‘Why haven’t you asked me to come to Swanvale Halt?’ our bishop asked when I went to see him about the Parish Share proposals in the summer. ‘I didn’t know I was supposed to ask,’ I answered, and eventually we arranged for him to come and preside at our 10am mass on the Feast of Christ the King, which was yesterday. It’s a long time since this happened, though while I’ve been in the parish we’ve had two evening confirmation services.
The question arises of what you should do with a bishop, particularly what you should do in a moderate-Catholic Anglican church which has been firmly in a modern liturgical tradition since the late 1960s. Look in the old liturgical books such as Ritual Notes and you will find a confusing welter of regulations without any insight into the governing principles that might help you navigate your way. Is our 10am service at Swanvale Halt more like a High Mass or a Low Mass? For the former a bishop requires a whole phalanx of assistant clergy to handle his (or now her) ritual bits and pieces. At least a diocesan bishop within their own jurisdiction does: there are separate instructions for what you do with other sorts of bishop, visiting bishops or retired bishops, or what happens when one sort of bishop presides at a service and the diocesan bishop assists or merely sits and watches. And we will not touch on mitred abbots. I was originally trying to find out what happens to the bishop’s ring, remembering the time at High Wycombe when our sacristan found a little silver stand at the back of the cupboard on which the bishop was supposed to put his ring when he was washing his hands before the consecration, but I ended up finding out about all sorts of other completely bewildering things; even I’d never heard of the scotula, the small candle the bishop has the right to have near him whenever he reads from anything (this requires, of course, another server to carry).
In the old rites, the bishop does virtually nothing for himself: he has assistants to vest him before the service begins, and even during the service itself, a deacon-assistant removes and replaces his mitre. You can understand this theologically as representing the fact that the bishop does not take authority on themselves, but has it conferred on them by the Church, expressing the identity of the Church in one person and providing the bishop themselves with a physical meditation on who they are. However, that’s an attempt to read as Christian symbolism something whose origin is in fact sociological, a signal that the bishop is Very Important. Having someone (several people, in fact) to help the bishop dress perhaps seemed less weird in a society in which gentlemen had valets, and ladies, maids, and the marking of social hierarchy was more clear; it definitely does seem odd now and even the highest of liturgical functions would feel cluttered and confused rather than enhanced by a group of servers of different ranks fluttering in attendance to one figure. In the modern rites we’ve also abandoned all the complexities of hand-kissing whenever bits of kit are transferred between one ecclesiastical personage and another, replacing the osculae (that’s the technical word) with slight bows which feel far more natural.
Mitres and croziers still have to be dealt with, however. I volunteered myself as chaplain for the occasion as I’d never done it before, and before the service started I and the bishop talked through how it would work. We agreed the etiquette would be:
- Hat and stick on the way in, removed after the altar is reverenced
- Hat and stick back for the Absolution, taken away after the Collect
- Stick only for the reading of the Gospel, taken away afterwards
- Hat and stick for the final blessing and on the way out
I consoled myself that, being from the Evangelical end of the spectrum, +Andrew was unlikely to be very fussy about what should or shouldn’t happen, and in fact might not even know what it was. It all went fine, even if his interpretation of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats as a warning that ‘the nations’ would be judged by God on the basis of how they treated their Christian minorities was one I might question, if I had the occasion.
And the extra candle? The presence of a diocesan bishop presiding at Mass is traditionally signalled by a seventh candle placed among the six on the high altar. We don’t have six at Swanvale Halt, we have two, but I thought this was ‘an innocent and laudable custom’ and, because all our own candlesticks were in use, pressed one of my nan’s into service for the morning.