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Hallo again to all.

The southwestern corner of England entered written history as the kingdom of Dumnonia. Inhabited by a Celtic tribe called the Dumnonii, who seem not to have lost their identity to invading Romans, it was a stronghold of the Brythons or Britons. When the Diocese of Crediton was created there in AD 909, it included both the tribal lands today called Cornwall and those called Devon. In AD 1050 the bishop moved the see city from vulnerable Crediton to the safer Exeter, thereby requiring that the diocese now be called the Diocese of Exeter. A great cathedral was built in Exeter over the span of some 270 years. When finished in about AD 1400, the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter at Exeter became one of the world's great cathedrals.

By the 19th century the Diocese of Exeter had become unmanageably large. With five archdeaconries, two assisting bishops, and more than 20 deaneries it was a prime candidate for division. In December 1876 the Diocese of Exeter was split to create the Diocese of Truro, which encompassed all of Cornwall. Chosen as the first bishop of the new Diocese of Truro was Edward White Benson, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury.

Cornwall was at that time thriving economically. Its tin mines and fisheries and dairy farms were very productive, and Cornish miners were considered the most skilled in the world. Bishop Benson's new flock, therefore, consisted in large part of tin miners and fishermen and their families. One of the problems he faced was that Truro had no cathedral, and no building that was a credible candidate for elevation to cathedral status. No new cathedral construction been started in England since 1220; the task of building from scratch was daunting. Construction of the permanent Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary was begun in 1880, but Bishop Benson needed a transitional cathedral of some sort.

In just a few weeks in the summer of 1880, Cornish carpenters threw together a barn-like building for interim use, made of Cornish elm wood. No cardboard tubes were involved. It was uninsulated, not well sealed against the elements, and seated fewer than 400 people. But it had to do, because the permanent cathedral would not be consecrated for seven more years.

During the new bishop's first Advent season in his rickety barn of a cathedral, he was anxious to deter the tin miners and carpenters and fishermen from spending Christmas Eve in a pub. There were many pubs in Truro, so he devised a service for Christmas Eve that he thought would interest them enough that they would go to church and not to the pub. He devised and announced a 'Festal Service for Christmas Eve'. Bishop Benson's biographer (his son Arthur) recalled that

...we used to have a service originally drawn up by him for Truro Cathedral, called "Nine Lessons with Carols." The first three of these short lessons, consisting of five or six verses each, were read by Choir-boys, the next two by Choir-men, the following three in succession by one of the Chaplains, the Curate, and the Vicar of the parish, and the last by the Archbishop, who also gave a benediction before each of the nine carols.*

That first Christmas Eve in Truro the final lesson was of course read by Bishop Benson himself. We know of no record of the attendance or of the participants' sense of success or failure, but Bishop Benson thought enough of the service that he continued it every year there in Truro.

By early January 1883, Bishop Benson had gotten himself translated to Canterbury, where he was Archbishop thereof until his sudden death in October 1896. The successor bishops of Truro continued the Truro tradition of the Nine Lessons service and it is still held there to this day on 23 December. The next Archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Temple, did not continue the tradition there, but the Dean of King's College Cambridge, Eric Milner-White, had come across the Truro service and believed that it was something for King's College to adapt and adopt. The first lessons-and-carols event was held in King's College Chapel in 1918, and every year thereafter.

The annual King's College Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has become world-famous, and has through the decades inspired a majority of the world's Anglican churches to hold some sort of lessons and carols service each Advent or Christmas. We believe that the extraordinary harmonization and arrangement by Arthur Henry Mann of 'Once in Royal David's City', which always opens the Kings College service, has been an important component of the success of that event. (So has its being broadcast worldwide by the BBC every year).

On Tuesday 17 December 2013 at 7:00pm, Truro Cathedral will stage a reconstruction of the original Nine Lessons service. A full description of this marvellous event can be found here on Truro Cathedral's website. If you are lucky enough to find some way to be in Cornwall that evening, the event will begin with a 6pm lecture on the reconstruction process. The service will be webcast and will be available online afterwards. If you can't make it, perhaps you can be in St Mary's Street in Truro on 23 December for the 133rd Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at the site of the first one. Well, near the site: the wooden transitional cathedral was torn down more than a century ago. Probably it was used for firewood.

See you next week.

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15 December 2013

*The Life of Edward White Benson, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury, Volume 1. Arthur Christopher Benson. Macmillan, 1899. Page 639.

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