Easter 2024

30 November 2016
Carol Service - exploring the Advent, part 2
This is a two part series and begins with part 1.

The idea of Lessons and Carols really has its genesis with Christmas services at the end of the 19th century. Then in the early 20th century Eric Milner-White started the very famous Christmas service at King's College, Cambridge. And this annual service, more than any other, is what many people think of when they hear "Lessons and Carols".

But there's more to its origin than meets the eye.

Milner-White had become convinced "that the Church of England needed more imaginative worship", but I think it helps to remember the context in which he was working. At the centuries-old choral foundation of King's there was no lack of opportunity for worship. There was Choral Matins (Morning Prayer), Holy Communion, and Choral Evensong.

And Milner-White also sought "more imaginative worship" through new music. He used a friendly wager to entice Herbert Howells to write the Collegium Regale Morning Canticles (Te Deum & Jubilate). And if these pieces aren't "more imaginative" I don't know what qualifies.

But I think Milner-White saw something else that a few others (like Bishop Benson in Truro) did. The specific possibilities for liturgy suggested by the genre of music specific to the Advent-Christmas season.

Here the music (carols) must have suggested its own liturgy. Rather than music being the "hand-maid" of the liturgy, a dubious phrase one often hears in regard to Church Music, Milner-White saw it as the other way around. Here was a cleric who was perceptive enough to realize that the established liturgical forms didn't allow for this music speak well or speak fully.

At Matins or Evensong maybe you could do a carol or two, but carols are so short. You would have to do a number of them for them to really add up to something substantial. And in this case they would needed their own service. So Milner-White designed it.

Not just two or three lessons, but more. No need for a psalm or canticles. No need for much of anything, really, except hymns, lessons, and carols.

After inaugurating the Christmas Lessons and Carols service in 1918, Milner-White added an Advent Carol Service to King's liturgical life in 1934.

Most Advent Carol Services take place in the evening and are therefore often substitutes for Choral Evensong. But the traditional canticles at Evensong (the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis) also have value in a Carol Service.

One place to connect Evensong to Lessons and Carols is St. John's College, Cambridge, just a short boatride away from King's. St. John's began a tradition of an Advent Carol Service a couple decades after King's.

The first Advent Carol Service was held on 2 December 1956. From the outset it had been decided to make this an 'admission by ticket only' event, and close on 1100 people attended what has now become an annual service. Since 1981 it has been broadcast, and is now relayed to many radio stations in the United States and Canada, as well as to other countries throughout the world.

Guest, George. (1998) A Guest at Cambridge. Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete Press. p. 28.

At the traditional carol services at St. John's the two Evensong canticles take pride of place toward the end: the Magnificat at the Advent Carol Service; the Nunc dimittis at the Epiphany Carol Service. There's a wonderful logic to this. (There is no Christmas Carol Service at St. John's because 1) the college is not in session 2) there's a pretty famous one just down the road.)

St. John's has served as an inspiration for St. Peter's, St. Louis in the past: the installation of a Mander organ at St. Peter's was inspired by the very successful Mander installation in that college chapel.

And the Advent Carol Service from St. John's is not exactly a well-kept secret. It has been broadcast annually on the BBC since the 1980s. It's order has been printed in at least one past issue of The Episcopal Musicians Handbook. And another order of service from St. John's has been used at St. Peter's in the past.

Here's an explanatory note from the former Dean of St. John's.

"Introduction to the Advent Carol Service"
by The Rev. Andrew MacIntosh, Dean of St. John's College

In the past quarter of the century, the colleges of Cambridge, and St. John's in particular, have developed special forms of service to mark the beginning of Advent; and these are widely called Advent Carol Services. Since Christmas falls in University vacation, there was a natural desire to anticipate Christmas by singing carols. At the same time, the instinct for good liturgy meant that we wanted to keep the specifically Advent themes of solemn preparation for the coming of Christ. In St. John's College, since 1956, these two elements have been combined to effect a successful liturgical experiment. This success derives, perhaps, from the tension between the two elements. Thus the form of the service is essentially linked to Advent. The Collects for the four Sundays in Advent suggest the main themes which are explored and illuminated in the scriptural lessons. The plainsong settings of the Advent Prose and "O" Antiphons, dating from the eighth century, express most poignantly in words from the prophesies of Isaiah man's deep yearning for salvation and redemption. The carols, in a joyful and earthy way, look forward to the mode of that redemption in the circumstances of the incarnation and the person of Jesus. Finally, the service reaches its climax in the words of the Christmas collect and in the singing of "Adeste Fideles.""


The service is rich. You can view this year's service booklet for yourself. You can also listen to this year's service for the next 26 days after this article's publication.

There's so much to love about this liturgy beyond the lessons and the music: the sentences; the versicles and responses at the head of each section (my favorite being "Prepare ye the way of the Lord / Make his paths straight."); the collects.

The service is in four sections:

  1. The Message of Advent
  2. The Word of God (which includes the wonderful passage from Luke of Jesus reading from Isaiah in the synagogue)
  3. The Prophetic Call (which features a hefty dose of John the Baptist)
  4. The Christ-Bearer (including Mary and her Magnificat)

But one thing that I chose not to incorporate at St. Peter's for our service is the seven O Antiphons. Don't get me wrong; I love the O Antiphons. But their inclusion in this already rich service seems like an "everything but the kitchen sink approach". (Besides, St. Peter's has already offered a simple service focusing on the O Antiphons this year).

The collects in the service provide a nice bridge to the historic collects found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

The collect for section two, the Word of God, is the collect for the Second Sunday in Advent (note that in the 1662 book the preposition is different than it is in the 1979 book). This prayer finds a place in the 1979 book as the collect for Proper 28 (the Sunday closest to November 16).

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The collect for section three, which does not appear in the 1979 book at all, is specific to John the Baptist.

O Lord Jesu Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee: Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

The collect for section four, at least in the present service, is not the collect for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, but can be traced to an Anglican Altar Services (1941) collect for the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15). Using a Marian collect here is congruent with the focus on Mary in the Gospel lessons for the Fourth Sunday of Advent in the Revised Common Lectionary.

Almighty and everlasting God, who didst stoop to raise our fallen race by the child-bearing of blessed Mary: Grant that we, who have seen thy glory manifested in our manhood [St. John's substitutes "flesh"], and thy love perfected in our weakness, may daily be renewed in thine image, and conformed to the likeness of thy Son; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

source: see No. 588

Finally, a note about the music itself. It should be noted while the informal name of this service is the "Advent Carol Service", the title page actually reads "A Service for Advent with Carols". I believe that this name is deliberately chosen to not limit the music solely to "carols" but to allow for all kinds of liturgical music (including hymns and canticles, which were part of the original design).

As with the Christmas Lessons and Carols service at King's College, the Advent service at St. John's includes a heavy dose of new music, especially new music written for carol texts.

But with the doors thrown open to all types of music (assuming at least two carols, to stay true to the plural in the service's title) we see the full flowering of Lessons and Carols as one of the great liturgies of the Anglican church.

What started as music begetting it's own liturgy has now come full circle. This elegant liturgy is now inspiring new commissions and compositions.

I find Lessons and Carols so fascinating because the realm of creative possibilities within its fixed structure is so immense.

This is Church Music at it's finest: not as a hand-maid of the liturgy, but a full partner with it.

Of course there are always other Advent Carol Services to consider, too!

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