High-church populism in Advent

Advent, we are told, is counter-cultural.  While the rest of society is already celebrating Christmas, devout liturgical Christians are properly observing Advent - restoring its penitential character, avoiding Christmas carols, being a community of exiles amidst prevailing consumerism and excess.

Strangely, however, the liturgical event which marks the beginning of the season - the Advent Procession - is remarkably popular.  Take, for example, these statements regarding the Advent Procession:

This service will be full to capacity so please arrive early (doors open at 4.15pm). Seats are unreserved and are on a first come first serve basis - Yorkminster.

As these are very popular services, members of the congregation are advised to arrive in good time - Durham Cathedral.

Please arrive in good time to be sure of getting in before the permitted capacity is reached - Salisbury Cathedral.

One of the most popular services of the Abbey’s year - Bath Abbey.

This is a liturgy centred around the creedal teaching on the Last Judgement, in which the Prayer Book collect's words echo ("when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty"), resounding not to Christmas carols but Advent hymns, illuminated not by festive Christmas lights but more subdued hand-held candles.

No, the Advent character of this liturgy cannot be missed.  And yet it is popular.  Advent, rather than being a sectarian, counter-cultural preserve of an ecclesial few, would seem to have cultural resonance. The popularity of the Advent Procession suggests the culture has a desire for something more than a 'secular' December.  A desire, in other words, for Advent. 

Thus the Advent Procession is another example of a High Church populism which gathers up cultural desires, yearnings, and experiences into the Church's life of prayer and praise. In the cold, dark days of early December, amidst the busy demands of commercial and social life, the Advent Procession draws the culture into an experience of Christ-centred hope, peace, and light.

The High Church populism is evident in memorable hymns, in readings from the Scriptures which capture the imagination, in the use of dark and light, movement and space, in celebrating a liturgical season in a 'heart speaks unto heart' manner.  The Advent Procession demonstrates, in other words, that the High Church tradition can be populist - that it contains vibrantly populist practices and spirituality.

And it is a High Church populism which can confidently celebrate the beginning of the Advent season, knowing that Advent speaks to the yearnings of a culture much less at ease with its secularism than can appear.

In this context, we might consider this tweet from John Milbank:
There have been a number of critical responses to this but I don't think any have yet picked up on Milbank's reference to "Eucharistic solemnity".  Part of the High Church tradition's populism is the recognition of the need for a rich, resonant experience of liturgical worship outside the Eucharist.  Advent begins and ends with such examples of High Church populism - the Advent Procession and the Nine Lessons and Carols.  Surely the lesson here - alongside the growing popularity of Choral Evensong - is to ensure that non-Eucharistic worship is not dismissed as a distraction to 'proper' (i.e Eucharistic) church or assumed to be the property of an evangelical tradition in which worship is defined by relevance rather than resonance.

The High Church populism of Advent, in other words, needs to be rolled out across the Christian year, embracing feast and fast, and the events of national and civic life.


  1. So what is the difference between this and Advent Lessons And Carols? I have been looking for a pdf of the liturgy but am finding nothing. I mean, yeah, Procession, but what does that mean? Does the whole entourage of choir and clergy move around the church the whole time, singing and reading at stations, or what?

    1. Yes, Advent Lessons and Carols, with procession/movement and use of darkness/light. The choir and clergy process. The extent of movement will obviously depend on the size of the church building. The procession's movement from west (door) to east (chancel) is, of course, deeply rooted in the Christian tradition ad orientem - our turning towards the Advent of the Lord. Try this pdf for the liturgy - https://www.elycathedral.org/files/pdf/orders-of-service/2018adventprocession.pdf


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