A medieval custom was revived at the weekend by a North Yorkshire church when a five year old girl donned mitre and cope and was made a bishop.
Rosie Wilson of Selside near Horton-in-Ribblesdale volunteered to become the ‘Bairn Bishop’ during the evening service at St Oswald’s Church, Horton-in- Ribblesdale. She was re-enacting being one of the ‘bairn’ or ‘boy’ bishops who, before the Reformation, would be elected on the Feast of St Nicholas (December 6th) and held office until the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Childermass – December 28th). During that time the bairn bishop would be dressed in specially made, boy-sized, vestments. Some even went on visitations in the city and collected offerings.
The custom spread to parish churches and was only put a stop to by Henry V111 in an edict, saying “it was a childish observance when little childer be strangely decked to counterfeit the Ordinary”.
That didn’t stop Rosie, who stepped forward when Priest-in-charge, the Revd Stephen Dawson asked for a volunteer during his sermon. “The ceremony started by accident” said Stephen. “ I talked about the Bairn Bishops, their visits to parishes in their Diocese, especially on horseback in York, their authority to declare holidays and deliver sermons (written for them).
“We made a mitre from red card and I asked if anyone wanted to try on the chasuble. Rosie, as the youngest present at Evening Prayer quickly left her back pew near the font and walked right up to the chancel.”
Now that Rosie has volunteered, Stephen says that, just as in medieval times, he hopes her ‘duties’ won’t stop with dressing up at the front of church. “Rosie will be doing it again for school assembly this week and I hope she will be at the carol services and Christingles.”
St Oswald's is one of the most complete Norman churches in Yorkshire and sits in the shadow of Penyghent, the smallest of The Three Peaks. Stephen said that although there were no long term plans to revive the centuries old tradition, it was certainly an appropriate venue to hold the service.