The origins of Nine Lessons and Carols

Royal Cornwall Gazette
20th December 1878

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.

An extract from the 1918 Order of Service at King’s

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.

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Once in Royal David’s City

In candlelight a solo voice sings Once in Royal David’s City. Of course, St Chrysostom’s is not the only church which usually begins their Carol service in this way.

The tradition, no doubt, has been popularised from the King’s College Cambridge Carol Service on Christmas Eve. the custom of beginning the Carol Service at King’s in this way first started in 1919.

Cecil Frances Alexander (1818 -1895) – ‘Mrs Alexander’ – wrote a great number of traditional hymns, many for children. Once in Royal David’s City was originally written by Mrs Alexander for her hymn collection Hymns for Little Children, (1848). In this collection she wrote hymns to explain parts of the Apostle’s Creed. Thus All things bright and beautiful illustrates ‘God, creator of heaven and earth’ and There is a green hill far away ‘was crucified died, and was buried’ Once in Royal David’s City expands on“Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”

Each verse explores the contrast between Jesus’ divinity and humanity. The first verse contrasts the grand idea of “Royal David’s city” with the lowliness of a cattle-shed, and the second, the glory of heaven, from where he came, with the poverty of earth to which he came. The word ‘lowly’ is used no less than four times in the carol.

In part the carol reflects a Victorian piety seldom found today. Children are not to be energetic or high spirited, but mild and obedient. Nevertheless the carol is a lovely example of simplicity in language, and clear communication. Most of it is in words of one syllable. The narrative is clear and captivating.

No doubt part of the popularity of the hymn lies in its tune Irby written by the prominent Victorian church organist, and prolific hymn tune writer, Henry Gauntlett. Carol and tune are inseperable.

The carol gives hope to the marginalised. As we sing we can hold in our thoughts and prayers the underprivileged and ‘poor’ of our world today. We are reminded that God chose to be humble, a ‘worthless’ child in a marginal society. God chose to come among us living a life of deprivation and poverty, and so holds out hope and promise to the marginalised today.

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Watching in Advent

John Henry Newman, a portrait of 1844

“Year passes after year silently ; Christ’s coming is ever nearer than it was. O that, as He comes nearer earth, we may approach nearer heaven ! … pray Him to give you the heart to seek Him in sincerity. Pray Him to make you in earnest.”

During Advent we are posting four passages on Advent themes from writers of different backgrounds. This passage from an Advent Sermon ‘Watching’ of St John Henry Newman dates from 1837 – at a time he was an Anglican priest.

“You have one work only, to bear your cross after Him. Resolve in His strength to do so. Resolve to be no longer beguiled by “shadows of religion,” by words, or by disputings, or by notions, or by high professions, or by excuses, or by the world’s premises or threats. Pray Him to give you what Scripture calls “ an honest and good heart,” or “a perfect heart,” and, without waiting, begin at once to obey Him with the best heart you have. ‘ Any obedience is better than none, — any profession which is disjoined from obedience, is a mere pretence and deceit. Any religion which does not bring you nearer to God is of the world. You have to seek His face ; obedience is the only way of seeking Him.

All your duties are obediences. If you are to believe the truths He has revealed, to regulate yourselves by His precepts, to be frequent in His ordinances, to adhere to His Church and people, why is it, except because He has bid you 1 and to do what He bids is to obey Him, and to obey Him is to approach Him. Every act of obedience is an approach, — an approach to Him who is not far off, though He seems so, but close behind this visible screen of things which hides Him from us. He is behind this material framework ; earth and sky are but a veil going between Him and us ; the day will come when He will rend that veil, and show Himself to us. And then, according as we have waited for Him, will He recompense us. If we have forgotten Him, He will not know us ; but “ blessed are those servants whom the Lord, when He cometh, shall find watching. …. He shall gird Himself, and make them sit down to meat,, and will come forth and serve them. And if He shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants.” May this be the portion of every one of us ! It is hard to attain it ; but it is woeful to fail. Life is short ; death is certain ; and the world to come is everlasting.”

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Welcome and Hospitality at St Joseph’s #Posada 2019

“All who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” These familiar words from the Rule of St Benedict remind us that the Christian community is called to be welcoming and hospitable.

This Advent our #Posada figures will find that hospitality and welcome in so many different places.

Posada has a lovely tradition of attending Mass at St Joseph’s Care home on the first Monday of Advent. From the moment we walked in this morning, to the moment we left, we found welcome, love and peace. First of all we attended the daily Mass in the beautiful chapel. This is the focus for peace, warmth and stillness in the whole community. Our Posada figures were warmly welcomed and given a place of honour in front of the altar, and personally welcomed by the celebrant of the Mass.

Mass was a time of gentle peaceful spirituality for us all – visitors, residents and the sisters. We were moved by the sense of prayerful devotion and also by the sensitivity with which each person present was cared for. The Mass united us and connected us as Christians together. Our Posada figures too brought connection among us – our Posada journey and stories were remembered from previous years and we were assured of prayer.

After Mass we stayed on for coffee and had a lovely conversation with Fr Gallagher, one of the priests who lives at the home. He told us about his community, the Norbertines, and also brightened the morning with his jokes. In the background students from RNCM entertained residents and staff to Christmas songs and music.

What an encouraging early visit for Posada and what a splendid and inspiring example granted to us of Christian welcome and hospitality.

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Starting the journey… #Posada2019

For the first time this year Mary, Joseph and the donkey, #Posada2019, have been seen, beginning their journey towards Church.

