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On the vesture of the ministers during the time of Divine Service

by
10 January 2014

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From the Revd Alan Fraser

Sir, - I am unconvinced by the Revd Christopher Hobbs's arguments as he seeks support for his motion on a relaxation of canon law as it pertains to clergy vesture. Mr Hobbs argues (News, 3 January) that "In Evangelical churches robes are quite often not worn. . . I do break the law sometimes because, in my tradition, most of us do. We feel bad about it and that is why we would like it [the law] to be changed."

Now, there may, indeed, be good theological and liturgical reasons for a relaxation of Canon B8. But the suggestion that the law should be changed because Evangelical clergy feel bad about breaking it is clearly not one of them. Such an attitude is in marked contrast to the approach habitually taken by Evangelicals on the matter of same-sex relationships. I am sure that many gay clergy also "feel bad" about breaking the Church's rules. I don't recall Evangelicals accepting that as justification in itself for a change in the Church's discipline.

So I would caution Mr Hobbs to consider carefully whether he really is willing to accept the many other changes that would inevitably be argued for by others if we accepted the principle that he espouses in your report: namely, that canon law be changed "to reflect the reality".

I am sure that he would agree with me that there may be some occasions when it is the reality that needs changing, not canon law. Conversely, pragmatic arguments such as "Newer people really don't like it when you wear robes" (and again I quote Mr Hobbs directly) seem to denote a loss of confidence in a distinctively Christian way of embodying community, together with a desire, dare I say it, for the Church to conform to the spirit of this age - which is not the approach that I would normally expect and Evangelical clergyman to be proposing.

I am not opposed in principle to any change of Canon B8. But the principles that undergird it - the creation of a consistent Anglican priestly identity, the emphasis on the ministry of the priest rather than the personality (and fashion sense) of an individual - still seem to me to have some merit.

In such circumstances, the Anglican way is, or at least should be, to make changes only where the case is made convincingly with a clear understanding of Anglican ecclesiology and patrimony, and the broader missiological implications. Mr Hobbs's views as reported do not suggest to me that that thinking has been done.

ALAN FRASER
41 Hobhouse Close, Great Barr
Birmingham B42 1HB

 

From Mr Gordon James

Sir, - People like me, who value the use of vestments in worship, see the eucharist celebrated with great reverence, led by a priest in suit and tie, in a crowded Evangelical parish church, and we know the worship is real. Yet we are uneasy. We fear losing the only excuse for our own practice: obedience. It would be so much easier to tolerate the disuse of robes if we could offer a rational defence of their use.

There is a parallel that might be illuminating. The churches of the New Testament did not use special robes in worship; neither did they use musical instruments. The latter are a much later innovation, and, like the former, rely on precedents in Israel's worship and on the Revelation of St John for their biblical legitimacy.

The use of musical instruments is not essential to Christian worship. They are not used in the Eastern rites, and most congregations worship without them from time to time. Yet musical instruments can add to the joy of worship, and seem appropriate to our celebration of God's generosity. Surely, the embroiderer can praise God as well as the guitarist?

The claim that robes seem bizarre to the modern eye can be challenged. Ede & Ravenscroft are doing very well from the expansion of higher education, and I wonder how many students would turn out for their graduation ceremony if academic dress were abolished. Inner-city teenagers flock to school proms in dinner jackets and formal dresses, and study alongside friends wearing Islamic dress. Company liveries have spread to almost every petrol station, bank, and supermarket. The use of distinctive clothing to express identity and enhance celebration is, if anything, increasing in our society.

Perhaps the time has come to let a bishop dispense a parish from robing if priest and PCC request it, but those who love high-wattage chasubles should carry on undeterred. Whatever is wrong with today's Church of England, it is not that it is too colourful.

GORDON JAMES (Reader)
4 Lincoln Place, Macclesfield
Cheshire SK10 3EW

 

From the Revd Michael Hopkins

Sir, - You report a proposal to initiate the process of amending the canons on clerical attire. As a Minister of a Church that has no rules about this, and a variety of traditional approaches (the United Reformed Church), I would express caution.

For every non-believer who is put off by robes, my experience suggests I could find at least one more who is put off by excessive informality in the house of God. At best, this is a swings-and-roundabouts point. I would not wish to impose uniformity, but a very wide variety of attire does lead to ecumenical confusion, our partners not knowing what to expect from one appointment to the the next, or one place to the next; and confusion is a barrier to deepening and extending relationships.

Much more important than both those points is the uniform principle. Clerical vesture is not about "dressing up", but about a uniform for the job. I would be horrified if my dentist was wearing filthy and ripped jeans and a T-shirt to work, and my confidence in a builder in a pristine white overall would not be high.

I shall be retaining my black shirts and suits, cassock and gown, and alb and stole.

MICHAEL HOPKINS
23 Hillary Road
Farnham
Surrey GU9 8QX

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