I was lucky enough to have a hot ticket for the King’s College Advent Procession last night.
Advent at King’s is a theatrical affair. The whole chapel is darkened, except for the candles in the choir stalls. The choir and celebrants (assorted priests, chaplains, acolytes, vergers) mass by the West Door, where the choir sing various introits and anthems; then make their way by degrees to the Rood screen, where once again they stop and sing; then to the choir stalls; thence towards the altar, pausing midway to perform an antiphonal hymn; then up to the alter for some Bruckner and Bach; and finally back to the choir stalls. As they progress along the chapel, the lights come on in their wake, until the whole chapel is once again a refulgent ship in the night. It is almost enough to make you wish you were a Christian.
Ceremonial and Ritual are not exclusive Christian preserves, of course. The taxi driver who drove me to King’s was from a Bangladeshi family (as he informed me), and he is a Muslim. He had asked me where I was going, and when I told him, asked me if I was religious. I said no, and we talked about why I might be going along anyway, and agreed that it was nice to take part in a ritual, religious or otherwise. There is a peculiar sense of community in the celebration of a ritual, the community in question not only being those bodily present, but also those ghosts who have participated in the ceremony or ritual in years and centuries past.
I was put in mind of the vague awe one of our students, Alexei, felt recently (read about it here) when he attended a football match at Villa Park on 11th November, Armistice Day, and the sounding of the Last Post was followed by a minute’s silence from the forty-odd thousand spectators, and then a great roar when the referee’s whistle blew.
The advent ritual at King’s is a relatively recent one. The processional order of service was first fixed in 1934, and has been added to over the years – it begins and ends with anthem written especially for King’s by Philip Ledger in 2007. The tradition continues to deepen. But the gradual alteration of a tradition does not alter its status as tradition. The Last Post was played at Villa Park this year, for all I know, for the first time.