After seeing many of England's great churches, it is the considered opinion of Yours Truly that Lincoln Minster is the most beautiful of the lot. It isn't the largest, nor the oldest, nor the richest. It is, however, the one that most directly touches both my heart and my sense of aesthetics. I love the place: its intricacies, its sense of proportion, its endless surprises of detail. In all things large and small, it is "wonderful"--in the grand, old-fashioned sense of this greatly abused word.
Situated atop Steep Hill in the historic heart of Lincoln, the Minister dominates the landscape for a distance of several miles. Seen from far away, it seems almost magical. From close at hand, the illusion of floating on the ridgeline above the city gives way to just the sort of solid, awe-inspiring reality its medieval planners and masons no doubt had in mind all along. Structurally, Lincoln Cathedral is a magnificent edifice built and maintained by successive generations of master craftsmen. Established at the behest of William the Conqueror in 1072 and consecrated in 1092, it has played a prominent role in English political and religious affairs ever since.
Lincoln Cathedral today is a grand amalgam of architectural and decorative elements within an overall Gothic design--complete with flying buttresses, gargoyles, towers and spires of many sizes and shapes, and breathtaking stained glass windows. The rounded arches of the building's West Front are all that remains of the original Norman structure that once stood on this site. The current structure owes its form and much of its spirit to a rebuilding effort that began in the last years of the 12th century.
If anything, Lincoln's interior is even more marvelous and complex than its exterior. St. Hugh's Choir, the oldest surviving portion of that interior, is arguably its grandest achievement. When Himself and Yours Truly first toured the cathedral in October 1999--when we saw the great vaulted ceilings above the Choir, the intricately carved wood of the bishop's throne and canons' stalls, and the magnificent pipes of the organ--we decided that we simply had to go back for the Evensong service. It was the first of many. Now, many years later, Evensong in St. Hugh's is a happy tradition for us.
Evensong in the cathedrals and churches of England is one of those soul-touching experiences that have little to do whatever your particular faith might be. It is a formal religious service with an established order, but it is also time simply to become immersed in the beauty of the moment, surrounded by sights and sounds that have been literally generations in the making. Of course, as with any public religious service, guests should always conduct themselves with courtesy and respect for the assembled congregants--it is a religious service, not a tourist event.
At Lincoln, Evensong takes place in St. Hugh's Choir, where services have been conducted almost continuously for 900 years. On arrival, members of what is always a small congregation are escorted through the great nave of the cathedral and into the Choir, where seating is not prescribed. We almost always choose to sit in the 14th-century, elaborately carved canons' stalls--wonderful pieces of ancient art that tourists are admonished not even to touch during the Minster's regular tours. From these seats, we listen in wonder to the service--which is sometimes dominated by mixed choirs, sometimes by men's and boys' choirs, sometimes with instrumental accompaniment, sometimes a cappella. Whatever the character of a particular service, the rich blending of voices and the acoustics of the building bring to life the words of ancient texts and fill the cathedral with what is truly a "joyful noise."
Though Himself and Yours Truly do not share the faith of our Anglican hosts, we always feel refreshed and humbled by this brief service. It feels very right to participate in one of the functions for which this great cathedral was built. A visit to Lincoln is simply isn't complete without Evensong.