For many years I have tried to catch Christmas music presented by King’s College Choir Cambridge. It was, at one time, an aesthetic, cultural and spiritual delight; a distillation of both refined British tradition, Anglican liturgy and custom. Emblematic of such refinement is a note seen at the bottom of the first page of the printed program in small italic letters only on those pages listing lessons or carols, not those during prelude organ music or performance credits following the recessional hymn: "please turn the page quietly".
Last evening, my wife, who was setting out some of our substantial collection of Christmas ornaments (a few from he grandmother) and decorations, suggested we watch the spectacle on Brit Box (a worthy app!), which turned out to be from December 2022. It also turned out to be not “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols”, but rather “Carols From King’s”. Only some quick research - prompted by dissonant content of the program we watched - taught me there are actually two separate and distinct productions; I was unaware of this until just now!. “Carols From King’s” is performed in early December and broadcast on BBC TV on Christmas Eve, just at the conclusion of the live radio-only broadcast of the “… Nine Lessons and Carols”.
Also unknown to me was the fact the “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” is only broadcast on BBC radio (there may have been one exception during Covid). Over years past I’m, now not sure which I have seen and an hour’s worth of internet search has not clarified the picture. I suspect, but cannot say for sure whether in the past, the “Carols” program content matched the “… Nine Lessons… program”. I suspect they did, for I have seen several video re-broadcasts of what I thought were…“Nine Lessons and Carols” because the contents included the familiar lessons and carols, yet I cannot find any commercial sales of videos of …“Lessons and Carols” - only videos of the “Carols from King’s” program. Curious, as is the paucity of information necessary to parse this dilemma as to the two different programs. Certainly, the contents did not match in 2022. In short, I’m confused.
Regardless, the video we watched began with the grand hymn - as have all the prior Christmas music I’ve heard from King’s. “Once in Royal David’s City”. It has always been, for me, inspiring, soul stirring. The first verse is a solo of a single boy soprano, then two more verses sung by choir only each with more voices each time. Subsequent verses include the congregation, each with fuller organ. The final verse is sforzando with the trumpette en chamade organ rank overawing voices. In prior years, other wonderful traditional vocal works have been heard, like “Remember O Thou Man” by Thomas Ravenscroft. This is music which I can hear only with awe and near tears. What I wish to communicate here was the power of this service, previously, to move one’s spirit thought the grandeur, majesty, spectacle and aesthetic that may only be brought about through refined cultural tradition evolved over many years.
That was the case, until King’s College “woke”. If you have seen their productions in the past, you know what I mean. This program, by contrast, included much music which IMO, is unlikely to appeal to anyone but “expert” musicologists. Precious little familiar tunes, though some words are known. Instead of Old and New Testament readings of the past, various words are spoken, each reader clearly meant to betoken some recognizable identity group (The Church of England went off the progressive, Chrisianity-as-psychotherapeutics cliff years ago).
The apo- or perigee, depending on one’s view, came with a poem, “Annunciation” by Denise Lertov. It bestows upon the Christmas celebrant the importance of Mary’s consent, which word is included thrice in the text, beginning with:
“But we are told of meek obedience.
No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
Heretofore, I have tried to share a wondrous personal experience of being transported by a worship service which transports the participant, elevates him/her to a plane above that of quotidian life. In today’s world, who would not long to be transported there for a few precious moments beyond the headlines and massaged “facts”?. Sadly, it seems, not the venerable C. of E. Instead of aiming to transport spiritually, prefers to preach politically.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The poem in question is worthy taken on its own. In another context, it might well convey meaningful thoughts artfully. There is even a place for apologetics in worship services; that place is called the sermon. Here, instead of spiritual elevation and longing after God sought in a traditional worship service, this particular reading in this particular context regaling the listeners with the legally-charged of concept of “consent” seemed as out of place - if you’ll pardon the expression - as a fart in church, especially when compared with the traditional and worshipfully beautiful King James Version Annunciation reading of Luke 1: 26-38. While exceptional in its content, it is clear, calm, even comforting, without political undertones clearly aimed at today. But, that, I suspect, is precisely why it was chosen. Those in Church of England hierarchy, academic departments, and political establishments are, lest we forget, our betters charged by themselves with our instruction and “progress” (and you thought feudalism was in the past).
I write this with heavy heart, as we can see what was once spiritual and aesthetic, refined over generations, has been conscripted into the political arena at a time when everything is political. And we are all the poorer because of it. It is likely our spiritual bankruptcy is surely a leading indicator of the planned economic and consequent social bankruptcy as well. But they tell us, all that is “for our own good”, too.
[To my readers - Please excuse errors, misspellings, grammatical faults etc. The more I wrote on this topic - and I spent considerable time researching, writing/editing - the less satisfied I was in expressing it. It is, indeed grievous for me to set forth as I believe it is but a small representative component of a large inflection point we are all experiencing in most aspects of our lives every day. I’m worn out by the knowledge].