O LORD OPEN THOU OUR LIPS
Last Sunday evening, I packed up my choir, two anthems, Schubert's setting of the 23rd Psalm, five excellent, old fashioned hymns and a sermon and travelled to our next door parish, thirty miles up the Western Highway in Stawell. After guzzling wine and cheese we sang Evensong. Glorious and beloved Evensong.
Like many normal human beings brought up in the arms of mother Church, I drifted away from her and God for a while. Two particular services of Evensong played a great part in getting me back. I left my family home permanently rather late in my youth, flying out of our adopted African country and the family rectory only in my middle twenties after university and two years of teaching. After three months in Spain, I arrived in London to try to earn some desperately needed money. It was mid-winter, January. There was a bitter postal strike on. Public phones were jammed; no letters could be sent or received. I couldn't get my degree and teaching qualifications verified and approved, because the authorities who were required to do this had been decentralised to outlandish places like Cardiff and Durham. I knew no one and was approaching the end of my financial tether.
I got digs in Chiswick with a delightful Roman Catholic lady prepared to give me credit, but with some strange pommie habits, like turning off the hot water geyser for the whole of summer! I then wandered around Chiswick on a cold grey January evening. I came across its lovely parish church, right on the river. I ambled in and looked around and shortly afterwards there was a bang, a cough, and an old priest with white hair and in a black cloak, stomped in, followed by a nun. They flopped down and the priest said six magical and musical words which mean as much to me as any in the English language: "O Lord open thou our lips....." Those words opened not only my lips but also my heart to God, I too flopped down and let the familiar words wash over me, I was at home in a strange land. The psalmist says: `How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" We can, we can, I discovered. I was at the beginning of my way back again to full belief.
A few weeks later I was looking over Westminster Abbey, and on expressing a desire to attend the advertised daily Evensong, I was ushered up into the ancient choir, and sat there on one of those marvellous miserichorded seats, smoothed and polished by centuries of distinguished backsides. The choir filed in, in that inimitable and wonderfully supercilious and insouciant Anglican way. "O Lord open thou our lips...." again, though this time perfectly sung, and then a favourite psalm, "Fret not thyself because of the ungodly...." antiphonally sung to perfection. The whole experience moved me beyond telling, a perfect offering of worship offered fervently by me, though without singing a note or saying a word. One of the most significant acts of worship in my life. Part of an inexorable current directing me to the priesthood.
But I have other and very different memories of Evensong. Evensong said on holidays from boarding school, sometimes with my parents and brother and sister, at home, more usually in the Mission's Church, with its lingering smell of Sunday's incense and peasant congregation's Sunday sweat. With an African catechist called Lucien who read the lessons in an accent too thick to comprehend. A delightful old rogue. I remember him reading the New Testament lesson once, when my Father was away on trek to mission outstations. It was the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and the word eunuch came out as `engy'. To my mother's horror Lucien came to her afterwards and asked, "Mai", that is, "Mother", "What is this word `engy'?" I can't remember how my mother explained the word, only her horror at being called upon to explain human castration to an African peasant.
My love of Evensong is rooted in my past then. Evensong said as tropical rain drowned it out on a tin roof. Evensong said as the turtledoves crooned incessantly in late afternoon heat. Evensong with hymns sung by African school boys in harmony that raised the hair on the back of your neck. Evensong said in the cathedral Chapel on the Island of St Helena with the Bishop's belly rumbling like a motorbike from the pew in front. Evensong with Charlie Yon belting out a tenor line with unseemly gusto. Evensong said in home, in bed, in tent, in car. Evensong said on aeroplane, and train. Evensong in bush church, in cathedral, in abbey.... Evensong in all Saints Margaret Street in London, marvellous choir, clouds of incense.
Evensong is a part of me. I have of course been bored witless at it. Have dreamed my way through the psalms many times, resented it, sometimes ducked it. But for all that I love it. And through it have learned that what I feel when I worship, is neither here nor there. The worship of the Church flows on whether I am there or not, whether I feel pious, moved, or not. The tradition flows on, and simply by going one slips into its river, and is carried along for an hour, to slip out again refreshed and renewed, whether one recognises the fact or not.
A fervent "Amen" said to it all, twenty-five years ago in Westminster Abbey, still holds good for a bored "Amen" not said in Ararat's chapel yesterday. The tradition flows on, must flow on, I am a part of it, it is a part of me. Dr Johnson said Evensong, Nicholas Ferrar did, Malcolm and Kitty Muggeridge did, my best friend in Clacton on Sea says it in England. The tradition flows on, must flow on. In it I am one with thousands past and present praising the God who has loved me, and who loves me, the God who opens our lips that our mouths might show forth his praise. Who opens the lips of marvellous choirs, that their mouths might show forth his praise for me. To this great God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be glory, might, majesty, dominion and power, from now to eternity, Amen.
Andrew Neaum 1995