01 December 2019

Truro Cathedral and the first-ever
Service of Nine Lessons and Carols

Truro Cathedral in Cornwall … the Christmas tradition of ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ began here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is traditionally celebrated on Christmas Eve. In this service, the stories of the fall of humanity, the promise of the Messiah, and the birth of Christ are told in nine short Bible readings or lessons from Genesis, the Prophets and the Gospels, interspersed with the singing of Christmas carols, hymns and anthems.

Although the tradition of Nine Lessons and Carols is popularly associated with King’s College, Cambridge, its origins are found in Truro Cathedral in Cornwall.

Until the late 19th century, Christmas carols were normally performed by singers visiting people’s houses. But carols were generally considered secular in content and had been excluded from church services until the rising popularity of hymn-singing in the Victorian period encouraged church musicians to introduce carols into worship.

The composer and organist John Stainer published his collection, Christmas Carols New and Old, in 1871. This and a book of carols by Richard Chope and Sabine Baring-Gould, Carols for use in church during Christmas and Epiphany (1875) soon became influential.

Stainer introduced carols at the service of choral evensong in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London at Christmas 1878. Soon, other cathedrals began to adopt carols at Christmas time. That year too, the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported on 20 December that the choir of Truro Cathedral would sing a service of carols at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Two years later, the Bishop of Truro, Edward White Benson (1829-1896), organised the first formal service of ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1880.

Truro Cathedral is one of only three cathedrals in the Britain with three spires (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

A tradition begins

Bishop Benson was concerned at the excessive consumption of alcohol in Cornish pubs during the Christmas season, and was looking for ways to attract revellers out of the pubs and into the church for a religious celebration of Christmas.

The idea for a service of Christmas music interspersed with Bible readings was proposed by the Succentor of Truro Cathedral, Canon George Somerset Walpole, later Bishop of Edinburgh. Truro Cathedral was still being built and services were held in a temporary wooden structure that served as a Pro-Cathedral. Over 400 people attended the first Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve 1880.

Bishop Benson’s son, Arthur Christopher Benson (1862-1925), Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, later recalled: ‘My father arranged from ancient sources a little service for Christmas Eve, nine carols and nine tiny lessons. They were read by various officers of the church, beginning with a chorister and ending, through different grades, with the bishop.’

The spires of Truro Cathedral glimpsed above Walsingham Place (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Spreading popularity

When Bishop Benson became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1883, the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols gathered popularity not only in the Church of England but throughout the Anglican Communion.

The original service has been adapted all over the world and has become the standard format for many carol services in cathedrals, churches and schools.

The Revd Eric Milner-White, the new Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, introduced the service to his college chapel in 1918, taking advantage of the established choral tradition of the chapel choir. This service was so successful it has been an annual tradition for 100 years from 1919 on. The BBC began has broadcast the service on radio from 1928 and on television 1954.

Truro Cathedral was the first Anglican cathedral to be built on a new site in England since Salisbury Cathedral in 1220 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

When Truro Cathedral produced a reconstruction of Bishop Benson’s original Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from 1880 in December 2013, it was attended by over 1,500 people.

Because the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols is so embedded in Christmas traditions throughout the Anglican world, it is hard for people to realise that it is a late Victorian innovation and that Truro Cathedral is one of the newest cathedrals in the Church of England.

The west front of Truro Cathedral with its Rose Window (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The formation of a diocese

The Diocese of Truro was formed in December 1876. It was almost 600 years since Cornwall last had its own bishop. Canon Edward White Benson, then chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral, was appointed the first bishop of the new diocese, having turned down a nomination as Archbishop of Calcutta. He was consecrated in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London on 25 April 1877 and enthroned in Truro on 1 May.

The Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Truro was built in 1880-1910 to a Gothic Revival design by the architect John Loughborough Pearson (1817-1897) on the site of the parish church of Saint Mary. It is one of only three cathedrals in the Britain with three spires: the other two are Lichfield Cathedral and Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh; Lincoln Cathedral had three spires and was the tallest building in the world for 238 years, until the central spire collapsed in 1549.

Construction work at Truro Cathedral began in 1880, and the foundation stone of the new cathedral was laid by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), as Duke of Cornwall, on 20 May 1880.

John Loughborough Pearson designed Truro Cathedral and it was completed by his son Frank Loughborough Pearson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

This was the first Anglican cathedral to be built on a new site in England since Salisbury Cathedral in 1220. It was built on the site of the 16th-century parish church of Saint Mary the Virgin, a building in the Perpendicular style, with a spire 39 metres tall.

The last services in Saint Mary’s Church were held on Sunday 3 October 1880. The church was demolished that month, leaving only the south aisle, which was retained as a parish church.

A temporary wooden building on an adjacent site served as the pro-cathedral for the new diocese for seven years, from 24 October 1880 until 3 November 1887. It was in this building that Bishop Benson introduced his Service of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve 1880.

Bishop Edward White Benson initiated the service of ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The choir and transepts of the new cathedral were complete by October 1887. The service of consecration on 3 November 1887 was conducted by the former Bishop of Truro, Edward White Benson, who had become Archbishop of Canterbury. His successor as Bishop of Truro, George Wilkinson, and 20 other bishops were also present, as well as civic representatives, diocesan clergy, and a congregation of about 2,000 people.

The central tower of the cathedral was finished by 1905 and the building was completed with the opening of the two western towers in 1910. The cathedral architect JL Pearson died in 1897 and his son Frank Loughborough Pearson (1864-1947) took over the project. Frank Pearson’s other works include Saint Matthew’s, Auckland, in New Zealand, a reduced version of Truro Cathedral.

