On the Centenary of “Nine Lessons and Carols”

Among this year’s many centenaries, English choral music nerds are celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the “Nine Lessons and Carols” liturgy as celebrated in the Advent and Christmas season in many parts of the Anglican Communion. Lessons and Carols has a lot to say about the intellectual, elite cultural, educational, and religious history of modern Britain. It has a prehistory, a prototype of the liturgy having been conceived initially in 1880 by the writer and churchman E.W. Benson. It was of a piece with the liberal Anglican Incarnational theology of the mid-to-late Victorian period, departing from strict conformity to the Book of Common Prayer to offer a modern, not an early modern, form of plainspoken English prose, wrapped up in one particular story of the Word made innocent flesh.

As the story goes, Dean of King’s College, Cambridge Eric Milner-White picked up Benson’s idea in 1918, and repurposed it for a new era. Everything about the Chapel of King’s is invented tradition: though construction began on it immediately after the foundation of the college in 1441, most of the internal decor comes from the mid-sixteenth century, when construction was completed and Henry VIII re-endowed the foundation. King’s as an academic institution in its own right, and not simply a retirement home for Eton scholars, is also an invented tradition, this time of the 1850s-60s; and the conceit of the Chapel as one of the nation’s great musical institutions is an invented tradition, too, borne out of the renaissance of High Anglicanism of the early-to-mid-nineteenth century and, among other things, out of the fact that fellow of King’s Oscar Browning rather fancied choristers. Of course there had been collegiate choral foundations for centuries, and Eton and King’s had always had choirs at their heart (the Eton Choirbook is our best source for pre-Reformation English liturgical music). But with the Victorian period and its romanticization of childhood came a return to the English male-voice choir, with its characteristically heavy treble sound borne of having about 18 boys on the top part and four adult men on each of the other three parts. New composers wrote new music for these reconstituted choirs: veterans of Anglican choral music will know C.V. Stanford’s canticles, for example, some of which were premiered by the King’s choir when Stanford was Professor of Music at Cambridge.

Back to Eric Milner-White: Milner-White became Dean at King’s in 1918, fresh out of army service, like a lot of other men who came back into the universities after the war, some of them starting fresh as mature students and some of whose studies had been interrupted. Many men in universities across Britain in the immediate postwar period had a great longing to return to a romanticized status quo ante, to imagine their universities as ancient foundations, filled with ritual and male bonding. They could be awfully mean to the women with whom they shared those universities. But at King’s there were, of course, no women to worry about (the larger university was another matter—Stanford was against women’s degrees, Milner-White in favor, to give you a flavor). For Milner-White, the task was to create something suited to the experiences and level of religiosity of the new generation of student-veterans, but which had the feel of ancient mystery. So he borrowed that Truro service, and added new elements, like the bidding prayer that (now traditionally) opens the service. It’s not hard to hear 1918 in the language “Lastly let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light.”

It wasn’t all roaring in the Twenties: there was a slow ebbing of the high tide of immediate-postwar social liberalism, and there was the BBC, that great voice of high-minded national conservatism. There were multiple services of Anglican worship every day on the interwar BBC, and it first broadcast Lessons and Carols at King’s live to the nation and the empire on Christmas Eve, 1928. It has done so ever since, in latter years adding a prerecorded television broadcast. The sound of the King’s choir made its way onto records and cassettes and CDs and into the multivolume series Carols for Choirs. Generations at this point have grown up hearing, and perhaps learning, 1950s–70s King’s Director of Music David Willcocks’s arrangements of carols such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” or “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

The World Service and the Anglican Communion are two of those puzzling vestiges of British Empire that still linger, conspiring both to make invented traditions appear far more ancient and to perpetuate an image of a chocolate-box, amusement-park quaint Britain, in which the revival of the King’s chapel and choir could certainly have nothing to do with Oscar Browning’s views on prepubescent boys and in which British power’s self-evident manifestation as violence could be forgotten. Nowhere was this more true than in the United States, where twentieth-century conservative Anglicans and Catholics and Anglo-Catholics more than ever revered an imagined, romanticized Britain. T.S. Eliot did, of course, and William Buckley, and many other people I have met in the years I have spent attending Episcopal churches in the United States, many of them my age or younger. If you want to hear a faithful rendition of Lessons and Carols on the far side of the Atlantic, the place to do so is at the corner of 53rd Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan, where stands the US’s only Episcopal collegiate choral foundation. Most of the clergy and staff are English. The director of music there, late of Magdalen College, Oxford (another of the great medieval collegiate foundations) will be taking over at King’s next year. Entering that space off Fifth Avenue is like stepping into a parallel universe. The music sounds beautiful, but whenever I go I leave not knowing whether I liked it.

