St Paul’s Evensong at OccupyLSX

I didn’t think, when I got up this morning, that I would somehow wind up leading a BCP Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral.

The cathedral has had Occupy LSX, a protest camp, on their doorstep for the past week. Last weekend the Canon Chancellor, Revd Dr Giles Fraser, told the police to leave the protesters alone. As the week has worn on and the tents have stayed up, the cathedral has been operating on a reduced schedule, and on Friday the Dean issued a statement saying it would have to close until further notice.

I have no strong criticism of the cathedral closing to sightseers; there is a point at which keeping things ticking over stops making economic sense, and though I am uncomfortable with entry fees for cathedrals I cannot condemn them without calling into question the legitimacy of thousands of smaller, parish-based fundraising efforts. Fair game.

But a cathedral is more than architecture and establishment. Cathedrals exist to serve the local community, as well as to support parish churches in their work. Their primary task is of public worship, and it is difficult to see how Occupy LSX are a significant threat to that. The supposed health and safety reasons for closure given by the cathedral haven’t, to my knowledge, been specified in a way that would allow the protesters to improve matters, and so things have come to a sort of impasse.

Practising the organ this morning I half-joked on Twitter about being tempted to turn up at St Paul’s and hold Evensong myself, if they weren’t letting people in for services. Then I went back to practising, it being one of those mornings where I felt like I had someone else’s fingers and feet, and the choir turned up and we rehearsed, and there was a service and afterwards tea and toast. I checked my phone before heading home and there seemed to be some positive response to the idea of an outdoor Evensong, and I began to think more seriously about it.

I’m accustomed to Evensong services of varying sizes. I knew that without any real idea of who was going to turn up, I wouldn’t want to plan anything too complicated.. but there definitely wasn’t time to select metrical psalms, so we’d have to do simple Anglican Chant (and hope for enough people who can make sense of it for it to work) or even just said psalms and canticles. I made a few more tentative tweets, putting out feelers to see who else might be interested. I tried to contact both St Paul’s, and Occupy LSX, through Twitter, and got no response — fair enough, both are busy organisations. But people who had been involved in the protest, and various clergy and churchy types online, seemed encouraging, so I decided to go for it.

At 12.12 I tweeted “Right. Evensong at @OccupyLSX outside St Pual’s, 3.45 for 4pm. Please bring Parish Psalter & BCP if you have them.” From there it was a matter of choosing hymns with words in the public domain and printing them, providing links to those and to the BCP liturgy for the day through the C of E website, making sure I had the readings and the Collect for the 21st Sunday after Trinity to hand, and the sort of low-grade terror at what I was doing that you might expect, complete with wildly beating heart and trembling hands. A lot of people were generally supportive but simply unable to get there due to geography or prior commitments. But people said they would come, and I turned up and they found me. Our numbers were small but mighty, and included an atheist and a Roman Catholic, as a typical Evensong at St Paul’s well might! Apparently there had been some sort of praying and singing not too long before my arrival, but the clergyman involved was busy being interviewed by someone with a camera and I had come over all shy, so we decided just to get on with it. We chose an almost-quiet spot outside M&S and did just that.

And it was good. Christ is made the sure foundation was our introit, chosen because I love it and it is a good length, and one or two people did join us as we sang. There was a bit of informal awkwardness going from one bit of the service to the next — I nearly forgot the psalm, think of it! — but we chanted psalms and canticles in something resembling unison, and the ferial responses were fairly straightforward. The readings were Ecclesiastes Chapters 11 and 12, and St Paul’s 2nd Letter to Timothy, Chapter 2, verses 1-7. One annoying photographer insisted on trying to ask us questions during the service, which I found a bit difficult — I tried to explain we weren’t finished, I think someone else went and talked to him and then came and joined us again. Instead of sermon (the epistle said it all with “The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits.”) or anthem we had Guide me, O thou great Jehovah and after the “Prayer for the Clergy and People” (rather apt I thought) and “A Prayer of St Chrysostom” and the Grace we sang O God, our help in ages past and went our respective ways — some of us to the pub, to slake the thirst after righteousness (I’ll get my coat), others off home or to other parts of the protest.

So, that was a pretty strange day. I wonder what tomorrow will bring?


"Go quietly to bed"

Sunday evening, I had the privilege of singing Compline with the choir at St Mary’s Addington. I started attending services in the parish once in a while in order to visit a friend of mine who is Curate there, but the community — and especially the choir — has become a real resource for me. As an organist working in a C of E church but who doesn’t come from an Anglican background it’s been excellent to be exposed to some of the standard repertoire from the rehearsal side as well as hearing it sung in services and, eventually, joining in and even conducting from time to time; they also did me the honour of singing a piece I composed. I’ve always been made very welcome and if the journey from Leytonstone weren’t so silly I’m sure I would want to be there more often.

Anyway, Compline. I hadn’t ever attended a Compline service before, not even a said one, so this was a new experience for me, though I’m familiar with the general shape of the liturgy. I’ve had a bit of a brush with chant notation in other contexts, and it’s pretty straightforward to read if you’re already good at transposition, so that wasn’t a problem for me. I struggled a bit more with the psalm pointing but once I got the hang of it that was also straightforward. The service was by candle light, and very atmospheric. Choir and cantor sang well; that sort of unaccompanied unison singing is harder to do well than you might imagine, but the pitch stayed pretty stable throughout and I think the timing was good.
Compline is the last Office of the day and it is traditional to go quietly to bed afterward, without speaking and certainly without any cavorting about. I can certainly see how after singing the service in the cosy intimacy of St Mary’s, going home quietly and to bed without further ado would be quite welcoming even if it meant a fairly early night. That option was, alas, not open to me: my journey from Leytonstone to Addington had been by bicycle, then train, then tram, and so on the way back I did the same in reverse (well, I didn’t ride the bicycle backward, that doesn’t work…). I wouldn’t say I was cavorting, exactly, but even on a Sunday night in London one must keep one’s wits about oneself on a bicycle. Still, I’m very grateful for having had the opportunity to go.