On Sunday nights, walking back from the library or otherwise, Oxford students can always tell when a college chapel is nearby because a bell will be ringing. If it is quiet enough, they might hear a choir singing. These are not familiar songs, but long hymns of soft, resonant cadences. The song titles and the people who wrote them matter far less than the effect they have on their audience. If one stops to listen, they will soon feel at ease, and may even be filled with a sense of absolute peace. For all the talking that happens in Oxford classes and the pubs, some of the most powerful moments come when no one is saying anything at all, and faint echoes of chorus carry through the streets.
This is called Evensong, it happens every Sunday night. Most colleges, including Hertford, hold Evensong for about an hour beginning at 5:45 p.m. By then it’s dark, but the Hertford Chapel is hard to miss with its glowing stained glass windows. The chapel looks small from the outside, but inside it is a stately room with high ceilings, marble floors and wooden pews that face each other. Passing through red curtains that reach all the way to the ceiling, visitors take their seats before the service beings. Students are frequent observers, but occasionally older couples will come to listen. Maybe they were students here once or just live nearby and chose this as their Sunday night activity. The chapel, like most British buildings, is not well insulated, so most of the onlookers keep their coats on. There are heated pipes that run along the pews next to everyone’s legs. People sometimes put their hands over the pipes as if it were a campfire.
Before long, the choir enters, walking down the aisle two-by-two, with the men wearing suits and the women in black dresses. They take their seats, open their music folders and wait for the chaplain to speak. Gareth Hughes, Hertford’s college chaplain, is full of energy, entertaining the students at every opportunity. He’s the opposite of a stiff, stuffy Oxford cleric, with a streak of mischief in his eyes. (Once he sent out an email with the subject line: “Jazz, love, pancakes, and sin.”) Church events are always well attended.
But he must be stoic now. Evensong is about calm, silence and meditation. He might say something about God, but he usually talks about ideas. His best sermon — and they are always short — was about community, and the value each of us gains from participating in things larger than ourselves. After he takes his seat, the choir will rise. The conductor will briefly describe what they are about to sing, and then they begin. The acoustics in the chapel are so good that, although the choir is only about 30 people, it sounds like 100 are singing — the sound fills the room. Sitting in rapt silence, listeners begin to relax and think. But instead of pondering symbolism in Chaucer or the politics of postwar Britain, they think about nothing at all. Helped along by the slow, soft voices of the choir, an Evensong audience can briefly experience true calmness of mind — an invaluable boon to the new week ahead.
Your piece about Evensong brings back so many memories about my time at Cambridge. I visited just about every chapel there, and never left, music or no music, without a sense of peace. Trinity Hall was one of my favorites. I loved attending the Anglican services – their language and music always felt more evocative of God in his House than the altered, modern liturgy adopted here in the States. How lucky you are to be there!
All the best,