Evensong on the M5

The traffic was light and the sun was shining. The Gloucestershire countryside stretched away in both directions.

It seemed an afternoon for BBC Radio 3, something that would not jar. Choral Evensong from Westminster Abbey was just beginning – a sublime moment.

Well, it was sublime, and continued to be sublime, once the reconnection was re-established. Half of the Magnificat was lost, but the whole of the Nunc Dimittis and the Anthem was still to come.

Evening Prayer always had a different feeling about it. It is quieter, more reflective, it goes with the musty smell of old prayer books, the flickering light of candles. In some places one could almost imagine the elderly Simeon, standing and watching from the shadows beyond the nave as his ageless words are again repeated.

The English poet, John Betjeman, loved Evensong, a poem he wrote for Saint Katherine’s Church at Chiselhampton in Oxfordshire captures the feeling of reassurance, the mood that God is in His heaven and all is right with the world:

“Across the wet November night
The church is bright with candlelight
And waiting Evensong.
A single bell with plaintive strokes
Pleads louder than the stirring oaks
The leafless lanes along.

It calls the choirboys from their tea
And villagers, the two or three,
Damp down the kitchen fire,
Let out the cat, and up the lane
Go paddling through the gentle rain
Of misty Oxfordshire.”

The pictures that Betjeman brings to mind are of a world that is constant, a world where the old certainties remain, a world where the country priest celebrates the liturgy in honour of an unchanging God, this is the world of Evensong.

Stand in a great cathedral and listen to a boys’ choir sing the Song of Simeon and there is a sense of the God who is the same yesterday, today and forever.

Yet one can turn worship into an escape from the world. Simeon and Anna do not go to the Temple to escape from the world, they go there because they are seeking God’s presence in the world. Simeon looks for the consolation of Israel, Anna looks for the redemption of Jerusalem. It is a faith rooted in the realities of the world in which they lived.

By the time the closing organ voluntary was played, the Almondsbury interchange had been reached. The crossing of the M5 and the M4 was fluid, uncontested, a situation which will become rare as summer approaches.

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