When, in 1970, Choral Evensong was reduced to one broadcast per month, there were 2,500 letters of complaint. The campaign to save it was led by the writer and broadcaster Marghanita Laski, who was Jewish and an atheist. She was sure God did not exist, but equally sure that the oldest programme to worship Him, and a specifically Christian one at that, should be kept. Such a delicious paradox could not be ignored. The campaigners won the day, Choral Evensong was restored in weekly form and, yesterday, it celebrated its 80th birthday.
This week’s edition, at 4pm on Wednesday on Radio 3, as usual, will come live from Westminster Abbey. This is where the programme spent its first 10 years, before it started to relay evensong services from St Paul’s Cathedral, York Minster and other venues. It is our second-oldest programme, predated only by Radio 4’s Sunday-morning charity appeal, but the oldest to contain music and the oldest outside broadcast. Surprisingly, perhaps, it thrives. Its audience is about 250,000, with maybe another 10% of that tuning in via Radio 3’s website (where it is one of the two most popular offerings; the other, incongruously, is Andy Kershaw).
When Choral Evensong started, there were plenty of people who could still remember public executions in Britain, and Stanley meeting Livingstone. But even then, before the world had discovered Pluto, let alone demoted it, its phrases were ancient. Whichever cathedral, church or college chapel is visited, and over the years the programme has been to 80, they originate in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer of 1549.
There is speech (prayers, lessons, sometimes a homily), music (psalms, anthems, organ voluntaries) and, unusually for radio, which usually abhors them, silences. These pauses accentuate both the ethereal beauty of the singing and the stark power of language that speaks of grace, pity, truth, a good death and peace in our time.
“It’s a minor miracle the programme has survived,” says its producer, the Rev Stephen Shipley, a former precentor at Ely Cathedral and perhaps the BBC’s last remaining staff priest. “Especially in an age when budgets are tight and the BBC’s brief is, rightly, to reflect the ecumenical and multi-faith nature of our changing religious landscape. I think it has done so because of its timeless, reflective quality, and the way in which great music, whether written in the 16th century or in the present one, lifts people’s spirits.”
Sometimes, there is controversy. A jazz evensong from Oxford in June was regarded by some as sacrilegious; some services are felt to be musically substandard, which Shipley frets about; traditionalists protest when he uses a girls’ choir rather than a boys’ one (25 of the 43 English cathedrals now have both).
When, last month, I attended a live relay from Tenbury Wells, I realised, too, that it is relatively expensive. A large outside broadcast vehicle, bristling with fancy equipment, has to find somewhere to park (not easy). Several technicians, miles of cable and an average 20 microphones are needed, and Shipley has to pay the organist, the choirmaster, the choir and the institution mounting the service. But, like everyone else, he has to render unto Caesar.