Many of us are inveterate choosers of favourites. We like to keep little mental lists of our top tens or best half-dozens. From TV programmes to takeaway treats we all have our favourites. It’s hardly surprising Desert Island Discs has been so popular for so many decades.
If I were asked my five favourite books, three favourite films or favourite painting I could probably name them after a bit of pondering and pruning. If I were asked to name my favourite church service - and I can’t imagine why that query has never arisen - I would have no hesitation. You can keep all the communions, solemn masses, carol services, weddings and funerals; I’m definitely an Evensong fan.
It is Choral Evensong (the choral aspect is a must) that I look out for whenever I try to catch a cathedral at work. I’ve also made a point of trying to time my visits to any spectacular-looking church to take advantage of this quiet, contemplative daily ritual.
Choral Evensong has a very calming blend of psalms, anthems, sung prayers and so on with the bulk of the work being undertaken by the choir. There’s a bit of standing and sitting to be performed, and often a brief sermon but it’s a shortish service offering opportunity for reflection while appreciating the music.
It’s a service I always seem to enjoy more in winter than in summer. The candlelight and the feeling of being enclosed in the shadows perhaps. It’s also a service which is traditional in its form and content and doesn’t really suit modernising - no guitar bands or big screens here.
But there is a bizarrely modern slant to this evening’s worship provided not from within the church but from without. The Mop Fair is in town and the bright lights and pulsating music of a huge ride are already in full swing right there on the doorstep as I arrive.
St Mary’s has a well-earned reputation for its music. I’ve been here for musical gatherings many times. It hosts some big names in the chamber music world and its organ recitals are always excellent, showcasing an instrument which boasts sets of pipes surrounding the nave like a very early stab at quadrophonic sound. I’ve also hear the church’s choir exchanging dawn choruses with a corresponding choir on the castle tower over the rooftops. The church also hosts a special Sunday service during the folk festival which I’ve attended.
Today the choral part of the proceedings is provided by an eight-strong male choir whose perfect intonation and fluid harmonies I could listen to all evening - with or without the occasional, surprisingly pleasing underscore from the waltzer outside. Perhaps for that reason, I’d hazard a guess that they’re giving it all a bit more volume than normal.
Thankfully, at the direction of the church staff who have doubtless seen it all before, we’re at the very far end of the church, listening from beyond the choir in the chancel so the fairground noise is less of an intrusion than it could be. The sight of multi-coloured bulbs flashing through the main door and reflected down the nave is oddly pretty.
The readings and prayers are given with a note of patient understanding but when we’re called to pray for those who are too ill to be able to attend the joy and revelry outside, I’m not entirely sure I don’t detect a hint of irony.
Choral Evensong, particularly in the darker winter months, always seems to disgorge me back into the busy streets in a way that underlines the busyness which carries on all around these quiet oases of calm. It’s a moment to pause and be thankful for the chance to catch a breath - and a connection with a deeper tradition - in our busy world.
For the dozen or so in attendance this was a chance just to find a quiet sanctuary in the midst of the storm - a storm in more than one sense as the massed black clouds start to deposit their heavy load. Pounding music, screaming youngsters on terrifying rides, flashing lights, the heavy smell of sweet fried food - I’m not hanging around as I scurry back to that other welcome oasis of quiet, my car.