In the late 1870s the Bishop of Truro, Edward White Benson, was discouraged at the high level of drunkenness and the lack of safety in the streets in Truro at Christmas time. He wished to counterbalance the night revelling with something more appropriate to the season. The Cathedral Succentor, George Walpole (later Bishop of Edinburgh) suggested an act of worship for late Christmas Eve. In fact the choir had already been gathering to sing carols in the, temporary wooden, cathedral at 10pm on Christmas Eve. Walpole’s suggestion was to develop this idea.
Benson’s son, Arthur (later master of Magdalene College, Cambridge), commented ‘My father arranged from ancient sources a little service for Christmas Eve – nine carols and nine tiny lessons, which were read by various officers of the Church, beginning with a chorister, and ending, through the different grades, with the Bishop.’ And so on Christmas Eve 1880 at 10pm in the wooden temporary building in Truro the First Service of Nine Lessons and Carols was held. The idea rapidly spread, not least following Benson’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury.
In 1918 Eric Milner-White, newly returned to King’s College, Cambridge as Dean, following service in the war as an army chaplain. He adapted Benson’s service for use in the college chapel. He also built on an already surviving custom described by M. R James. James (Provost of King’s from 1905 to 1918), tells of how on Christmas Eve the College Choir processed softly into chapel on Christmas Eve singing Once in Royal David’s City as an introduction to Evensong.
Milner White’s service took Benson’s order and emphasised the liturgical progress, the main theme being, he wrote, ‘The development of the loving purpose of God from the Creation to the Incarnation… the scriptures, not the carols, are the backbone.’ Milner White’s words in the service have a beauty and resonance often lacking in liturgical composition of today.
And so in 1918 the annual service from King’s began and a year later the service opened, as it still does there, with a solo voice singing the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City. Somewhat alarmingly, perhaps, the child to start the service was not chosen until the moment the BBC announcer introduced the service. The service was first broadcast in 1928 and since then, with the exception of 1930, has been broadcast each year.
The service has stood the test of time and, sometimes in different forms and emphases according to circumstances, it is now found throughout the world. Today, as at St Chrysostom’s, Carol Services are often among the best attended of acts of worship.
Bishop Benson’s small step in 1880 to address a social evil in his Cathedral city was to grow in ways he would probably never have imagined. His innovative example offers an interesting challenge to bishops faced with social problems today.