Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, when the whole Church commemorates those children who were killed by King Herod for the sake of the gospel. It is also one of the days that used to be connected to the Boy Bishop tradition - the others being St Nicholas' Day and certain local saints' days. The custom itself, which saw a boy (usually a cathedral chorister) replacing the local bishop for a day or a few weeks, was very popular in the Middle Ages. Sadly, it was suppressed in England during the Protestant Reformation, though continued in some parts of Europe well into the 20th century. In recent years, though, there have been a few attempts to revive this joyful and playful tradition throughout the universal Church.
Although each cathedral community had its own dates, liturgies and customs surrounding the election and installation of its Boy Bishop, most places shared certain things in common. Almost everywhere a chorister or schoolboy connected to a particular cathedral was either nominated by his masters or eleceted by his peers to become that year's temporary replacement to the local ordinary - during which he wore the mitre, pectoral cross, ring and also carried the crozier. Sometimes, a writing or translating competition was used to choose which boy was worthy enough to become that year's mock bishop.
Also common amongst the Boy Bishop traditions was the beautiful ceremony that saw the actual bishop giving up his throne and the boy's subsequent enthronement. During Vespers on the day upon which the Boy Bishop was installed - usually St Nicholas' Day (in England) or the Feast of the Holy Innocents (in most other places) - the local ordinary would step down from his seat during the Magnificat, at the words "deposuit potentes de sede" ("He casts down the mighty from their thrones"), whilst the child who had been elected would then immediately replace him whilst "et exaltavit humiles" ("and He raises the lowly") was sung.
This beautiful semi-official liturgy acted as a sort of memento mori for the bishop and was also a means of encouraging children to strive towards their best potential - for nothing is impossible for God, and any boy could potentially become a bishop. The Boy Bishop tradition reminded prelates that God would permanently remove them from their thrones one day and that there were countless other generations waiting to serve Him. The custom, then, was not just a childish bit of fun for Christmas, but was also a powerful reminder to individualistic or power-hungry ecclesiastics that their offices and honours were not theirs to keep. Not only would they have to answer to future generations for the way they had led their dioceses, but they would also have to answer directly to the One who exalted them in the first place. The Boy Bishop customs also helped prelates to reflect on the fact that no-one in the Church is indispensable - not even a bishop. As Our Lord said: "Out of these stones, God can raise children for Abraham" (Mt 3:9).
Soon after his investiture, the Boy Bishop would be dressed in a mitre and cope and choose a curia or chapter for himself from amongst his friends and classmates. He would afterwards lead most of his particular cathedral's services either for the whole of Advent (if he was elected on the Feast of St Nicholas) or Christmastide (if he was appointed on the Feast of the Holy Innocents). In York, the Boy Bishop was invested with great solemnity and even went on a visitation of his diocese, whilst the one at Gloucester Cathedral was often lavished with gifts of money by members of the local aristocracy! In some places, the boy would only exercise his "office" for a day or two or just during Vespers on his particular cathedral's own saint's day - during which very popular sermons were preached (often better than the ones given by the real bishop!). Of course, a Boy Bishop could not celebrate the sacraments, so Masses and confessions continued to be celebrated and heard by priests belonging to the (real and adult) cathedral chapter.
Protestants viewed such joyful traditions with deep suspicion - especially puritans, who were never really known for their sense of joy or sense of humour! Also, both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were deeply suspicious of these subversive customs, even if the Church had had no problem with them for centuries. As the Boy Bishop tradition sees an ecclesiastical potentate replaced by a spotty teenager or child, many early Anglicans thought that if it continued this custom could destabilise (through mockery) their new or "reformed" episcopacy. So, although Mary Tudor revived the Boy Bishop custom in the mid-16th century, it all but disappeared by during the reign of her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth I.
In recent years, the Boy Bishop tradition has made a bit of a comeback. Several English cathedrals, such as Salisbury and Hereford, now keep this custom once more. Even Westminster Cathedral attempted to revive the Boy Bishop tradition a few years ago - though as far as I am aware this annual event has now stopped (publicly, at least). The photos in this post show ceremonies surrounding the installation of Westminster Cathedral's 2007 Boy Bishop. That year's Boy Bishop was elected after winning a writing competition at the Cathedral's Choir School. He then delivered a homily on St Gregory's Day - the Choir School's feast day. A blog post written in 2007 by Mgr Mark Langham, who was Administrator of Westminster Cathedral at the time, contains more images, as well as the prayers and rites that were used during the installation of that year's Boy Bishop.
There is something to be said for the Boy Bishop tradition. It reminds us all that being light-hearted can be immensely beneficial, especially as religion is prone to be taken far too seriously. It is also a wonderful way of reminding bishops that God will, one day, cast them from their thrones. Those bishops who spent the past few decades implementing their own version of Catholicism could therefore have done with a Boy Bishop - they might have realised then in a profound way that bishops are custodians of truth, which must be passed on from generation to generation, as opposed to being religious innovators. Those who think they have modernised their dioceses forever would know, if they had been replaced by a Boy Bishop, that the Church is bigger than they are, that God will probably undo all their work with the next generation, and that out of the mouths of babes shall pour forth wisdom (cf Mt 21:16).
Spero columnist Dylan Parry resides in the United Kingdom and writes at A Reluctant Sinner.