22 December 2003

Lessons and carols

Last evening our family attended a beautiful service of nine lessons and carols at the Church of St. John the Evangelist. Our Theresa sang with the junior choir. The service itself is of quite recent vintage, as indicated on the website of King's College, Cambridge:

Our Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was first held on Christmas Eve 1918. It was planned by Eric Milner-White, who at the age of thirty-four had just been appointed Dean of King's, after experience as an army chaplain which had convinced him that the Church of England needed more imaginative worship. A revision of the Order of Service was made in 1919, involving rearrangement of the lessons, and from that date the service has always begun with the hymn 'Once in royal David's city'.

The service was first broadcast in 1928 and, with the exception of 1930, has been broadcast annually, even during the Second World War, when the ancient glass (and also all heat) had been removed from the Chapel and the name of King's could not be broadcast for security reasons. Sometime in the early 1930's the BBC began broadcasting the service on overseas programmes. It is estimated that there are millions of listeners worldwide, including those to Radio Four in the United Kingdom. In recent years it has become the practice to broadcast a digital recording on Christmas Day on Radio Three, and since 1963 a shorter service has been filmed periodically for television.

The service has been adapted worldwide in a variety of traditions. In recent decades I have attended lessons and carols services at Presbyterian, Episcopal and Christian Reformed churches, and my wife reports the same service from her Methodist upbringing. As it is a magnificent retelling of the redemptive-historical narrative of scripture, it is not surprising that it would be picked up by so many traditions in the west.

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