Sunday, December 06, 2009

Boy bishops.

Though it falls on a Sunday this year, today's date is that of the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra. Beloved and revered in both the Eastern and Western churches, the fourth-century bishop of Myra in Lycia is honored at this time of year with celebrations and festal customs that differ widely from country to country. One of the more novel traditions associated with the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra is the enthronement of boy bishops, cathedral choristers whose honorary episcopacy lasted until the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28th. In the pages of William Hone's Every-day Book, an English almanac of the nineteenth-century, we find the following description of the tradition of the boy bishop:
Anciently on the 6th of December, it being St. Nicholas's Day, the choir boys in cathedral churches, chose one of their number to maintain the state and authority of a bishop, for which purpose the boy was habited in rich episcopal robes, wore a mitre on his head, and bore a crosier in his hand; and his fellows, for the time being, assumed the character and dress of priests, yielded him canonical obedience, took possession of the church, and except mass, performed all the ecclesiastical ceremonies and offices. Though the boy bishop's election was on the 6th of December, yet his office and authority lasted till the 28th, being Innocents' day.
The Advent tradition of the boy bishop has enjoyed a modest revival in recent years, as a number of English cathedrals and other churches have resumed the practice of enthroning a boy bishop on or around the date of the Feast of St. Nicholas. One such place is Hereford Cathedral, which enthroned its latest adolescent prelate in a ceremony held earlier today. Lest you dismiss this event and others like it as matters of purely local interest, I should note the attention paid to last year's enthronement by the BBC and by The Daily Telegraph. Here is part of what Telegraph reporter Adrian Tierney-Jones wrote last year about the tradition of boy bishops:
Hereford Cathedral is made for Christmas. Its sandstone walls are soft and embracing while the cast iron stoves give out welcome warmth. Candles flicker and there's that wonderful smell of old books, incense and slight damp. The Bishop, clad in heavily encrusted robes and mitre, is the height of ecclesiastical solemnity - until he hands over his authority to a teenager, the Boy Bishop.

. . .

"The earliest reference to a Boy Bishop at Hereford is circa 1250," says the Bishop of Hereford, the Right Reverend Anthony Martin Priddis. "It demonstrated Christ's command of becoming child-like and how he took a little child and 'set him in the midst of them (the disciples).'"

It is also a tradition connected to the sense of anarchy and role reversal that was once common at the Christmastide period: the hunting and killing of the wren was one such custom, while "lords of misrule" were ubiquitous in the 16th century. Major abbeys and schools observed the tradition: Westminster School's Boy Bishop was clad in a jewelled mitre and velvet robes embroidered with gold. It was not without its problems though: in 1443, a vicar following Salisbury Cathedral's Boy Bishop got into a fight and knocked a townsman out. A few years later in the same city the choristers were said to have got unruly and jeered at the Vicar's Choral.
Suppressed during the English Reformation, the tradition of boy bishops began to make a quiet comeback in the 20th century. For the Telegraph's Tierney-Jones, the revived institution enjoys a place in a hallowed pantheon of Advent and Christmas practices:
Spiritual and seasonal, even if incongruous, the ceremony of the Boy Bishop is a delightful Christmas custom that plugs us into our past and offers a staging post on the journey to Christmas, a route that has many commercial diversions. Forget Tesco, this is up there with school nativity plays, Christmas carol services and calling the neighbours round for a few drinks. Even though it is a Christian service, I can't help but think that there is something pagan about its theme of role reversal and the world turned upside down, a link back to Saturnalia and those long-lost traditions where a tribe made someone king for a day.
For my part, it strikes me that 'role reversal' customs like the enthronement of boy bishops remind us of the earth-shaking significance of the unique event that Advent prepares us to celebrate. It seems to me that the sheer familiarity of the story of Christ's Nativity often leads Christians to forget that the very fact of the Incarnation presents us with a "world turned upside down" - a world that our God chose to enter, becoming a human being and taking on the burden of our frailty and limitation. With the help of customs and traditions like the enthronement of boy bishops, this time of Advent gives us ample opportunity to renew our sense of surprise and wonder at the imminent arrival of He who is to come. AMDG.


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