which we can never even attempt to imagine?

The second recent article on Evensong is from the British news source The Telegraph, which details how attendance is booming among young people at many university Evensongs in the UK. This article suggests that the appeal of  Elizabethan language, beautiful music, and silence are welcome foils to the 140-character Twitter-style of communication in the rapidly moving modern world. The point is not that modern technology and its influence on religion and culture are bad, but simply that many young people are attracted to ways of worship that provide a respite from what they associate with the world outside of churches, so to speak.

I think that both of these articles are on to something that the Church has to offer, first and foremost to God, but secondly, for the sake of the many souls who are hungering for God. Evensong is only one example of many forms of timeless worship that avoid fads and popularism in order to connect with people. Evensong gently perpetuates a service of praise to God that has existed since the English Reformation, building on an even more ancient monastic tradition. The Office of Compline has also received a hearty expression of interest in some cities, and its revival in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (with service music components in The Hymnal 1982) is a great resource. One noteworthy example of Compline’s appeal is Christ Church, New Haven, where this beautiful ancient service draws young students in from their academic labors at Yale for a transcendent experience of God.

The point is that we have time-tested means of connecting people to God right under our very fingers. The past is not all bad. As the late scholar Jaroslav Pelikan once said, “Tradition [as opposed to traditionalism] is the living faith of the dead.” Where is the living faith in our musical tradition, and how might we bring it out, rather than hide it under a bushel?

Kyle Babin is an Administrative Assistant for the Center for Liturgy and Music.