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Sermon preached at Choral Evensong with the Chorister Bishop Ceremony
Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Date: Second Sunday of Advent 2022 04.12.22 4.00pm
Readings: Psalm 8, Isaiah 61:1-3, Mark 10:13-16
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have actually warned the Archbishop of York, that there is going to be a brief disturbance of Episcopal forces here at York Minster this afternoon! And I have to tell you, he was very, very encouraging! And we are also very grateful to the Bishop of Selby, for being here with us, and for his willingness to be temporarily deposed from his seat!
Today, we are doing something which hasn’t happened in this cathedral for many hundreds of years. This is not a new thing, but an old thing we are making new. In Medieval times, the Chorister Bishop Ceremony took place on or around the 6th December, the Feast of St Nicholas. St Nicholas was a 4th Century Bishop in Turkey, who was known for his care and concern for children and from whom the tradition of gift giving at christmas was extended. The Feast of St Nicholas was very much a day for children and you don’t need me to tell you how St Nicholas is depicted in popular culture today and how his legacy continues accompanied by sleighs and reindeers and with the ability to deliver gifts down the narrowest of chimneys!
Across Europe, from around the 12th Century, children in churches and cathedrals were elevated to the office of Bishop on the Feast of St Nicholas and were often drawn from the choristers of the choir. The Chorister Bishops of York Minster would hold office from the Feast of St Nicholas until Holy Innocents day on the 28th December. They would preach sermons, lead services, distribute gifts to the needy, and ride around the diocese on horseback, extricating money and taxes from parishioners with pugnacious determination. I hasten to add, we are not expecting our Chorister Bishop and her Canons to do this today!
In our historical archives, the names of these young bishops have been recorded from 1416 until 1537 -when the custom was banned by Henry the Eighth. It was said that the Chorister Bishops had a propensity to become unruly and disruptive at times, and perhaps the King, (sat comfortably on his throne), felt a little threatened.
So, today is not a first. We are simply renewing a tradition of the church in this place and seek new meaning in it for today. And we are not alone, a number of other cathedrals around the land have resurrected this tradition too.
The first Chorister Bishop in York, since 1537, will be vested in the robes of a Bishops office: a cope and a mitre, made by our needlework volunteers, and will be given a Crozier (based on a shepherd’s staff), made by Becky, one of our stonemasons, who has also made a pectoral cross to match, both of these things so beautiful as to rival any bishop’s: and when fully vested, the Bishop will deliver a Charge, on behalf of children everywhere. When we talked about this ceremony with the choristers, we asked them to consider what the world might need to hear, what the church might need to hear, on behalf of children everywhere.
What we are doing, we cannot deny, is pretty subversive. We are turning the usual order of things upside down, but in this season of Advent, I want to suggest that is exactly what we are called to do.
It should be clear to all of us, that sometimes the world really does need turning upside down. It feels a little bit like we’re living through such times at the moment. Those who have, have more -and those who have not, have less. The proud and powerful are very proud and powerful, and the lowly are well, lowly, ignored and silenced.
At times like this, throughout history, some people have been called by God to speak out to remind us that things don’t have to be this way. In the church we call them ‘Prophets’- these are the people who tell it like it is and call for a change, these are the voices crying out in the wilderness and saying it doesn’t have to be like this, they remind us of the best of our humanity: and remind us that sometimes the world really does need turning upside down. These are the ones who climb to a high mountain, and lift up their voices, and cry out- be not afraid, behold your God!
Today on the second Sunday of Advent, we particularly remember the prophetic voices of those who speak truth to power and say ‘hey- hang on! This isn’t showing humanity at its best- we can do things differently, we need to change’. Why do the rich always have to be rich, why do the powerful and proud always have to be first in the queue and get special treatment?
About two thousand years ago, a baby was born, born without power and authority, born in a stable because there was no room at the inn. We hurtle towards the celebration of his birth on 25th December, and we note that of all the ways God could have chosen to illustrate God’s power and authority, God did this- becoming little and poor. How strange, how subversive that God would give up everything to become tiny in what would be the greatest upheaval and distortion of power in human history.
At the moment of his beginning his mother also proclaimed this truth: ‘He will scatter the proud’, she sang, ‘and put down the mighty from their seat, and will exalt the humble and meek’.
And then this baby grew up, and said ‘I am turning the world upside down, the last will be first and the first will be last. Let’s build a new kind of world, a new kind of kingdom, and the only way to enter this kingdom of faith, hope and love, is to become children’. Jesus really was turning everything upside down.
This Gospel message is the one we are gently embodying today as we bring back to life an ancient ceremony that happened here in this Cathedral over 500 years ago, when children were given power and authority. For a little time, the usual authorities laid down their staff and their mitre and their platform, and different voices were given a chance to be heard.
If you’ve ever been part of any kind of community, or if you’ve ever chaired a meeting, you will know how often the same people to take the floor, or the same people have their say, the loudest voices, the usual voices. We might suggest that a good chair, a good leader, is one who can open up the conversation and ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute; a good shepherd is one that goes after the one lost sheep.
As we go about our business this coming week, as we listen and watch and take note of the world around us, might we be more observant about who gets to speak and who doesn’t? Who has power and who doesn’t? Who is seen and who isn’t seen- in our own communities, and churches, and across society itself?
I am looking forward to hearing what the Chorister Bishop and her Canons think we need to hear. I hope we will be challenged. I hope we will listen. I hope that this gesture reminds us of the Kingdom we claim in Jesus Christ: a kingdom of justice and mercy, where the last will be first and the first will be last, a kingdom where the proud are scattered in their own conceit and the humble lifted high; a kingdom we can only be part of if we become a like children to the glory of the one and only living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A prayer from the fourth Century:
Blessed be he who in his love, stooped down to redeem us!
Blessed be the King, who made himself poor to enrich the needy!
Blessed be he who came to fulfil the types and emblems of the prophets!
Blessed be he, whose glory the silenced sang with loud hosannas!
Blessed be he, to whom little children sang new glory in hymns of praise!
Blessed be the new King who came that new-born babes might glorify him!
Blessed be he, unto whom children brought faltering songs, to praise him among his disciples!
Blessed be God forever.
Ephraem the Syrian (c306-73)
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