Westminster to Celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Popular Lessons and Carols Service
A Tradition That Began in Cambridge, England
More than 40 years ago, a Westminster College religion professor on sabbatical in Cambridge, England, fell in love with the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Chapel at Cambridge University.
When he enthusiastically re-created the holiday service in 1983 at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, little did he know it would still be going strong four decades later.
“When I returned to campus and suggested the idea to my colleague, the late Dr. Chris Hauer, he agreed that it would be appropriate to celebrate our own Lessons and Carols service at the beginning of the Christmas season,” explains Dr. Bill Young, Professor Emeritus of Religion, adding that the event is always held on campus during the second Sunday of Advent. “I am very grateful that those who followed me as Westminster’s chaplains and spiritual life directors have continued the Lessons and Carols tradition.”
The Tradition Continues on Dec. 10, 2023
Westminster’s 40th Annual Festival of Lessons and Carols will take place at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023, in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, part of America’s National Churchill Museum.* The event is free and open to the public.
Like the King’s College tradition that began in 1918 and traditionally takes place on Christmas Eve, Westminster’s Lessons and Carols service includes the reading of nine biblical scriptures that pertain to the Christmas story.
Each reading is followed by a reflective carol. And just like Young and Hauer’s original service in 1983, the current Festival of Lessons and Carols includes a number of members from the local community. Faculty and staff members, area musicians, and the Churchill Singers — Westminster’s 29-member choral ensemble — round out the service.
The Significant Tradition of the Churchill Singers
Dr. Natasia Sexton, conductor of the Churchill Singers, is particularly pleased the College is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the event.
”I’m so appreciative to Rev. Bill Young for establishing this tradition at Westminster,” Sexton says. “The pattern of scripture readings is the same each year, but that progression from darkness to light is timeless. And the Bidding Prayer, that calls us into community together, always feels so necessary and timely, because we’ve all made it through the semester. We carry burdens, worries, knowledge of violence and suffering in the world … that particular prayer opens space for us to be together and holds the promise and potential of light coming out of darkness. It’s mystical, and I’m moved by it each year.”
Similar to the King’s College Chapel service, Westminster’s Festival of Lessons and Carols begins with the processional “Once in Royal David’s City” and features a Churchill Singer who performs the first verse of the song a cappella from the church balcony.
Young reflects, “I have many wonderful memories of the festival, but that performance stands out. It sets the tone for what is always a deeply moving experience.”
Natalie Benton, ’26 ΑΓΔ, from St. Peter’s, Missouri, will perform the holiday carol this year.
The event will end with Westminster’s tradition of the Churchill Singers performing “Joy to the World” after the ninth reading and the congregation joining with the choir in singing “Silent Night.”
A Spiritual Tradition for All
Logan John, Chaplain of the College, encourages Westminster and local community members alike to attend the service, because the service is about more than a 40-year tradition.
“Lessons and Carols is about sharing in a spiritual tradition practiced around the world, participating in the shared heritage of our beautiful Church, and honoring God’s light during these dark winter days,” John explains. “I encourage all community members to share in the stories of scripture, and delight in the power of music.”
*For those who cannot attend in person, a livestream will be available on Westminster’s Facebook and YouTube pages as well as the Facebook and YouTube pages of America’s National Churchill Museum. The Festival of Lessons and Carols is co-sponsored by Westminster’s Center for Faith & Service, the College’s Fine Arts department, and America’s National Churchill Museum.