Monday 24 December 2018

Eric Milner-White OGS, CBE, DSO (1884 – 1963) – British Anglican Priest, Academic and Military Chaplain

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve

The idea of holding a special Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge University in England came from Eric Milner-White who was appointed Dean of King’s College.

Eric Milner-White was the son of Henry Milner-White (1855 – 1922), a barrister, company chairman and Justice of the Peace for Hampshire, and his wife Kathleen Lucy (née Meeres). Eric had two brothers – Rudolph (1885 – 1954) and Algernon (1887-1895). The boys’ Mother died in 1890 and their father married Annie Booth Teasdale in 1894. They later became Sir Henry and Lady Milner-White. Educated at Harrow School, Eric went up to King's College, Cambridge in 1903. He won a scholarship to Cambridge to read history and graduated in 1906 with a double-first and was the recipient of the Lightfoot Scholarship.

After theological training at Cuddesdon College in 1907, Eric was ordained as an Anglican Church Deacon in 1908 and Priest in 1909 in Southwark Cathedral, London. He served curacies at St Paul's Church, Newington (1908–1909) and St Mary Magdalen, Woolwich (1909–1912) before returning to King's College as Chaplain in 1912. He was appointed lecturer in history at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge at the same time.

During the First World War, Eric volunteered for service as an army chaplain and served on both the Western Front and on the Italian Front. He was appointed senior chaplain to 7th Infantry Division on 15 February 1917 (with temporary promotion to Chaplain to the Forces, 3rd Class).  For his service during this period he was Mentioned in Despatches on 24th December 1917 and awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in the 1918 New Year Honours List. 

Eric resigned his commission on 5th January 1918 and returned to Cambridge. Upon returning he was made the Dean and a Fellow of King's College.  Eric was horrified by what he had witnessed during his time at the Fronts of WW1 and, as the College had lost 202 men during the conflict, he decided to make their Festivals simpler, warmer and more colourful.  He began after the Armistice for Christmas 1918 with the creation of a new Christmas Eve service that would allow anyone to join in and celebrate as well as grieve for absent friends.  There would be no Latin, no sermon, no Psalms but lots of singing.   By 1934, the BBC were claiming the service was “traditional”.

Eric founded the Oratory of the Good Shepherd and served as the Order's Superior from 1923 to 1938. He was re-appointed as an honorary chaplain to the armed forces, 3rd class, on 1st September 1921.

During his time at King's College, Eric introduced the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols. This was first broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1928 and has now become a major part of the BBC's Christmas programme.

Eric remained at King's College, Cambridge until 1941, when he was appointed Dean of York. During his time as Dean, he directed the replacement of many of York Minster's windows and undertook a great deal of writing on liturgical matters, for example My God My Glory (1954). He served on various national committees and served on the Advisory Council of the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1944 to 1959 due to his interest in stained-glass windows. He also became Provost of the northern section of the Woodard Corporation, a charity which runs a number of private schools with a strong Christian ethos and, from 1948 to 1962, was amongst those who produced the New English Bible.

A number of Eric Milner-White's written papers are held at the King's College Archive Centre at the University of Cambridge, having been presented to the University in 1982 by Milner-White's "literary executor", the Reverend P. N. Pare. Other items have since been added to the collection.

Eric, who was an avid collector of ceramics, was made an Honorary Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Glaziers in 1948 and appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1952 Queen's Birthday Honours List. The same year he was awarded a Lambeth Doctorate of Divinity. He was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters (DLitt) in 1962 by the University of Leeds.

Eric Milner-White died of cancer in the Deanery of York Minster on 15th June 1963.   Since his death, student accommodation at the University of York's Vanbrugh College has been named after him.

Source:  Article in “The Telegraph Magazine” by Guy Kelly, 15th December 2018 pp 33 and 35 – sent to me by a friend.