Christ Church Cathedral (1892) and Whalebone Arch (1933), Port Stanley, East Falkland, Falkland Islands. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Evensong at the end of the world

ASH Smyth sings choral evensong for Candlemas, in Stanley cathedral

Artillery Row

I‘m not saying that cathedral evensong was absolutely the last thing on my mind when we arrived in the Falkland Islands less than a month ago, thousands of miles from home, two hemispheres from our own actual starting point, in a whole new quadrant of the globe, and knowing nobody. But I’m not not saying it, either.

Still, my wife having pre-emptively joined a variety of local Facebook groups, I had been pleasantly surprised to hear there’d be a full sung service at the end of my first week of post-quarantine freedom, and even more by the discovery that this is in no wise a regular occurrence.

Stanley’s Christ Church Cathedral is, like many things down here, somewhat of a variation on the familiar theme.

Not so much the outward appearance, which, with the singular exception of the whale-jaw arches outside, couldn’t be much more traditional (red brick, stained glass, locally themed kneelers, etc.), and is entirely typical of its high-imperial time (St George’s flag all over the place, an Irish organ, and consecrated by a man called Stirling); but more its technical and/or political status. This, the present rector, Ian Faulds, informed me, is rather complicated.

Christ Church became isolated by the fact it was the only English-speaking parish south of British Guiana

There is – “or was, depending on your view” – a bishopric based in/on Stanley, founded in 1869 as a colonial diocese, for the unassailably-logical reason that Anglican cathedrals had to be built on British soil. Its work was largely missionary in nature, focussing on the almost-uncontacted indigenous populations at the extreme tip of South America (see Darwin, Beagle, etc.); but the bishop’s remit nonetheless covered the whole of the neighbouring landmass, making it, at the stroke of a conciliar pen, the largest diocese in the world. Its crest remains the cross of St George atop the entire continent.

Over the decades, most of the diocesan clergy ended up working in the developing urban areas of South America, and though the bishop would occasionally drop in to Stanley, it was arguable whether you could ever really say the bishopric was based here. Steadily – and perhaps predictably – Christ Church became isolated by the obvious fact that it was the only English-speaking parish south of British Guiana.

By the 1970s, the mainland Anglican church had cultivated its own native clergy, and stopped having the missionaries flown in. The cathedral archives, Faulds says, show that, well before 1982, the political situation with Argentina was making the concept of an active bishopric overtly problematic. The incumbents in Stanley couldn’t practically join in the work of the diocese across the waters, and the idea of hosting a diocesan synod held, of necessity, predominantly in Spanish was not politically a goer either.

In modern times, the cathedral is, therefore, “a bit of an anomaly”; but having done a lot of research on the history of the matter, Faulds is confident “that the diocese still exists”. Formally, the rector himself falls under the direct authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury. And in a classic bit of CofE diplomacy/bodge, there is a bishop for (but not “of”) the Falklands, who happens also to be the Anglican bishop of the armed forces… but he works out of Lambeth Palace. He comes down once a year or so, in normal circumstances. “So we’re looked after pretty well for what would be a village in England, and considerably better than many small churches in the UK.”

Church services, sung or otherwise, are not a major pastime for the islanders

So, while it does undertake cathedral-type duties, in particular hosting the sort of national-event services, like Remembrance and Liberation Day, and is typically responsible for arranging any military memorials services around the islands, in every practical sense, of course, Christ Church cathedral is a parish church – even if the rector (not vicar) does live in the deanery (not parsonage). The sign out on the lawn proclaims as much – “Anglican Parish of the Falkland Islands” – and its full, official designation is “the parish church of the Falklands, South Georgia and the British Antarctic Territories”. I recall reading somewhere that this makes it the biggest parish, geographically speaking, in the world – which certainly seems well within the ballpark.

Oh, and it does not have a standing choir.

The “come and sing” evensong was a Community Choir event, corralled (don’t bother…) and co-conducted by Wendy Reynolds and Clare Cockwell and accompanied – surprise, surprise – by the very recently retired school music teacher, Shirley Adams-Leach.

From the would-be chorister’s perspective, the gig was spread over two weekend afternoons, in the company of some two dozen singers, aged 10-80, providing (in the case of those who had only recently immigrated) a quick and beneficial hit of fellowship, in every sense.

The first day’s rehearsal was held in the town’s (and nation’s) secondary school, where a significant proportion of social activities take place in any case, but which, on this particular sunny Saturday afternoon, was used because the cathedral was hosting one of its small handful of weddings for the year.

If you’re only going to have an evensong once a year, then Candlemas is almost unbeatably appropriate

Wendy is a primary school music specialist and former Camp teacher (“Camp” is all of the Falklands outside of Stanley, essentially), and Clare is a Camp teacher on West Falkland and former Oxbridge (both places) choral scholar. Their numbers were comprised of a significant cohort of fellow active and former educationalists, as well as the Deputy Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Magistrate (noteworthy if only because the rector’s first associations with the islands came via his wife, at that time Senior Magistrate). In the back row, I was tickled to find myself standing between a retired submariner and former British Army padre.

Perhaps a little surprisingly, three of the 26 assembled singers were former choral scholars (encompassing between them Cambridge, King’s College London, Edinburgh, and Oxford twice), a respectable strike-rate for a country with a total population of only 3,500 (more than half of them in Stanley) and serious logistical/transport problems to be worked round.