In the hills, north of Manchester in Rossendale the Posada figures began their 2019 journey at a lovely Place of Welcome. Many local communities around the country are creating ‘Places of Welcome‘ – places ‘where all people feel safe to belong, connect and contribute.’

Parish churches in England have long tried to be places where people of whatever belief or outlook can come for prayer, worship, care and welcome. Several churches have joined the Places of Welcome initiative to provide a place where everyone can go for a friendly face, a cup of tea and a conversation if and when they need it. St Nicholas, Newchurch opens its doors each Thursday morning to be such a place of welcome. For the community it offers ‘a friendly space to meet, share and chat, or just to be. Games, craft projects and newspapers are available.’

A Bat walk at Newchurch

Our Posada figures found a lovely welcome at Newchurch on a Thursday morning, and made friends with the Vicar – a well known figure to many at St Chrysostom’s – Penny, former parish assistant.

The welcome from Priest and people extended to kind hospitality and conversation over cups of coffee, cake and craft and a look around the fascinating and well kept church, and churchyard.

A special and fascinating project at St Nicholas focusses around the enormous and old churchyard. Penny told us about the many activities, supported by National Lottery Heritage Funds, drawing in members of the local community. These include bat walks, watching wildlife through special cameras, woodland management, basket weaving, and learning new skills such as dry stone walling.

Newchurch children’s images inspired from a visit to the churchyard

All in all Posada found St Nicholas to be a place of welcome indeed – not only for people going into the church, but also serving the local community … and its wild life.

Thank you to Penny and the people of St Nicholas – what an encouraging start to #Posada2019.

You can follow the #Posada2019 journey on Twitter @StChrys and via our Church Facebook Page and Facebook Group.

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Our Lady of Kibeho

On 28th November 1981, in the cafeteria of a secondary school in Rwanda, a sixteen year old schoolgirl, Alphonsine Mumureke heard a voice ‘soft as air and sweeter than music.’ She saw a beautiful woman in a flowing seamless dress floating above the floor. Alphonsine asked the woman who she was. ‘I am the mother of the word,’ the woman replied and Alphonsine recognised her as the Virgin Mary.

This was the first of a series of visions of Mary seen by schoolgirls at Kibeho, Rwanda. The visions were investigated by church authorities and later declared as authentic. In the ‘depressed and dangerous landscape’ of tense Rwanda heaven and earth intermingled in a strange and awe inspiring way. Some of the visions brought comfort and reassurance. In some of the visions the visionaries saw terror and fighting. Rwanda was to become torn apart by civil strife and a terrible genocide occurred in 1994, killing over half a million people.

I have visited several shrines of Mary. It is extremely unlikely that I will visit Kibeho. Instead, with two friends, I recently went to see the play Our Lady of Kibeho by Katori Hall at the lovely small Theatre Royal Stratford East. The play has received excellent reviews and ratings.

For one and a half hours, through the play,and by imagination, we were transported into the intensely feminine and somewhat hermetic environment of this basic girls’ boarding school in Kibeho. We were challenged by the sincerity and integrity of the girl visionaries and the scepticism of the religious hierarchy. The visions exposed the divisions within Rwandan society and also the inadequacies of the church.

The play invited us to acknowledge the miraculous while also setting this within the violent context of Rwanda of the time. I recalled how many of the visions of Mary in the last two hundred years have been to children on the fringe of society, and have taken place at times of social tension or strife. This is the story of Fatima, La Salette and Lourdes.

For me it is also an encouragement to be open to the fact of the closeness of God’s kingdom in places of tension, and also to be open to the possibility that the voice ‘soft as air and sweeter than music’ may be relayed today through voices on the margins.

Fr Ian

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Rules for living

Do you have rules that you live by? Foundations you have built your life around? Guidelines you try to stay close to in your everyday life?

Madison, Parish Assistant, offers thoughts arising from the course Growing Relationships with God which she is taking at Luther King House.

Those rules could be basic, such as no caffeine after 5pm or to always carry an umbrella. Sometimes the rules we live by hold a deeper meaning: never go to sleep without resolving a disagreement or always recycling, even if that means collecting your own materials and bringing them to another city. We all have these guidelines that hold us to standards we devise, to give support and direction when our journey is stable or uncertain.

A telfth century edition of the Rule of St Benedict

“The Rules of Life” is a set of guidelines written by St. Benedict in the year 516, intended for life in the monastery setting. The intention of these rules was not to be laws where one would be punished for straying, but rather a healthy way to guide all into a balanced life. The three vows one would take are to live in stability, obedience, and a conversion of life. The five practices one would build these vows upon were prayer, work, study, hospitality, and renewal.  From this information we can learn a great deal on the intentionality and gentleness we are to give ourselves, as well as others in daily life. It is important to recognize the connection of these practices and how they influenced the vows, which were produced to more easily achieve a balanced life. To fulfill these vows, one needed to hold their practices in equal importance. In connection to our lives we have personal expectations; we are all human and we all have different vantage points from which we have experienced life. Know perfection is not and will never be the goal but to try perfectly in all we do. This is a call to set guidelines in our lives and not be deterred when we become distracted. We are human and, in our humanity, we are faulty and inconsistent.

As I was challenged, I now ask you to think of your rules of life. They can range from daily to yearly and be within every range in which you inhabit: personal, family, work, church, etc. Thinking of the guidelines you may already hold and how they give balance to your energy is a wonderful place to start.

Where do you place your efforts? Are they well yoked? Then, move on to what structures you could put in place that would benefit my future self. What will fuel your life?”

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