A Concern for Numbers at Choral Evensong in Southwark Cathedral, London

Article excerpt

In the twenty-first century, no contractual obligation compels English men and women to attend a service of worship in their national church. Indeed the record indicates that they do not attend in droves. "Not even once a year?," a prosecutor at a church court might ask a baptized Anglican in a suit revolving around failure to attend church. "You do not attend church even once a year?" And for many English people, the answer would be "No, I do not."

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel about the American upward-mobile The Great Gatsby, the reader learns that Gatsby briefly attended Trinity College, Oxford, after World War-becoming, in the words of his questionable associate Meyer Wolfshiem, an "Oggsford man." Whether Gatsby (born James Gatz in North Dakota) attended a service during that time at London's Southwark Cathedral is unknown. But in an era when the establishment not only in England but also in the United States was Anglican, it is safe to say that the anglicized Gatsby, like Fitzgerald, knew many Anglicans and Episcopalians.

Close to London bridge, built in the thirteenth century on the site of an Augustinian priory, Southwark Cathedral-the name comes from its borough-is the oldest gothic church in London. Alterations characterize both its history and its architecture. Before it became the cathedral church of the new diocese of Southwark in 1905, it had previously been the Priory of St. Mary Overi ("over the water"), the parish church of St. Saviour, and finally the collegiate church of St. Saviour. The cathedral remains a striking building, although fires, restoration, decay, repairs, new construction, bombing, additions, and modernization have affected its architectural fabric. Its nave has been rebuilt at least four times.

William Shakespeare lived in the parish for several years. The trial of the Marian martyrs occurred in the church. John Harvard, benefactor of Harvard University, was baptized and Lancelot Andrewes is buried there. The Globe theatre, the prison known as "the Clink," and many famous inns were located in Southwark.

During World War II the Southwark area experienced extensive bombing, but a number of historically and architecturally significant buildings remain. Today the cathedral exists in an area of businesses, manufacturing plants, and warehouses. A railway viaduct stands close to it, but the immediate neighborhood also includes a number of notable art galleries, including the Tate Modern. The setting is far from idyllic, but the location is one where a Christian church can play a significant role. "We are working," the cathedral's webpage declares, "to maintain a place of quiet and of spirituality, an oasis of calm in the midst of a vibrant city."

April of 2003 proved a month of sunshine and shirt-sleeve temperatures in London. On the Wednesday of Holy Week, the weather is lovely. A small company of people-relaxing, reading, taking in the sun-sit on benches or on the grass on the confined grounds of the cathedral. Children play. Visitors walk through the open doors to explore the interior of the cathedral.

That interior encompasses tombs of bishops, effigies of knights, a reclining figure of Shakespeare, and many memorials on the floor and on the walls. Side altars, chests, tables of various ages, and contemporary folding chairs are placed here and there. On two stands, votive candles glow. Various other candles are lit around the nave and choir. Since this is the Lenten season, some of the church is shrouded in purple.

At 5 p.m., the cathedral's bells ring for several minutes. At 5:15 they ring briefly again. By this time the cathedral's gift shop remains open, but its refectory has closed. In a room near the nave, the choir is rehearsing.

A worshiper who enters the nave at 5:15 for choral evensong takes a Book of Common Prayer, a hymn book, and a helpful broadsheet entitled "Southwark Cathedral Choral Evensong" from a table at the west entrance. …