Inside Truro Cathedral … the nave, vaulting, and arches draw the eyes towards the High Altar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Cathedral architecture

Pearson’s design combines the Early English style with certain French characteristics, seen chiefly in the spires and rose windows. Its resemblance to Lincoln Cathedral is no accident: Pearson had been appointed Lincoln Cathedral’s architect and Benson had been a canon of Lincoln.

The central tower and spire stand 76 metres tall, while the western towers reach heights of 61 metres. Four kinds of stone were used: Mabe granite for the exterior, Saint Stephen’s granite for the interior, and softer Bath and Polyphant stone for the pillars and carvings.

The High Altar and the reredos in Truro Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The spires and turret roofs are of stone, except for a copper spire over the bell tower at west end of Saint Mary’s Aisle. The other roofs are of slate. The cathedral is vaulted throughout. Nathaniel Hitch (1845-1938) carved the decorative sculpture, including the reredos.

The original south aisle of Saint Mary’s Church survives as Saint Mary’s Aisle and is incorporated into the south-east corner of the cathedral. It still functions as the parish church of Truro city centre.

The cathedral is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and so has no Lady Chapel. A Jesus Chapel and the Chapel of Unity and Peace are reserved for quiet prayer throughout the day. There was no chapter house until 1967 when the opportunity to enlarge the building on the south-east arose. The architect of the new building was John Taylor.

Beneath the crossing in Truro Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

An Irish connection

The interesting altar in Saint Margaret’s Chapel was designed by Peter Skerrett and made by his craftsman colleagues, Toby and Bryn Roskilly, using fumed chestnut, china clay and glass. The altar was commissioned in 2002 through a generous donation from the Freemasons of Cornwall.

The altar in Saint Margaret’s Chapel was designed by Peter Skerrett and made by Toby and Bryn Roskilly, using fumed chestnut (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The memorials in Truro Cathedral include the Boer War Memorial in the south aisle commemorating the lives lost by the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry. Another memorial commemorates Captain Thomas Agar-Robartes (1880-1915), who was killed in France during World War I and recommended posthumously for the Victoria Cross.

He was Liberal MP for St Austell in Cornwall and the eldest son and heir of Thomas Agar-Robartes (1844-1930), 6th Viscount Clifden of Gowran, Co Kilkenny, and Irish peer. The family was associated with Gowran Castle, and the family title died out when the captain’s youngest brother, the 8th Lord Clifden, died 45 years ago on 22 December 1974.

The memorials to Captain Thomas Agar-Robartes … his family seat was at Gowran Castle, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

A surviving 17th century memorial from Saint Mary’s Church is the memorial in the north transept to John and Phillipa Robartes. He made his fortune as a tin merchant and became Mayor of Truro.

‘Dante’s meeting with Virgil’ … one of the many interesting stained-glassed windows (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Modern restorations

In 2002, Truro Cathedral embarked on what planned as a 15-year project to restore the east end, the west front and the central tower and spire. Each of the projects would be undertaken as funds allowed. The east end restoration repaired stonework and damage to the iron work on the stained-glass windows.

From 2004, a year-long project saw the restoration of the massive west front and towers. Work began on the central tower and spire in 2009 and 2010.

The restoration work is being carried out by WR Bedford. According to the managing director, Stuart Aston, the problem is that the Bath Stone used on the more decorative areas of the cathedral has not stood up well to the salts and sand in the maritime climate of Cornwall.

The erosion of the stonework has left much of the exposed stonework in such a damaged condition that it resembles honeycomb.

The 17th century memorial to John and Phillipa Robartes in the north transept (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Archbishop Benson in Ireland

As for Archbishop Benson, who initiated the tradition of the Christmas tradition of Nine Lessons and Carols, he started a short tour of Ireland on 16 September 1896, and with preached his last sermon at the reconsecration and reopening of Saint Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare, on 22 September.

The visit was an important reconciliation with the Church of Ireland, for Archbishop Benson had openly criticised the action of the Archbishop Plunket of Dublin in consecrating a bishop for the Spanish Episcopal Reformed Church.

He spoke at a meeting in Belfast on 9 October to promote building Saint Anne’s Cathedral. He then crossed the Irish Sea and travelled on the next day to Hawarden, to stay with his friend, William Ewart Gladstone.

He attended an early celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday 11 October 1896, returned to the church for Morning Prayer, and died of a heart attack as the absolution was being pronounced. He was buried at Canterbury Cathedral.

A pelican feeding her young … a surviving image from Saint Mary’s Parish Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

This feature was first published in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) in December 2019.

The original Truro Cathedral School … the vaulting was part of the planned cloisters that were never built (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Reading Saint Luke’s Gospel
in Advent 2019: Luke 1

An icon of the Birth of Saint the Baptist from the Monastery of Anopolis in the Museum of Christian Art in Iraklion, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Advent this year, I am joining many people in reading a chapter from Saint Luke’s Gospel each morning. In all, there are 24 chapters in Saint Luke’s Gospel, so this means being able to read through the full Gospel, reaching the last chapter on Christmas Eve [24 December 2019].

Why not join me as I read through Saint Luke’s Gospel each morning this Advent?

Luke 1 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised)

1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ 18 Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ 19 The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’

21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

24 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25 ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34 Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35 The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38 Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

46 And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

56 And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ 61 They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

68 ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

A prayer for today:

A prayer today from the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG, United Society Partners in the Gospel:

Almighty God, as your kingdom dawns,
turn us from the darkness of sin to the light of holiness,
that we may be ready to meet you
in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tomorrow: Luke 2

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org