Most cathedrals in England and Wales, which daily preserve and rehearse the Anglican choral tradition, have in recent years come to recognize that there is little to no anatomical difference between the voices of prepubescent girls and boys, and manage to create the English treble-heavy sound with mixed choirs. Other churches around the country and the world are less attached to that sound get on just fine with adult women singing the top parts. But Stephen Cleobury, the outgoing director at King’s, whose daughters have both sung in girls’ and mixed-voice Anglican choirs, has said that there is a distinctive value to the King’s choir remaining single-sex. In this he sounds rather like C.V. Stanford, and other Cambridge men just exactly one hundred years ago, who held that it was important that there be one single-sex university left in England. It sounds like something that could conceivably be true, but that no one manages to prove quite so much as state over and over again. That this is the same conversation that was happening in Cambridge a century ago speaks volumes about the history of English elite institutions and the ways they continue to reinvent themselves.

Lessons and Carols is such a quintessential invented tradition that it is even cited in the introduction to the famous Hobsbawm and Ranger Invention of Tradition volume, which coined the term and which most history undergraduates will at some point be asked to read. What place invented traditions a hundred years on? We need to have conversations anew about the kinds of public ritual that speak to our present condition, and not hesitate to invent new traditions instead of rehearsing old ones out of a kind of misplaced empty piety. But what Benson and Milner-White and all their collaborators got right, I think, was that forms of music and art and ritual and worship created to speak more immediately to our times—to, in the quest of the Church of England ever since the Act of Supremacy, get bums on seats—must not condescend or presume to know their audience better than they know themselves. The Lessons and Carols liturgy is pitched high, but not abstrusely so, and it presumes that its audience can come meet it where it is. It tells us something about the interwar BBC that they thought broadcasting this worldwide was a genius idea, and what it tells us isn’t all good. But that people still tune in on the radio and TV tells us, I think, how many of us are still looking for a peace that is not to be found here on Earth, and not to be found with any certainty in megachurches any more than it is to be found in homeless shelters and war zones and refugee camps. There is no preaching in Lessons and Carols: it creates a space for us to be; and its layered liturgy centers, under the sediment of British history, on a family of refugees cast asunder by the administrative reach of a foreign imperial power. It is for candles and for music and for prayer and for peace, and rather oddly—and this is one of the mysteries that is, for me, at the heart of British history—it retains the power to bewitch, despite its deep association with the heart of a nation that has committed great acts of violence and done great evil in its citizens’ name. That, in its intention to tell “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,” it should hit upon this particular national problem of evil as well, seems about right.

A Doubter’s Sermon for Easter Sunday

This Facebook post from Paul Raushenbush is the one Easter message I’ve seen this year that’s really resonated with me. I’ve been going to church for seven years, but in the last couple I’ve felt more as if I was going through the motions, as if the mystery and wonder of the Christian message was being drowned out by the evil in the world, and as if the gulf between me and my friends and co-congregants who are actually Christian and actually believe was wider than ever. This morning in church, while the preacher—an academic theologian—was selling real hard a message of joy and celebration, I was thinking about Mary Magdalene, about the anguish in “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” If you had lost a close friend, perhaps the only one you had, to a painful and humiliating public execution, I don’t know how comforted you would be by the idea that he was “ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Surely you would still feel a great chasm in your life, and surely you would still feel doubt as to whether that great cause for which your friend made a big song and dance about sacrificing himself to was really so worth him abandoning his friends who loved him.

I watched Casablanca for the umpteenth time the other week, and I still think it’s one of the great artistic products of the twentieth century.But thinking about it as a version, in a way, of what’s going on between Jesus and the disciples helps to illuminate the doubting side both of the film’s message of moral clarity and of that in John’s Gospel. We are told in the film—which was created to encourage Americans to support the Allied war effort—that American self-interest and isolationism (personified by Rick) must be sacrificed to the higher end of helping Viktor Lazlo to carry on his great work in the Resistance. In Casablanca, as in the Bible, women are represented as pawns, and it takes some work to recuperate them as fully-realized, strong figures with agency. So Rick, having said that he will make the decisions for everyone, tells Ilse that it is her duty as a woman and a wife to go with Viktor and support his noble struggle for justice and righteousness, instead of giving in (perhaps?) to her baser desires to rekindle a sexual and romantic affair with someone who isn’t constantly spouting vague messages about what a hero he is in the great struggle. Of course, the film makes us want to believe that Viktor will win against the forces of darkness, it makes us want to continue that work, it makes us want to leap to our feet with tears in our eyes when they sing the Marseillaise in the café. But we also—at least, those of us who are modern European historians by trade—are aware of how much rhetorical and political work went into making World War II into a moral war of good against evil, and how much has been done since in the name of that narrative to paper over the sins of racism and imperialism and fascism deep within American and French and British politics and culture before, during, and long after the war. It is the work that story of the war has done that makes it hard today, in our communities, perhaps among those with whom we have celebrated the resurrection of our Lord, or the freedom of our people from bondage, these last days, even to see the evil and sin that is still co-constitutive with all that stuff about holy miracles and triumphing over death.

