Smashing the Church Patriarchy One Mitre at a Time

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Today at the cathedral in Salisbury, England, Maddie Lyles will make history by becoming the first girl to ever take the place of the bishop during an annual ceremony on the feast day of St. Nicholas. Only boy choristers have been allowed to assume that role; it was even called “boy bishop.” Now it will be called “chorister bishop.” It’s an appropriate change given that the first female bishop of the Church of England was just consecrated in January.

Boys choirs have been a tradition in the church since the Middle Ages, but only recently have girls been allowed to join. The girls choir at Salisbury Cathedral was founded in 1991, on the 900th anniversary of the first boys choir. So that’s 924 years for the boys choir and 24 years for the girls choir.

There’s no musical justification for the previous exclusion of girls. As I’ve heard a hundred times from my mother, who conducted a children’s choir for many years, “An unchanged treble voice is an unchanged treble voice.” The only reason for the exclusion I can find is the pervasive sexism in the Church of England.

I had the privilege of seeing Maddie and the Salisbury girls choir last year and they were truly magnificent. The choristers conducted themselves with the same level of professionalism that you would see in an adult professional choir. The one exception was the nervous energy that was exchanged (mostly in darting eyes) when the girls sent each other hand signals to show when to stand and sit.

The girls exhibited remarkable skill in both technique and musicality. Their talent was amplified by the setting and acoustics of the cathedral. Here’s a short clip of their rehearsal:

As you can hear, these are exceptionally talented singers. I’m glad one of them will get to be bishop for a day. Hopefully it will remind those in attendance that this may not be her last day in that role.