Posted by: Titus Presler | December 21, 2009

Episcopal Lessons & Carols highlights mission uniquely

In Advent and the run-up to Christmas, Episcopalians and other Anglicans around the world are meditating on the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ through the Festival of Lessons and Carols.  This liturgy of prophetic and nativity readings alternating with seasonal anthems and carols has come to be regarded as a uniquely Anglican contribution to Christian worship, this despite less than a century having elapsed since its introduction at King’s College, Cambridge, England, in 1918.

Lessons and Carols has become a fond tradition, both enhancing and expressing the warm and affectionate bonds of parish communities, especially as families gather for Christmas.  It is worth noting, therefore, that the liturgical centerpiece of the liturgy has significant mission concern, even aside from the missional dimensions of the lessons and carols.  The Bidding Prayer by the officiant opening the service has mission focus in all versions of the prayer as intercession is bidden for the poor, hungry, oppressed, sick, lonely and aged, alongside a number of other named categories.  The christological rationale of  Christ’s passionate love for those on the margins is expressed in an especially touching way:

And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us at this time remember in his name the poor and the helpless, the hungry and the oppressed; the sick and those who mourn; the lonely and the unloved; the aged and the little children; and all those who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.

People of the Episcopal Church USA will be interested to know that the versions of the Bidding Prayer in The Book of Occasional Services differ from the King’s College bidding in specifically mentioning “mission” in asking prayer for the church.  The traditional-language biddings for Advent and Christmas Lessons and Carols put it this way:

But first, let us pray for the needs of his whole world; for peace and goodwill over all the earth; for the mission and unity of the Church for which he died, and especially in this country and within this city.

Oddly, the contemporary-language versions for both Advent and Christmas reverse the order of mission and unity, putting unity first.  This raises an important theological and missiological question, especially relevant in current Anglican controversies, whether unity is the fruit of mission, or mission the fruit of unity.  In the current situation, for instance, is mission being fatally damaged by Anglican disunity, or will undertaking common mission be the route back to unity?  The truth is that the two live in perpetual symbiosis: mission is helped by unity, unity is strengthened by mission, and lack of either impedes the other.

Not surprising for a missiologist, I would put mission first in the word order – and fortunately I prefer the traditional-language version anyway!  The church was birthed by being sent out on mission by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and it was that mission that united the vision and energies of the early Christian communities.  The first dissensions that threatened unity were disagreements about mission.  Who would take care of the widows in the first Jerusalem community?  Should non-Jews be welcomed directly upon their as Christians, or did they also have to become Jews?  It was later that theological and moral dissension arose, as it did at Corinth about the resurrection, food offered to idols and sexual and legal ethics.  And so on down through the centuries.

The current Episcopal Church versions of the Bidding Prayer differ from the version used at King’s College not in the particular concerns – the poor, oppressed and sick – but in the general concern named for the church, for the English version does not name mission but rather “unity and brotherhood within the Church,” a more parochial vision of the church’s life:

But first let us pray for the needs of his whole world; for peace and goodwill over all the earth; for unity and brotherhood within the Church he came to build, and 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 Eton.

The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church USA emphasizes mission more that did its predecessors and more than recent Church of England formularies.  It is striking and encouraging that that this emphasis worked its way even into Lessons and Carols.  In practice, the service typically has considerable mission impact as it draws in large numbers of people who ordinarily are not church attenders.  For instance, regular Sunday attendance was 600 at the first parish I served as an ordained person, Christ Church of Hamilton and Wenham in Massachusetts, but Lessons and Carols was so popular that two back-to-back services were held for a total attendance of 1,200.  At the 2009 Lessons and Carols at Grace Church, White Plains, N.Y., over 200 people attended, and it appeared that about half were not church members.  It is, of course, hard to ascertain how many L&C drop-ins ultimately become church members.  Yet that is secondary to the fact that, on a yearly basis at innumerable Lessons and Carols services around the world, a very large number of non-churchgoing people hear the news of the Incarnation and glimpse a piece of heaven in transporting music and ceremony.

So Lessons and Carols turns out to be missional in both content and effect.

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