The time had come, the Choristers were singing “he hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek.” The Bishop stepped down from his throne, and the Boy Bishop stood up. The two traded places, and as the Bishop tried to find his place in the music, the Boy Bishop tried to get comfortable in his robes and immense hat. This boy is one of hundreds who have done the same thing and felt the same way.
The tradition of the Boy Bishop stretches back over many hundred years. “Earliest reference to a boy bishop at Hereford is circa 1250,” the Bishop of Hereford says. Henry VIII abolished it in England in 1542. He didn’t feel the need to have the throne taken away from him. Ten years later, in 1552, Mary I restored the tradition to England, only to have her successor, Elizabeth I, abolish it again. Ordinarily, English monarchs were tightfisted about the throne. However, the tradition couldn’t be suppressed forever. It was revived, once, in 1973 during a special service for children at Hereford Cathedral. Four hundred some odd years later, in 1982, the Boy Bishop became an annual tradition again.
On Saint Nicholas day, a boy (traditionally the Head Chorister) is chosen to be the Boy Bishop. The boy is completely in charge. He leads the services, the prayers, and gives communion. Until December Twenty-eighth, his are the sermons the congregation will hear. The reason for this reversal is to teach humility to the powerful. Humility is a lesson that powerful people don’t often learn, because they don’t want to give up their position, their authority, their title. However, Jesus often says things like, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” This suggests that if, like St Nicholas, we put our time and effort into helping others, there will be a reward. The rule of Heaven is the reward we should seek. Jesus says, “A child shall lead them.”
Adults often have supreme power. They are older and perhaps wiser. However, it is often the case that children notice something adults do not. The power that the Boy or Child Bishop has is making adults realize the other side of the story: sometimes children aren’t the ones who need to learn something. Unlike adults, children may not have unwavering ideas or beliefs to be stuck in, and from time to time adults overlook the important part of something. Nobody is forced to agree with anything the Child Bishop says, but listening could teach something that has never been noticed. Jesus says, “No man shall enter the kingdom of heaven if he shall not do it as a child shall.”
As the Child Bishop processes into Hereford Cathedral during the ceremony, the Choristers sing: “They are seated in heavenly majesty: they humbly adore thee and cry out: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, all things are full of thy glory.” This teaches that the reign of the powerful on earth will end. But God’s reign will not. Originally, the Boy Bishop would have fellow boys dressed up as priests and deacons. Together they would make their way around the village, blessing people.
Here at St Andrew’s we are not going to do that. Pittsburgh is far too large. But somehow it seems that the congregation will still be blessed. They are blessed with new ideas and a different personality, another opinion, an eye opener. The lesson that the Child Bishop teaches is that everyone can, and sometimes needs, to have a new way of looking and listening.