Why are thousands of people who've never set foot in church before suddenly showing up for choral evensong?

Choral Evensong at Hereford Cathedral. Ash Mills

Thousands of people are turning out to hear free choral music around Britain, many for the first time.

The ancient church music has been around for centuries – but is getting a new audience due to a new website set up to enable people to find choral evensong services at cathedrals, colleges and churches anywhere in Britain and Ireland.

The website is now receiving about 8,500 unique visitors a month, and 11,500 visits a month, and that number is rising. There are now 505 churches, chapels and cathedrals with their own pages on the website, and the number keeps growing.

And the effect on congregations is staggering.

One poorly-attended church in London found attendance shot up from around 20 people to nearly 200 at one evensong alone. 

Choral evensong is proving popular with atheists and believers alike.

Atheist Richard Dawkins has said: 'I have a certain love for Evensong.' Church of England figures show attendance at cathedrals for midweek services, primarily for evensong, has increased by more than 60 per cent in the last 10 years.

It began taking off after organisers behind the website started an 'evensong reception scheme', encouraging churches to send out invitations to local press, local schools, hotels, B&Bs, residents' associations, universities, historical preservation societies, other religious denominations, chambers of commerce, the local tourist offices, county councils and other institutions around church communities .

In Dec 2016, a competition for churches to win funding for running evensong reception events around the country was held after Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, boosted attendance at one evensong to 185 people, compared with a usual congregation of around 20.

The first winners, who were given grants to pay for catering at evensong, were Leicester Cathedral, Portsmouth Cathedral, Lancaster Priory, Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral and parish churches in Greater London, Essex, Hampshire and Nottinghamshire. At these events, the churches and cathedrals pulled in as many as 150 more people at than usual, and congregations have continued to increase.

Choral Evensong at Leicester CathedralChoral Evensong

The  choral evensong reception at St John's, New Alresford, Hampshire, attracted 140 people, easily beating the previous maximum evensong attendance. The Bishop of Basingstoke attended the service, and thought that the initiative was such a good idea that he has suggested that the congregation from now on always offers a glass of wine at the end of every choral evensong.

The results of this choral evensong reception scheme suggest that this model could be much more widely applied and introduce evensong to many people who do not know about it, some of whom could become regular attenders, says Guy Hayward, website editor.

He reports that the origins of evensong can be found in the services that Jesus himself led with his disciples that later evolved into Christian scripture, poetry and doctrine. The service thus has a direct lineage back to the very beginning of Christianity, and even beyond that to the older Judaic tradition.

'Perhaps one of the reasons evensong is so effective is that packs so much of this deep history into 45 minutes, in an elegantly simple form.'

Choristers at Hereford Cathedral.lAsh Mills

The website says that as an English language service, evensong dates back to the time of the Reformation, using elements of the old monastic offices of vespers and compline. The liturgy was laid out in Archbishop Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer, the first version of which appeared in 1549. The music took shape a few decades later, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, with great composers like William Byrd and Thomas Tallis developing exquisite polyphonic choral music specifically for this new service, and in each subsequent generation new composers have continued to add great music to the repertoire of evensong.

This has inspired a unique 500-year-old unbroken tradition of choir school foundations across Britain and Ireland that has been responsible for the very high standard of choral singing maintained to this day.

Click here to find free choral music in an Evensong near you!