2003… it was my first year on the job. I was fresh out of grad school with lots of knowledge and some practical experience, ready to teach and conduct the choirs and direct the chapel music at Episcopal. One small problem though... I wasn’t Episcopalian and knew next to nothing about Anglican liturgy. I had a deep background in English church music, but it was more theoretical, not so much practical. I had much to learn.
Luckily the chaplain at the time, Dr. John Houghton, was a wonderful resource. He graciously loaned me books and would take time out of his schedule to run through the basics. John would always explain the ‘why’ of the liturgy, sometimes relating a particular gesture or phrase all the way back to the practices of the early church or temple liturgy before the time of Christ. Everything in the services I witnessed had a connection to the past, had a reason for being. It was complex and beautiful.
As October of my first year rolled around, John spoke to me about his desire to see the choir sing a service of Nine Lessons and Carols, based on the traditional service sung in King’s College, Cambridge in England every year since 1918. I happily agreed. 2016 will mark the 13th year of Episcopal’s observance.
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is unique in the Anglican (Episcopal) liturgy. It traces its roots back to 1878 in Truro Cathedral, Cornwall in England. The tradition of the local choir singing carols in the homes of parishoners was transferred to a community gathering in which all could participate. In 1918, shortly after the end of WWI, the newly minted, 34 year-old Dean of King’s College, Eric Milner-White, wished to see more imaginative worship in the Church of England. Milner-White adapted the service from Truro and it is, more or less, the service we still use today. The liturgy consists of nine lessons, spanning from the story of creation to the incarnation of God, according to John. Each lesson is accompanied by one or two carols on the subject of the reading. The service begins, as is tradition, with a lone treble voice singing the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City.”
This year’s service will be particularly poignant as the Episcopal Community gathers in the newly renovated chapel for the first time. As our students, under the direction of Mr. Carter Smith (’04), process into the Lewis Memorial Chapel of the Good Shepherd, they will experience the depth and richness of Anglican liturgical tradition at its finest. I hope you will join us on Tuesday, December 6th at 7:00pm.
The following excerpt from the opening bidding prayer sums it all up nicely:
Beloved in Christ, be it this night our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels; in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.
Let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child; and let us make this Chapel glad with our carols of praise.
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