Choral Evensong on the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany at the Cathedral Church of All Saints in Derby (UK) 26th January 2020.
On Sunday the 26th of January 2020, I visited the Cathedral Church of All Saints in Derby for the Evensong service. Obviously not being a Christian; my attendance at church is a sporadic, rather ad hoc affair. The fact that I as a polytheist would choose attend a monotheist institution, does cause some confusion amongst acquaintances but that is easily explainable. I enjoy the sense of history, the heritage manifest, the ceremony performed, symbolism of an esoteric nature and importantly, I adore church music.
This church was founded in Saxon times but nothing from that period survives, as it was rebuilt in the fourteenth century. The decorative tower dates from the sixteenth century and has several interesting features. These include animal and foliate heads. The two largest foliates are placed on either side of the main entrance at a little above eye level. One is as expected a typical and a very fine example of a Green-man but the second is significantly, female. Whatever the origins of the foliates; whether they are purely Christian or incorporate an esoteric meaning from another source, their placement at Derby is remarkable. The female face is on the left side of the west door, the male is placed to the right. Think about that.
The main body of the church was rebuilt in the eighteenth century, replacing the now unstable medieval structure. Although much would have been lost, the more significant features were retained. These include the famous tomb of Elizabeth Cavendish, later Elizabeth Talbot Countess of Shrewsbury. A woman forever known to history as the great Bess of Hardwick. Her ornate tomb and monuments to her descendants can be found on the south aisle. Amongst her famous descendants was Lord Henry Cavendish, who was the first to measure the force of gravity between masses in the laboratory. This procedure now named the Cavendish Experiment in his honour, was the first to produce accurate values of the gravitational constant. This remarkable man rests in the family vault under the south aisle and there are other Cavendish family monuments along the north aisle.
The town of Derby was granted city status in 1977, as part of the jubilee celebrations of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II but Derby still does not feel like a city. Derby is really a country market town. All Saints is not a grand cathedral like Lincoln or Southwell, it was only granted cathedral status in 1927. All Saints still retains that provincial church atmosphere, rather plain inside bar the various monuments but painted throughout in an attractive cream. It is a very 'light' church, it is not at all gloomy and the colour scheme makes the interior appear much larger than it really is. It is a building that welcomes the visitor and then embraces them with light. All Saints has like Derby itself, retained a simple, uncomplicated air.
All Saints has the oldest ring of ten bells in the world. Most of the bells have been in situ since 1678, when the number was increased from six to ten. The largest bell weighs 19 cwt (965 kg) and at more than 500 years old, is older than the tower in which it resides. This bell is believed to have come from Dale Abbey, when that monastery was demolished during the Reformation.
Evensong is the common name for a church service of evening prayer, with a primarily musical content. It is similar if not directly equivalent to the Vespers of the Roman Catholic Church and the origins of both lie within the Catholic monastic traditions. There is no Rite of Communion. The prayers, the Psalms and the hymns are led by the choir and the priesthood, singing in both Latin and English. There is without doubt a spiritual uplift to be found in the music alone. Obviously since I am not a Christian and therefore not a Communicant, my participation in any service is limited. I cannot participate in either the Nicene or the Apostle's Creed for example. To do so would not be appropriate, it would be an offence to the Church and to my Christian friends.
Epiphanytide was introduced or perhaps reintroduced into the Anglican Church in the year 2000, as an alternative to services found in the existing Book of Common Prayer. The season is defined as lasting from the Feast of Epiphany to that of Candlemas. Whether we call it Candlemas, Imbolc or lambtide as I do, it is of course that wonderful precursor to spring; that time of purification (spring cleaning) and a time to focus our hopes upon the future.
The optional Epiphany season of the Anglican Church begins with Evening Prayer on the Eve of Epiphany itself, which is the 6th of January or the Sunday falling between the 2nd or 8th of January. Epiphanytide ends with an Evening or a Night Prayer on the Feast of the Presentation of Christ at the Temple; which is obviously the 2nd of February or with services on the Sunday between the 28th of January and the 3rd of February. The period forming an extension of the twelve days of Christmastide, results in a forty day Liturgical season. Forty is a number of significance within the Traditions of the Book but it is also a number of the Goddess in Mesopotamian tradition, this being based upon the observed path of the planet Venus. Because Epiphanytide is deemed an extension of the Christmastide, certain decorations remain on display during this time. The majority of us would of course, have taken down our decorations on the 6th of January. This is the reasoning why the Nativity Scene on display remains in situ and I can assume, it will be taken away in February.
Spirituality is a rather difficult concept to explain and I am not even going to try. It irks me however, that some play a rather pathetic and childish game of point scoring; by claiming they are spiritual but not religious. There appears to be a belief that one is superior to the other. If you support that definition of spirituality, then you lack it. It may be possible to have one without the other but whether that is desirable is another matter. A religion without spirituality is an empty vessel, devoid of essence and of virtue. A vessel containing plain water but not the wine.
Many different locations, places of worship and devotion have a spiritual essence, a genus loci or an atmosphere. This air of peace and power varies from place to place. I can sense this presence on a hilltop near where I live and at Castlerigg in Cumbria. I can feel this presence at the Rollrights in Oxfordshire and Arbor Low in Derbyshire; yet there are other stone circles and henges where it is sadly lacking. Christian sites are no different. In Glastonbury my necessary sense of place and presence, is found amongst the abbey ruins and not on the Tor itself. All Saints has that atmosphere but it is a sense of presence that not all churches contain.
One can only speculate what was lost when the older medieval structure was finally demolished. Did All Saints have like other churches greater decoration? Did the ravages of the tyrant Henry VIII or those of the near tyrannical dictator Cromwell, sweep the more obscure and esoteric away? There is little stained glass here and what is here, is relatively modern. Yet the plainness of the structure adds rather than detracts from the aesthetic. In many older church buildings there are still survivals from before those iconoclastic times. In Derby there is a distinct lack of the potentially Gnostic, Masonic or Esoteric in plain sight. The tower is the obvious exception but the interior is deceivingly plain. Yet there is of course a little; the Chi-Rho is the most obvious and significant symbol that has manifold layers of meaning but heraldry also hides multiple symbolic associations.
Sitting in a pew with my shoulder to a pillar and the magnificent golden organ behind me (sorry), I can experience the wonder of our world in the here and now. I listen to the music as I soak up the heritage, the history and the culture of civilisation, in one truly beautifully proportioned building. That is not to suggest that this building is a museum, anymore than any stone circle or any henge. All represent a link to the past but by being part of our present, they are also our future. All faiths, religions and spiritualities are or should be, inspired by the past but all must equally look to the future. To be living and breathing traditions, all must embrace both without any loss of virtue.