If any of the stuff in those stories that we rehearse year in, year out—those stories I have memorized word-for-word after seven years of churchgoing—ever really happened, I wonder too if Mary Magdalene, when she arrived at the tomb early that morning to take care of her dead friend’s body, was irritable and frustrated, empty and bereft, and if the disappearance of Jesus’s body felt like just another thing that she and the other Mary and any of the men who could be bothered to stick around and help had been left behind to deal with; while their great friend, who was as difficult and self-absorbed as he was charismatic and kind, had preferred heroics to the down-in-the-dirt daily work of sticking around to care for the sick and the poor. For, these days, when I kneel and someone recites a familiar list of prayers for church leaders, political leaders, zones of conflict, the homeless, those in the community who are sick and dying, I think it feels a bit like what Mary Magdalene might have felt when she saw the empty tomb—the divine presence has left us here, rather haplessly, to carry on its work, with little guidance and without even a body to mourn. It’s hard to imagine that a ghostly, glowing presence popping up from time to time to offer elliptical neo-Platonic remarks about ascending to the Father could have substituted in the minds of the disciples for the kinds of practical, down-and-dirty work for which Jesus became famous during his lifetime. What I still find compelling about the Jesus story is how practically-minded his miracles are. They’re about making sure people have enough to eat, a lot of the time; about easing their physical pain; about being kind to people—I think especially women—who were used to fading into the background; and along the way about giving life to a new kind of radical political message. I think, if I were Mary Magdalene, and it was that practical message—making a real difference in ordinary people’s lives, not least my own—that had drawn me to follow Jesus, I might be thinking, “Why did you have to go and make everything so much more difficult? Now how am I going to feed every beggar who calls at the door? What am I going to tell everyone? Yeah, yeah, I know, you have to ascend to the Father, you said, but does that mean you’re too good to do the washing up? We had to feed a lot of beggars this week, and there’s a lot of it.”

Whether Jesus lived or died, whether he was or wasn’t co-equal with the Father, whether we celebrate his resurrection or not, makes awfully little difference to whether all the beggars on this planet stuffed full to bursting have enough to eat, or whether we are capable of passing on to our children an earth worth inheriting. I am still inspired by what Jesus called on his followers to do, who he called on them to be. But even on the first Easter Sunday (inasmuch as there was one, etc.) Mary Magdalene still had to go home and get dinner on the table, perform emotional labor for all the male disciples as well as process her own grief, and get on with doing the work of living here on earth. She didn’t get to—we don’t get to—ascend to the Father. We have so much work to do, and somehow we have to find the strength to carry on.

Trinity Sunday

It is my fifth Trinity Sunday today, and so I was reading some of the things I wrote around the time that I learned what Trinity Sunday was, when I lived in Trinity College. I don’t know that they gave me much insight into the triune God, but they did make me feel tired, as if all the trips back and forth across the Atlantic had caught up with me. I’d completely forgotten how preoccupied I’d been with class guilt then. I thought that had only come later, when the romance of being in the same places as Symonds and reading Newman and Thomas Arnold and Jowett for the first time wore off, and I met more British historians who weren’t at Oxford. But it was there then, too, the culture shock mingling with a sense that I was becoming complicit in an exploitative system, not sure how to grapple with the fact that things which perpetuate class inequality can also sometimes be very fun.

The Church and me: to tell the story properly involves as many awkward phrasings and convoluted metaphors as your classic Trinity Sunday sermon. (There was the one I remember that involved the weird anecdote about ducks that didn’t make any sense. And then there was this morning’s, in which the preacher resorted to pointing out some of the church’s stained-glass windows which depict the different parts of the Trinity.) But I suppose the Church and me is a lot like the story of Oxford and me, a conflictual and confusing relationship in which I keep feeling a lot of painful, glukúpikron love despite all evidence to the contrary. Trinity term is named for Trinity Sunday, and it is impossible not to attain some measure of happiness in Trinity term, despite the knowledge that you ought to reject the institution in which Trinity term can be passed, reject all it stands for, reject especially the characteristic decadent trappings of Trinity term–like the end-of-the-year parties at any university, except turned up a class notch or five. Trinity Sunday is a very Oxford feast: attempts to explain it start out highly, abstractly intellectual and wind up in paradox and nonsense, there’s good music, and it seems very old–though actually not too old, more closely linked to its Cranmer collect than to Anglo-Saxon folk tradition. “Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity: We beseech thee, that thou wouldest keep us stedfast in this faith, and evermore defend us from all adversities, who livest and reignest, one God, world without end.” The American Episcopal Church doesn’t even use Trinity Sunday to count the weeks of long summer ordinary time: it sings to me thus of another place, another time in my life, another person that I am, another path my fortunes could have taken, if I had stayed there for my PhD. I am so glad for a thousand reasons that I didn’t, but having made that decision I wish I could leave Oxford behind, and not be yet another American thinking wistfully of her time in England, with no thought for the fact that class is real and that there is every reason to hate Oxford and what it represents.

Yet every day my mind is there, ranging across a landscape of past and present, conjuring up from my bedroom with its view of Butler Library another city, full of ghosts. I’m going back in two weeks, just for a short time, and my heart is full of longing and apprehension, pain and desire, faith and doubt.