It’s only factual to note, though, that the choir did not contain too many nth-generation Falklanders. Aside from the logistics, it would appear there’s no especially strong choral tradition. Come to that, it was suggested to me that church services, sung or otherwise, were not a major pastime for the islanders. Clare was the only one, I think, who had commuted from another island specifically for the weekend, albeit her sister and niece are also “Westers”, and from a farming family. Wendy, too, had been away “on the West, cooking for shearers” in the week before the evensong.

As for the distribution of the choral forces, it must be said it was the fairly standard top-heavy mix of sopranos, altos and basses – only on this occasion without a single tenor (male or female!). Thankfully, the music had been chosen to reflect these realities: “Immortal, invisible” and “Christ is our cornerstone” for the hymns, one of several Tallis settings of the responses, a Stanford chant for Psalm 150 (“Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord”), Dyson’s C minor Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, and “Brother James’s Air” (“The Lord’s my shepherd…”) by Macbeth Bain/Wilberg. The Tallis is a bit uncomplicated, honestly, and the missing tenor notes usually covered somewhere in the scheme of things. The psalm did sound a little bare, however, in the absence of the higher men’s voice, and when it came to hymns I volunteered the tenor line, since it wasn’t out of range, and when the hell else am I going to get to sing it?

If you’re thinking this is the most Anglican thing you’ve heard since last week’s parish council Zoom debacle, you’d not be wrong

On the Sunday we rehearsed again, but in the cathedral this time, with tea and cake, known here (and everywhere that sheep are shorn) as “smoko”, in the half-time break. I chatted to a couple of the most-local Falklander converts about employment options (stevedoring on a squid boat had appealed, but doesn’t sound like it’s compatible with housedading), and took the opportunity to look at the various monuments around the church: memorials to servicemen in both world wars, the 1982 conflict, other related accidents, and to my surprise, Vietnam; family commemorations of every shape and size, from some of the earliest settlers to the present; and prestige items, including a white ensign flown by HMS Achilles at the River Plate in 1939, the 2 Para regimental colours, and the Garter banner of Lord Edward Shackleton, Sir Ernest’s son. (Sir Ernest’s wife, I seem to recall, lived out her retirement in one of my former musical stomping grounds, Hampton Court Palace – in an apartment which was, weirdly, previously occupied by Captain Scott’s mother.) Somebody told me last night, in the pub, it also has the only stained-glass window with a bicycle in it.

As Faulds had said, in every sense it’s like an English parish church, in any country. Only more so.

The dress code for the service was un-, dis-, or at any rate not robed, since I suspect even a fully-fledged and –funded cathedral does not, these days, run to nearly 30 variously sized but otherwise-matching adult cassocks. So I popped on my suit and tie – the one of each that I have in this country, presently – and by the time the service started, had just about cottoned on to the fact that it was going to be recorded, “live” but one week in advance, for Candlemas. And to be going out on national radio, no less.

I’m no kind of liturgical scholar; but if you’re only going to have an evensong, say, once a year, then Candlemas is almost unbeatably appropriate, commemorating as it does the purification of Mary (“My soul doth magnify the Lord…”) after the birth of Jesus, and the presentation of same to Simeon, the priest of the Temple in Jerusalem (“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…”). There is also often the lighting of candles, which, in earlier times, people would have brought along with them to church, for blessing. I saw the plume of smoke as my three-year-old blew hers out 15 minutes earlier than everyone else. But anyway the atmosphere was mildly reduced by the fact that, at 51° South, in January, it is broad daylight, even in a church, for several hours after the time of evensong.

But most importantly, the singing went well.

The healthy choral turnout was almost certainly to blame for the fact that there were, in time-honoured CofE style, fewer people in the (physical) congregation than in the choir. We left most of our more-obvious mistakes behind in the rehearsal, and there were no major hiccups – though there was an unhelpful moment when the bell began to chime at 6pm, on a markedly different note from the one we all needed to hear in the piano intro to the anthem. And no-one seemed to mind that the substantial organ outro was, er, “piped”. (The real organ, I gather, has certain technical “quirks”, aside from general old age – like a middle C that sticks and won’t turn off once you have touched it.) In the video recording we can be seen obliviously milling about in the quire, gathering our stuff, perhaps not quite aware the camera was still filming us.

But the rector was pleased with the attendance, not least because there were people there apparently with no prior connection to the church or choir. (There is some spurious historical yarn about King Alfred – is it? – decreeing that churches should perform services with the doors open, because it’s actually the music that gets bums on seats. The kind of thing that choral scholars like to tell each other, anyway.) And then, for camaraderie’s sake, there was a spot of dinner afterwards at the nearby Malvina Hotel (don’t ask; I haven’t); but our daughter had done a creditable job of sitting still during the service (or at least only dancing silently when the choir was singing) and I felt I had probably maxed out my chits with two full afternoons off in succession. We stayed for the sherry, of course (all three flavours), because it would be plain rude not to.

If you’re thinking this is all about the most Anglican thing you’ve heard since last week’s parish council Zoom debacle, you’d not be wrong. A couple of days later I had a message from a friend (and former Hampton Court colleague) in Truro, who’d seen Clare’s Facebook announcement of “the world’s most southerly evensong” in the Choral Evensong Appreciation Society group (18k members, thank you very much), accusing me of invading his timeline “clandestinely”.

Perhaps it’s not that amazing a coincidence, though. As Ian Faulds later put it to me, “Here we are, 8000 miles from England, the gateway to the Antarctic, about as far away as you can be in human habitation and doing something somehow so uniquely British.”

The rector has already posted the resulting video on the cathedral’s YouTube channel, and Falklands Islands Radio Station will broadcast the audio version tonight (Candlemas proper), at 10pm UK time.

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