Last Sunday (10 December) saw a young Cathedral singer become ‘bishop’ for the evening. Thirteen-year-old Nathaniel Halls, this year’s Chorister Bishop, led the worship in place of The Right Reverend Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury, in a special Chorister Bishop Evensong that harks back to medieval times.
Nathaniel also delivered a sermon, which he wrote himself, from the Cathedra (or Bishop’s Throne) and whilst he held sway during the service, Bishop Nicholas, divested of his robes, mitre and staff, sat bareheaded in the Sanctuary.
The topsy-turvy Chorister Bishop ceremony echoes the Medieval practice of holding festivals in which the ‘high’ became ‘low’ and vice versa. In this case, the elected Chorister Bishop was in office from St Nicholas Day until Holy Innocents Day at the end of December, empowered to make decisions on the disposal of benefices (or church appointments) that fell vacant within this period, as well as presiding over all services. The practice continued right up until the reign of Henry VIII, who put a stop to it declaring it a distraction from proper church business. It was revived in its present form in Salisbury during the 1980s.
During his sermon, Chorister Bishop Nathaniel Halls wryly observed that the job swap might possibly prove a challenge to Bishop Nicholas:
“Bishop Nicholas and I have to swap places, with me being a bishop and him becoming a chorister… I am pretty sure the Bishop is used to early starts and long days, and I hope he is good at sight reading, as we get through a huge amount of music every day.”
Exploring the symbolism of the service, which emphasises the need to empower the powerless, Nathaniel went on to talk about the plight of children living in poverty, sick in hospital and who are refugees, fleeing war and famine and making long, dangerous journeys in search of a new life: “Yes, children can be messy, but they can be ill, homeless, hungry or afraid. Given a chance, children are trusting, brave, determined, loving, and thoughtful... Tomorrow Bishop Nicholas gets back his mitre and his ring. Until then let’s think what good can happen when things turn upside down… let us try to help those less fortunate than ourselves.”
Nathaniel was a ‘bishop’ for just the one service and the symbolic purse containing £5 that he received was no match for the money and power a medieval Boy Bishop would have had at his disposal. His position, however, marks him out as the most senior chorister, requiring him to demonstrate leadership qualities as well as being an outstanding singer.
After the weekend’s performance of 'Messiah' and celebrations, it was back to ‘work as usual’ for Nathaniel and the Choir. Christmas week is fast approaching bringing with it some of the most important services in the Liturgical Year:
Friday 22 December
19.00 Carols by Candlelight
Saturday 23 December
19.00 Carols by Candlelight
Sunday 24 December
10.30 Christmas Eve Eucharist
15.30 Star of Wonder, the Christmas Eve Family service
17.30 Festal Evensong
23.00 Midnight Mass (note the earlier start time)
Monday 25 December
10.30 Christmas Day Eucharist
15.00 Festal Evensong
For full Christmas event and service listings click HERE or check Salisbury Cathedral website.