A Letter from the Ministry Team

A real dressing-down for the CofE?

At its recent meeting in York, the General Synod of the Church of England approved legislation to permit clergy who so wished to dispense with wearing liturgical vesture during divine worship or the ‘occasional offices’ of weddings and funerals, subject to the approval of their PCC.

This legislation is really aimed at legalising something that has already been happening for some time, mainly in very evangelical churches. Technically, even the clergy of this benefice have been breaking canon law (shock, horror!) by not wearing the appropriate ‘choir dress’ (cassock, surplice etc) for Morning and Evening Prayer during the week; but there again, we at least comply with the legal requirement to publicly say the daily offices – something which in itself is becoming increasingly rare.

Does this mean that the clergy of the Wigston Benefice will now be celebrating the Eucharist in a lounge suit - perhaps in collar and tie or an open neck shirt in preference to a clerical collar?  Not on my watch! Indeed that’s about as likely as the Archbishop of Canterbury wearing jeans, a teeshirt and trainers for the coronation of our next monarch.

Whilst it makes sense to regularise the situation – and whilst the new legislation will make it easier for clergy to decide what to wear for very informal acts of worship such as ‘Café Church’ – this decision is, in my view, deeply flawed for a number of reasons.

First, recent statistics and anecdotal evidence clearly suggest that the greatest church growth is currently found in traditionalist churches and cathedrals with a strong sense of liturgy. I have certainly read many articles from both the UK and the USA that indicate that younger worshippers - even within evangelical congregations – increasingly prefer worship that recognises and expresses the transcendence and ‘otherness’ of God. In an attempt to make worship more accessible, many churches have reduced God to the mundane and ordinary, and why would anybody want to worship or follow such a God? No other monotheistic religion has done this, and no other monotheistic religion has experienced the decline that some parts of the Christian church have. Go figure! 

Second, there is a strange assumption that the use of vestments creates a ‘hierarchy’ and generates a sense of ‘them and us’. This shows a total lack of understanding of why vestments are used in the first place. They are worn not to somehow elevate the individual, but rather to point beyond the individual and to stress his or her role. When a priest wears vestments at the Eucharist it’s because s/he is effectively acting as Christ. The vestments point not to the person wearing them, but rather to the ministry which is being exercised. Far from honouring the human priest, they honour Christ our true High Priest. Vestments are in fact intended to supress the personality or taste of the minister, and never to accentuate it.

Third, it is suggested that clerical garb of any kind – even the clerical collar – is a barrier to communication. This is arrant nonsense, and any priest who wears a collar in public will testify to the number of conversations and pastoral encounters that take place simply because a stranger recognises them as a priest and feels able to approach them. How are people supposed to recognise a priest in ‘mufti’ and how many pastoral opportunities are thrown away when the collar is discarded? Frankly, anyone who finds a small strip of plastic or linen around their neck a barrier to communication has a problem, and the collar is merely a scapegoat.

Finally, it is claimed that ecclesiastical vesture can lead to bullying and various forms of spiritual or emotional abuse. In reality of course, bullying and abuse result from an inappropriate use power in a leadership role. Many of the most powerful and potentially abusive religious leaders dress seductively in a nice cheesecloth shirt and chinos, with a liturgical vestment nowhere to be seen. Whilst in Catholic circles the old notion of “Father knows best” has (quite rightly) long since been abandoned, some of those ministering in an evangelical context wield extraordinary power over their flock. Being tempted to abuse power flows from the kind of person you are, not from what you wear.   

General Synod was probably right to pass this legislation, as attempts to enforce the former legislation would clearly be a complete waste of time – and I don’t have a problem with some churches wanting things to be kept very plain; but if members of General Synod think that this legislation is going to address more serious problems regarding the abuse of power in the church, I suspect they are going to be bitterly disappointed; and if they imagine that by dressing-down we are going to make our churches more attractive, I suspect they will be similarly disappointed and will eventually realise that - as is so often the case - they are behind the curve rather than ahead of it.

Fr Trevor