The Bidding Prayer at Nine Lessons and Carols: Innovation and Variations

“Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmas Eve . . .” For 101 years these have been the first words spoken in the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, England. Since 1928 the British Broadcasting Corporation has carried the service beyond the chapel walls. Now it reaches the world. The stately bidding prayer written for the first service in 1918 by Dean Eric Milner-White seems timeless, but there have been tweaks over the years, and denominational worship resource books in the United States and Great Britain present different versions of it. Since “Christmas in July” was just a few days ago and liturgists may be beginning to play for December, it seems a good time to post a few thoughts on the prayer in time for possible use by those planning services for this Advent or Christmas.

But first I should say, this post gets into the weeds of this topic. One might say it is for “liturgy geeks.” Others might not be as interested. Martha, my wife and regular dialogue partner on all things liturgical, encourages me to post this warning.

The bidding prayer appears on page 10 of the service leaflet for the 2018 service which is available on the King’s College website here.

Structure

While the opening address, which Dean Eric Milner-White first drafted for the 1918 service, was labeled by him as a “biding prayer.” It bids the congregation to do more than just pray. First, it asks them to “journey in heart and mind” to Bethlehem and there, like the shepherds to “see.” It asks the congregation to activate their imagination. Second, it invites them to “read and mark” the story of God in the Bible. The allusion here is to the collect of the day that the congregation would have heard just over two weeks earlier on the Second Sunday of Advent, now, in the Episcopal Church, this is used earlier in the fall. Third, it invites the congregation to praise God with carols. Only then, as a preface to these activities, does bid the congregation to pray.

Customization

The bidding prayer used at King’s refers by name to the place and community in which it occurs. I think this practice is important to retain when the prayer is adapted to other places. The prayer does this in two places. First, the congregation is invited to make “this Chapel, dedicated to Mary, his most blessed Mother, glad with our carols of praise.” Not every church has a name or dedication that is as directly relevant to Christmas celebrations. But the names of many can still be mentioned. At Christmas Eve in 2018 the prayer used at Washington National Cathedral ran “this Cathedral Church, dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul.” That is good, but the link to Jesus is lost. It would be better, to say “dedicated to his apostles Peter and Paul.”

Even when the name of the church wouldn’t work well in this context, it may be that a feature of the church’s iconography or identity might serve well here. For example, at Samford University where I teach, the service was held for several years in Andrew Gerow Hodges Chapel. The chapel features a depiction of “the great cloud of witnesses” mentioned in Hebrews 11 in its dome. This fact is well known on campus. Here, therefore I would say “this chapel crowned by the great cloud of his witnesses.” If no reference to the church’s identity is particularly relevant, then “this house of prayer” or “this church” may be used.

The second place where the prayer names the local context, is at the end of the first set of petitions. Here at King’s they say, “especially in the dominions of our sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth, within this University and City of Cambridge, and in the two royal and religious Foundations of King Henry VI here and at Eaton.“ The version of the prayer in the United Methodist Book of Worship (1992) and the Book of Common Worship (Presbyterian Church (USA), 2018) simply eliminates any reference to the local place. The Book of Occasional Services (Episcopal Church, 1979 and later editions) reads “especially in this country and within this city.” The italics invites appropriate customization, though this is often not done. I suggest that it should be. For example, at Samford, I would suggest the prayer say “especially within Samford University and the Birmingham metropolitan area.” I resort to “metropolitan area” since the City of Birmingham is only a part of the area and Samford is located outside of it.

Two Primary Variations

The official worship books of denominations in the United States provide different versions of the bidding prayer. The ones in the United Methodist Book of Worship (1992) and in the Book of Common Worship (2018) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) are almost identical to each other and closely follow the original bidding prayer used at King’s in 1918. (The leaflet for the 1918 service may be viewed here. The bidding prayer is on page 5.)

This differs in subtle but important ways from the version that has been used at King’s in more recent years. It is upon this more recent version that the text in the Book of Occasional Services (1979) (pages 33-34) of the Episcopal Church and Common Worship: Times and Seasons (2006) of the Church of England are based. Worship planners may wish to look at both versions, and decide which to choose. There are three differences.

