OPINION - Will Self: There is a surprising joy hidden within London’s glorious, historic churches

Will Self (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures)
Will Self (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures)

I have a confession to make: while not being a Catholic — or even a practicing Anglican — I’m a regular attendee at evensong church services. In this, I’m my late mother’s son: she was an agnostic like me, but always used to say she found great solace and aesthetic pleasure in attending church. For years — decades, even — I found this a pretty absurd notion. Sure, some churches may have lovely interiors – and in those interiors there may be some pretty lovely music, singing, and even homiletic speechifying – but the fact remains that the non-believer is hardly getting out of the experience what the believer is.

For the latter, evensong is a carefully structured ceremonial designed to place them in a devotional relationship with their God. It felt to me as if participating in this under false pretences was not only insulting to believers, it also compromised me. I felt a queasy sort of cosmic embarrassment, as they offered up their hosannas — and I hung my head. As for kneeling on a hassock… puh-lease!

Now all that has changed — and changed so comprehensively that I regret my former resistance, and regret as well all the beautiful, affecting evensongs I’ve missed out on. What brought about this change? Age is, of course, a factor. The older you get, the less embarrassment you feel about anything. Then there was the pandemic and lockdowns. I’ve always been an architecture buff and gained great enjoyment from visiting London’s superb churches. Once they were barred to me I found that I had an insatiable desire to see once more their lovely interiors.

In my view, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was greatly mistaken when he kept the churches closed for so long during the pandemic. It was a marvellous opportunity to revitalise these all-too-often gaunt and empty people-barns: we needed succour — and succour is the Church’s business. Anyway, as soon as restrictions were lifted, I found myself hying to evensong without more ado.

Many of us attend midnight mass or a carol service at Christmas, but I think we should be like those eccentrics who keep their decorations up all year round; and the equivalent in terms of church-going is an evensong habit. Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s and Southwark Cathedral all have magnificent interiors and superb choirs but none are my go-to for evensong. I particularly object to the way the beadles at the Abbey hustle you out immediately after the service — quite obviously because you haven’t paid, and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to see anymore of it than you can from your pew… for free.

Free to all-comers

And evensong is magnificently free to all-comers, faithful or not. For midnight mass on Christmas Eve I actually favour Westminster Cathedral: its massive neo-Byzantine interior is lowering and atmospheric, while the Catholic rite has an intensity to it that is sometimes lacking from Protestantism. I also once had the good fortune to hear a sermon there given by the late Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor during which he excoriated the Blair Government of the day for its participation in the Iraq invasion.

Another overpoweringly atmospheric church is St Bartholomew-the-Great in Smithfield, some portions of which date to the 11th century. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said “architecture is frozen music” but listening to the superb if largely amateur choir at St Bart’s (which has a special evensong for City workers on the first Thursday of every month), it occurred to me that music can be seen as liquid architecture; while in such a storied context the polyphonic singing and the multi-era building somehow merge. Inasmuch as I have any religious background it’s a pretty high one — and I love it when the censers come out, and the scented-smoke-that’s-prayer rises into the church’s vaulting.

Another evensong I enjoy attending is at All Saints, Margaret Street, at the back of Oxford Street. This extraordinary church is held by no less authority than Pevsner to be the finest Gothic revival building in London. Its interior is lavishly decorated — with not a square inch that isn’t either patterned or a picture. Every Sunday there’s a sung evensong here, and while the choir may be small, the setting — and the great clouds of incense smoke — never fail to uplift me. I’ve long since got over my sense of alienation in church, and now make a point of following the service as closely as possible.

I’ve only written about three or four churches here — there are dozens in central London that have evensong services. In the City alone, despite the Blitz and other depredations, there are still almost 50 remarkable edifices, many built by Wren and Hawksmoor, evidence of a piety we may struggle to find in the crowds of boozed-up workers thronging around the rail termini in the run-up to Christmas. Yet all we have to do is step aside into these stony oases then open our hearts and minds to experience a different kind of exaltation.