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Academics to look into why Choral Evensong is so popular

Sun 17 Feb 2019
By Cara Bentley

Cathedrals are experiencing a surge in their Choral Evensong services, causing a research project at Oxford to look into why.

Although there are often stories of the rural church being in decline, the popularity of cathedral attendance, particularly at Christmas, has increased. 

The most recent statistics on Church of England Cathedrals specifically from 2017 show midweek service attendance changed from a total of 7,000 people attending per week in the year 2000 to just over 18,000 people per week in 2017. 

A survey to look into the reasons why people are attracted to evensong has now been launched by University of Oxford musicologist Kathryn King. 

The doctoral researcher at Magdalen College will be asking: “Who is going to Choral Evensong? Who’s not going? What does it mean to them? What does it do for them? Why now?

“And what can understanding these motives and experiences add to our understanding of the role of cathedral music in the 21st century?”

She cites an increase of 35 per cent in evensong attendance since 2007 and the listener data for BBC Radio 3’s Choral Evensong, showing its highest audience levels in the programme’s 92-year history, as a catylist for her curiosity. 

Her research methods will combine insights from music psychology, using the congregations of two cathedrals and an Oxford college; interviews and focus groups and a programme of psychological and physiological ‘experiments’.  

Her project will include an immersive Evensong experience, which uses a specially-created virtual reality Evensong service.

Following a trial of the technology last October at iF Oxford, a science festival attended by 13,500 people, the ‘virtual Evensong’ experiments are now underway. 

Meanwhile, King is collecting information from Choral Evensong-goers all over the world using an online survey, asking such questions as 'How often, over the last twelve months, have you: attended Choral Evensong, attended another type of regular Anglican/Church of England church service and attended a regular service or meeting of another religious or faith group?' 

Hanna Rijken, a Dutch scholar who has examined the attraction of Anglican Choral Evensong in the Netherlands – where it has been a growing phenomenon since the 1980s - is doing a similar survey and the pair will be sharing their results. 

The emerging findings point to a complex and multifaceted picture of the diverse backgrounds, circumstances, motivations and experiences of contemporary Evensong-goers, even within the same congregation at the same service. 

King said: “The findings of this research will, I hope, offer original insights into the lives and minds of today’s Choral Evensong-goers, shed new light on the real-time experience of listening to sacred music in sacred settings, and advance our understanding of the possibilities and potential of cathedral music, at Evensong and beyond". 

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