Lessons and Carols?

by Padre Carol Bateman

When I first came to the Anglican Church, I encountered this odd animal named “Lessons and Carols”.  Growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, this was not a service that I was familiar with.  Moreover, I thought that the readings we took time with at the Easter Vigil were sufficient in length for a once-a-year event and didn’t feel the need for a lengthy service in the middle of Advent when things were so busy.  Over time, I have come to feel differently about the service of Lessons and Carols but just when I thought I was getting used to things, I found myself out of the Parish and in a Canadian Forces Chapel.  Now, if we wanted to have a service of Lessons and Carols, there needed to be an explanation; a reason to move off the pattern of Divine Worship or Communion services and hope that members would see as much value and richness of this worship service as in their weekly worship.  The approach I took was to do some research with regard to the purpose, meaning and history of the service and then to find a service style that would work within the CF Chapel.   What follows is some of that research and a service idea that I have used over the years.

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, as it is formally called, is traditionally used at Christmas.  The story of the fall of humanity, the promise of the Messiah, and the birth of Jesus is told in nine Bible readings selected from Book of Genesis, the prophetic books and the four Gospels, interspersed with the singing of Christmas carols, hymns and choir music.  The format was based on an Order drawn up by the Bishop of Truro inCornwall, Edward White Benson, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Lessons and Carols were first celebrated on Christmas Eve 1880.  Tradition says that the bishop organized the service in a small wooden chapel on Christmas Eve with the goal of giving men something to do other than go to the pubs before the midnight service.  The service has since become a tradition as a pre-Christmas liturgy with the most famous version being broadcast from King’s College inCambridgeon Christmas Eve.

So, what is a lonely CF chapel to do about putting on a Service of Lessons and Carols with those standards? Some chapels, such as ours in Petawawa, have an active choir that is a great asset, but others do not have a full choir.  And how do you keep people engaged and involved during nine readings and songs – not to mention the sermon!  A service I developed a few years ago addresses some of these concerns and works with CF congregations of all sizes.  I approach the service from the point of view of a story.  We place a large arm chair at the centre of the sanctuary and it is from there that the readers ‘read’ their story – the Lessons.  The service starts with an introduction by the celebrant about the service of Lessons and Carols.  It proceeds with the youngest members ‘telling’ the oldest story – imagine a four year old asking God’s question found in Genesis — “How did you know you were naked?”  We then move through readers of more maturity, a youth, a teen, middle aged members until the most senior member of the congregation reads the final Gospel.  In between each reading we sing a Carol; not the whole thing, just selected verses.  The choir also offers an Anthem.  Woven through the readings and the singing are short reflections on the part of the celebrant in lieu of a full-fledged sermon.  The whole idea is to have the service flow, through Biblical teaching, musical selections and theological reflections — all to unfold as a story.  It has been very well received.

In my heart, the service of Lessons and Carols will never replace the Holy Thursday’s Institution of the Lord’s Supper as my service of choice, but it has moved up on my list of favourites.

Padre Carol Bateman is the CFB / Area Support Unit Chaplain at Canadian Forces Base Petewawa.