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Angela Tilby: We need to preach the great story

17 December 2021


Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College, Cambridge

Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College, Cambridge

THE first service of Nine Lessons and Carols took place in Truro Cathedral on Christmas Eve, 1880. It was designed by the Succentor, and introduced by the Bishop, Edward White Benson, the intention being to keep men out of the pub on Christmas Eve. Eric Milner-White, the Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, wrote the familiar bidding prayer, which we now hear at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve: “Therefore let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God. . .” The prayer reflects both the Prayer Book collect on scripture for the Second Sunday of Advent and Article VI, which asserts that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation.”

Scripture is “a tale”, a story. The traditional nine lessons run from Genesis to the Johannine Prologue, giving the impression that scripture is, in essence, a single narrative. It is possible to move seamlessly from book to book, as the story of the loving purposes of God is traced “from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious redemption brought us by this Holy Child”.

I was reminded of this way of looking at scripture when I attended a New Wine service in the autumn (not my sort of thing at all, in normal circumstances). But I was very struck by the talk. The guest speaker paced up and down with a Bible in hand. His theme was the near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. But he was not limited to the text with which he began. As he turned this way and that, dropping in a joke when he thought our attention was lagging, he ranged widely over scripture, calling to mind, and from memory, verses from Ephesians and Hebrews to illustrate his points. He found the doctrine of the Trinity in the sparing of Isaac, and a foretaste of redemption in the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah.

It was, to me, a most extraordinary performance, completely different from the careful little moral exhortations that I usually hear preached. To my surprise, I found myself thinking of the sermons of Augustine of Hippo. Augustine treated scripture essentially as one story, and flipped unselfconsciously from book to book, text to text. He had confidence, as the New Wine preacher did, in the scriptural narrative as a whole. He knew that it told the story of the loving purposes of God.

This is not so much a question of the authority of scripture as of its authenticity. Scripture, heard in this way, speaks to the heart and the imagination — which is, perhaps, why services of lessons and carols remain so popular. And it is why those of us who preach regularly need to remember that our opinions about the state of the world are less appealing than the great story that we were once commissioned to preach.

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