The first difference between these two versions of the King’s prayer is that the 1918 version speaks of “the first days of our sin” while the later revision speaks of “the first days of our disobedience.” Another difference is the actions of Christ mentioned in the first set of intercessory biddings. The 1918 version bids prayers for “peace upon the earth He came to save, for love and unity in the one Church he did build.” The more recent version omits the reference to Christ coming to save, but speaks of his action to the church as part of his mission, rather than his accomplishment: “for unity and brotherhood withing the Church he came to build.”

A second difference is in the referent for the memorable phrase “and because this of all things would rejoice his heart.” In the 1918 version this phrase introduces the call to prayer: “because this of all things would rejoice His heart, let us pray to Him for the needs of the whole world . . . .” In the later version, the phrase introduces the second set of prayer intentions which are largely for the suffering: “because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us at this time remember in his name the poor and the helpless . . .” Rhetorically, the latter is an improvement. It renews the congregation’s attention to the prayer intentions much more effectively than the “and particularly at this time” of the 1918 version. Its claim that Jesus is happier when we pray for the suffering than when we pray for everyone is defensible. But the rationale for the move seems more rhetorical, than theological.

A third difference is in the initial petitions for the world and for the church. In the 1918 prayer the order of intentions is (1) “peace upon the earth,” (2) “love and unity” in the Church, and (3) “brotherhood and good will amongst all men, especially in . . .” The revised prayer streamlines by combining the petitions for peace and good will, but in so doing might be heard as only praying for the church in places that are named rather than for the places themselves. The order is (1) “peace and goodwill” on earth, (2) “unity and brotherhood” in the church, (3) and [unity and brotherhood] especially in the mentioned places.

The general spirit of the prayer, and the 1918 version upon which the later version is based, suggests that one is not just praying for the church in these places, but for the entire community. But arguably the grammar suggests a narrower reading. The Book of Occasional Services makes the narrower reading explicit in the bidding prayer in its order for Advent Lessons and Carols (“and especially for his Church in our country”) while retaining the language of the King’s prayer in the Christmas service (“and especially in this country . . .”)

Other Options

There are of course other versions of the bidding prayer as well. Common Worship: Times and Seasons includes as a second option one in contemporary language which also incorporates contemporary concerns such as the prayer that all people would work for “the establishment of justice, freedom and peace.” A similar prayer for justice as well as peace is included in the version of the tradition prayer in the Book of Occasional Services. Both Common Worship and the Book of Occasional Services provide different bidding prayer for a service in Advent. While that in the Book of Occasional Services differs in minor ways, Common Worship offers three interesting options all of which are distinct from Milner-White’s Christmas Eve bidding at King’s.

Inspection of services from earlier in the 2000s archived on the King’s website will show that in some years other alterations have been made to the bidding. But in recent years this has not occurred.

Innovation

While the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is a now a classic. It is important to remember that at its inception, it was an innovation. Histories of the service always note this, but rarely explain it. It was an alternative to evening prayer or evensong from the Book of Common Prayer. The inspiration of the bidding prayer is surely the opening address to morning and evening prayer. This is a call to confession of sins, which, like the bidding prayer states the major purposes of the service. One of the service’s innovations was that there was no confession of sin.

The address “Beloved in Christ” was also an innovation. It is never used in the Book of Common Prayer (1662) which was then used in all the services of the Church of England. At morning and evening prayer, the congregation was addressed as “dearly beloved brethren.” In the exhortations before Holy Communion they were “most dearly beloved in Christ” and “dearly beloved in the Lord.” In the services of baptism, matrimony, and the visitation of the sick, the shorter form “dearly beloved” was used. They were never simply “beloved” or “beloved in Christ.” The language was simpler and more direct.

In the King James Version of the Bible that was read in the service, Paul in his letters occasionally addressed his hearers as simply “beloved” and also “beloved in the Lord.” But, again, never “beloved in Christ.”

There were other innovations as well, but the chief were the abundant use of hymns and carols in place of psalms and biblical canticles, and its inclusion of multiple readings of scripture from people of a variety of ages and positions. It is for these reason that the service remains popular.

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