Saturday, December 24, 2016

The right way to do Lessons & Carols

Today is the last day of Advent — and the last day to hear Lessons & Carols. Today is the 99th annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, hosted by King’s College Cambridge every Christmas Eve since 1918 — and broadcast this year (and 88 previous years) on the BBC radio.

My wife reminds me that I sang Lessons & Carols as a choirboy at the proto-cathedral. (She remembers it better because she went in years before and after when I was chorister). I’ve sung or read at several churches since. In 2016, I attended two services, as well as listening to the 90 minute Cambridge broadcast this morning (US time).

King’s College Cambridge 2016

The modern L&C service was inaugurated by KCC, and some of their traditions — always starting with a boy soprano solo for Once in Royal David’s City) have been widely emulated.

Until I compared the programs from the late 1990s to today, I had not realized that KCC had kept the same nine lessons for at least 20 years:
  1. Genesis 3:8-19*
  2. Genesis 22:15-18
  3. Isaiah 9:2-7 (dropping verses 3-5)
  4. Isaiah 11:1-9 (dropping verse 5 and parts of 3,4) 
  5. Luke 1:26-38 (dropping verses 36-37 about Mary’s cousin Elizabeth)
  6. Luke 2:1-7 (dropping verse 2, the reference to Quirinius)
  7. Luke 2:8-16
  8. Matthew 2:1-12
  9. John 1:1-14
* From 1997-2007, they skipped over Genesis 3:16 (“Your desire shall be for your husband”)

This year, the service had 15 choir carols and anthems, and five hymns (including the last 3 verses of Once in Royal David’s City) where the congregation can sing along. The other four hymns were:
  • O Little Town of Bethlehem, with Vaughan Williams’ tune Forest Green from The English Hymnal (21.1 in Hymnal 1940) and the Armstrong descant from New English Hymnal
  • While Shepherds Watched Their Flock, with everyone’s familiar 16th century tune Winchester Old
  • O Come, All Ye Faithful, the harmony familiar to Americans (from H40 and H82) that was taken from TEH, but with the David Willcocks arrangement and descant
  • Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, the familiar Mendelssohn tune, descant by Philip Ledger
For both Once in Royal David’s City and While Shepherds, the descants are by Stephen Cleobury, the music director of KCC for the past 34 years. (In 1988, he also published a retrospective on the 70th anniversary of the annual service).

Lessons for Other Parishes

Earlier this month, I attended L&C services with my family at a small CoE-affiliated parish in Spain and at a Catholic college closer to home. The structure of the former was closer to KCC, with nine lessons (including Genesis 3, Isaiah 9, Isaiah 11 and John 1). The Catholics only had six lessons (skipping Genesis and John’s gospel) but production values more similar to KCC.

Below are some notes on how I would organize an Advent L&C service if I were music director at an American Anglican parish:
  1. Neither concert nor worship service. You should recognize that the form is not like anything else the church does during the year. It’s not a concert, with more scripture than the congregation will hear at any other service. At the same time, it does not follow set Anglican liturgy — the lessons, the hymns/anthems/carols, and perhaps an opening or closing prayer.
  2. Major outreach/evangelism opportunity. This is one of the biggest opportunities of the year to bring visitors to church. (At the CoE service we attended, it was the largest turnout the new rector had ever seen). If the goal of the Church is to spread the Gospel, then there’s no better time during the year to do so. This means not just addressing it not only to active members, but irregular members, other C&E Christians, lapsed Christians and non-Christians.
  3. Be friendly to visitors. If there are visitors, they won’t know your secret code or rituals — if you want them to feel welcome, things should be logical and understandable. The #1 rule is you need a program (which was not true at the CoE service) — to tell people where they are, what’s coming up, and also who’s singing what. (If money or the environment is the issue, a half sheet of paper is enough).
  4. Your choir is not King’s College Cambridge. I’m singing in the best choir that I’ve been in since I’m 12, perhaps one of the best (organ-based) adult choirs of a Continuing Anglican church in California. (Let’s face it, in the ECUSA divorce they got custody of the cathedrals, organs and best music programs). But our choir is not King Choir Cambridge, and that’s true of 99.5% of the Anglican choirs in north America. Choir members, directors, organists etc. should remember is pride is a cardinal sin and humility a cardinal virtue: in this era of iTunes, Spotify and BBC, almost everyone has heard better performances. So be realistic in what you can do and then do your best, and don’t forget the most important rule…
  5. People have come to sing carols. There is no time of the year when your congregation more wants to sing – unlike Easter, even non-Christians are going to know many of the carols. You need to give them a chance to sing — which for most churches means letting them sing at least a part of more than half the carols. The college did it well, but the CoE parish wouldn’t let us sing “O Little Town” while asking us to learn an unfamiliar carol.
  6. Fill them with the joy of Christmas. We are preparing for one of the two universal feasts of the Christian year, and the one where the countervailing cultural pressures are the strongest. The lessons appeal to their heads — Jesus is the reason for the season — but singing carols should put joy in their hearts.
  7. The goal is to bring them back. This is a major (and relatively straightforward) service to present and a chance to put your best foot forward. Regular members should look forward to it every year, while new (or prospective) members should want to come back again.
Merry Christmas everyone.


Cleobury, Stephen. (1988). “Nine Lessons and Carols at King's: 70 Years on.” The Musical Times 129 (1750): 687-689. URL:


Thomas Bumgarner said...

My Lutheran(ELCA) congregation does 12 lessons, the 3 optional from Carols for Choirs, please additional devotions from Sundays and Seasons, an annual worship planner from Augsburg Fortress. Comes out to 1 and 1/2 hours. No choir anthems, just hymns from SBH, LBW, WOV, and ELW for congregation.

J.West said...

It seems like most services try to end in an hour (although KCC was 1.5 hours). How does the longer length work out? (Or is everyone so busy singing that they don't notice?) Also, when in Advent do you do it?