If its true that parish clergy only work one day a week it must be true that the Dean and Chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge only work one day a year – Christmas Eve. After all, this is the one thing that our Chapel is known for – Carols at Christmas.
Every year since 1918 at 3.00pm, and since 1928 broadcast live on Radio, we have celebrated ‘A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols’. Today the Radio audience, or I should rather say Radio Congregation, numbers untold millions – quite a lot of whom will be in their kitchen, preparing sprouts, stuffing a turkey or peeling potatoes. But there will be many, many more who are a long way away from the turkey roast version of Christmas.
We do quite a lot of broadcasting from King’s at other times of year, but it is on Christmas Eve that the Radio Congregation seems to make itself especially strongly felt. I suppose its the fact that most of us present in the Chapel will have first heard the service at home on the radio, or perhaps in the car. But whatever the reason there is an eerie palpability of the very many who are with us, waiting for words and sounds that are familiar, and asking, by mere dint of tuning in, to be drawn into something that is both transcendental and universal and yet also particular and intimate.
After all, King’s may be a big College Chapel – there will about 1200 people in the building – but its still basically and fundamentally a College Chapel like the others in Cambridge. And the stalls will be filled not with serried ranks of senior clergy but with about a third of the Fellows of the College, each of whom is restricted to one guest each. There will be no bishop present – not so much as a cathedral canon. Just us. Members of college, choir families, some local dignitaries and a few hundred people who have chosen to queue for on average about seven hours for the sheer joy of being there.
I live about a mile away from College – no grand Deanery here – and will walk in shortly after 8 in the morning. After wandering around bit to talk to people in the queue I will disappear into the Chapel for the first service of the day. Not many people know this, but we broadcast the BBC’s Daily Service live at 9.45 on Long Wave. The little boys (choristers) don’t take part. There is no congregation. It’s just me and the choral scholars and the Director of Music – the BBC having made the Antechapel into a recording studio. There is a little rehearsing from 9 and then we go live at 9.45. It’s all about timing – the service ends with ‘the pips’ for 10 o’clock. Last year the producer told me, ‘I want you to finish at 9.59 and 54 seconds’. The theme is ‘The Light of the World’ and the mostly unaccompanied voices make a beautiful start to the day.
Immediately after that there follows about an hour of rehearsals and sound level tests for the readers. There are, famously, nine readings – but ten readers, so to speak – as I don’t read a lesson but do read the Bidding and offer the prayer and blessing at the end.
No sooner is that over that the choir have the Chapel for yet another rehearsal. This concludes at about 12.30 with a few nervous boys singing through the solo verse of ‘Once in Royal’ so that come 3.00pm the Director of Music can calmly beckon the one who is on top form this very day to step forward and start the service.
Some of us gather in the Provost’s Lodge for a very nice lunch where we try to relax – College people, a few guests and the BBC team – but its inevitably bit nervy. At 1.30 the Chapel staff and porters oversee the entry of the queue into the Chapel. They have exactly an hour to do this because at 2.30 the Civic Procession arrives and the Mayor and entourage are installed with the College hierarchy, and everyone settles for the extended organ recital that precedes the service – and the staff see if they can squeeze a few more people in at the back.
To be continued.