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Postcards: Twelve-year-old girl chorister made a bishop at UK cathedral in revived tradition

UK Salisbury Cathedral Chorister Bishop

ANGELA YOUNGMAN reports from the UK on an ancient tradition observed at Salisbury Cathedral…


Twelve-year-old chorister Isabel Moss was made a bishop in a special ceremony held at Salisbury Cathedral earlier this month during which the Acting Bishop of Salisbury, Karen Gorham, ceremonially gave her the robes, mitre, ring and crozier before stepping back and leaving her to conduct the service. 

UK Salisbury Cathedral Chorister Bishop

Chorister Bishop Isabel Moss and her retinue after Evensong on 5th December. PICTURE: Tom Gregory. 

Moss, from West London, is the latest in a long line of ‘Chorister Bishops’ at the cathedral in a tradition that stretches back to medieval times when boy choristers held the office of bishop from the Feast of St Nicholas (the patron saint of children) on 6th December until the Feast of the Holy Innocents on 28th December. 

During that time, the boy bishop was able to appoint clergy and distribute the churches money as he saw fit. This tradition within English cathedrals lasted until the reign of Henry VIII who, in 1541, ended the practice declaring it to be a distraction from church business.  A modified version was revived at Salisbury Cathedral in the 1980’s. Isabel is the second female chorister to be elected to the role, the first being in 2015.  


David Halls, director of music at Salisbury Cathedral, said Isabel was an “exceptionally good singer and an excellent role model for the younger choristers”.

“She’s been in the choir for four years and as made a senior chorister in September. She’s an all-rounder at the cathedral school and enjoys art. She is a keen musician playing the piano and flute, and is a member of the school’s U13 hockey team.”

UK Salisbury Cathedral Chorister Bishop2

Two bishops – The Rt Rev Karen Gorham, Acting Bishop of Salisbury, and Chorister Bishop Isabel Moss. PICTURE: Tom Gregory

The choristers are all members of Salisbury Cathedral School and form an unbroken tradition of church music at Salisbury stretching back over 800 years in the present cathedral, and a further 100 years before that in the cathedral at Old Sarum. 

The Chorister Bishop is chosen following discussions among staff and choristers, who vote to elect the Chorister Bishop for the year. Being chosen for the role is regarded as a great honour, marking their contribution to the choir and cathedral music. 

The exchange of power between Acting Bishop Karen Gorham and Chorister Bishop Isabel took place earlier this month during the singing of the Magnificat. As the choir sang the words “He has put the mighty down from their seat”, the Acting Bishop Gorham, who had already given up her cope, mitre and signs of office, stood aside. Then as the choir sang the words “and hath exalted the humble and meek”, Isabel – now as Chorister Bishop – stepped into the cathedra or bishop’s throne to deliver a sermon and lead the choir and congregation in prayer.

Anna Macham, canon precenter of Salisbury Cathedral, explained that the Acting Bishop then didn’t say anything for the rest of the service.

“The Chorister Bishop even gives the final blessing,” she said. “I had worked with Isabel before the service to help her with the arrangements. She was very confident, and I didn’t have to help her much – I gave my first sermon aged 25 at theological college and was far more nervous. [Isabel] wrote the whole sermon speaking about the environment and climate change, something she feels very passionate about, feeling it was a way of enabling children’s voices to be heard on the subject of environmental justice. She also selected the Bible readings. Everyone loved it. It was fantastic – adults, kids, clergy, teachers loved it.”

Macham added that Isabel didn’t take part in the choral singing on the day and that the biggest issue on the day was the size of the bishop’s ring.

“It was far too big. We had to add lots and lots of sellotape to hold it on,” she said. 



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