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13 December 2013

IT IS 133 years since Bishop Edward White Benson (left) devised the first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. He was the first Bishop of Truro, and that first festival service took place in a wooden cathedral. Earlier that year, on 20 May 1880, the Prince of Wales, as Duke of Cornwall, had laid the foundation stone of the three-spired cathedral that stands today.

Part of the Bishop's motive for the service, Christopher Gray, the Organist and Director of Music at the cathedral, says, was to keep his flock from enjoying too much of the wrong kind of festive spirit.

The Bishop took nine lessons from the Old and New Testaments, and interspersed them with carols and three "anthems" from the Messiah: "For unto us a child is born," "There were shepherds abiding in the field," and the "Hallelujah Chorus".

The pattern of readers was set with the first lesson being read by a choirboy, and subsequent ones progressing through the hierarchy, up to the bishop himself.

It was an immediate success, and the service was soon taken up beyond Cornwall. But it was King's College, Cambridge, that really established its almost universal place in the Christmas programme.

In 1918, the Dean of King's, Eric Milner-White, made a few definitive changes that have endured ever since, including beginning with "Once in royal David's city", its first verse sung by a boy treble. He composed the well-known bidding prayer; and moved the opening of St John's Gospel from seventh place to become the climax of the service. Ten years later, the BBC broadcast it for the first time.

But, on 17 December this year, the service will be held in its original form in Truro, the congregation having copies of the 1880 typeset order of service with Benson's precise instructions about when to stand, and to kneel at the line "on our knees confessing" in "Once again, O blessed time".

"Where we're not aiming to be authentic", Mr Gray says, "is the heating: it will be left on."

Forthcoming Events

14 September 2020
Festival of Pilgrimage
From Christ Church Oxford: a chance to reflect theologically on pilgrimage and come away with practical ideas for your parish.   Book tickets

29 September 2020
Festival of Preaching
A one-day online version of our popular preaching festival. With Mark Oakley, Sam Wells and Anna Carter Florence.   Book tickets

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