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Synod: Case is made for relaxing rules on robing

18 July 2014

Vesture Canon

Sam Atkins

Calling for flexibility: the Revd Christopher Hobbs speaks to his private member's motion on Saturday evening

Calling for flexibility: the Revd Christopher Hobbs speaks to his private member's motion on Saturday evening

THE Synod has asked for draft legislation to amend the canon on the vesture of the minister during divine service, by carrying a private member's motion from the Revd Christopher Hobbs (London).

Mr Hobbs told Synod members to think about the pastoral and mission situation in 2014, and not just that of their own context, but of all people in the Church.

"For many of us, robes are essential to our Church of England, but for holy communion there is no flexibility," he said. "It makes no difference if it is café-style in a pub, outside in a field, in a hotel lounge or lobby. Surplice or alb is required, with scarf or stole."

He argued that being willing to adapt and change was connected to church growth, and that new worshippers in Fresh Expressions should not be forced to fit into old ways of doing things. "Sometimes they help the mission of the church; in some contexts they may hinder the mission of the church. Local decisions, properly discussed by the PCC and minuted, then sent to the bishop for approval, might be a way forward."

Sam Follett (St Albans) worked for five months in a Fresh Expression in New South Wales in an area of "great social deprivation". It was the "most wonderful experience of church he had ever had", even though, to "an 18-year-oldC of E boy it seemed total chaos".

He said that he had "nowhere else seen young people engaged so much in a sermon, or click that Jesus had done so much for them".

He said that many of the Fresh Expressions in England "may not look like what we are used to", but emphasised that it was "inappropriate" to ask them to meet the requirements of Canon B8.

The Revd Dr Mark Chapman (Oxford) spoke of the clergy who had been deprived of their living during Queen Elizabeth I's reign for refusing to wear the surplice.

"In the late 1560s, Archbishop [Matthew] Parker could . . . instruct the Bishop of London to get his clergy to toe the line," he said. "But I think it is totally impossible to imagine that Archbishop Welby would do the same today.

Supporting the motion, he said that "a canon that cannot be enforced is a bad canon indeed."

The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, said: "On the day of my ordination I realised that ordination was not about me. . . Robes are one way of emphasising that."

The Revd Dr Rowan Williams (York) said that she was surprised with the results of a consultation she had carried out among the young people at the University of York, where she was chaplain. "They said that they are used to dressing in a ritualised way for graduation and job interviews, and asked why we would not want the same thing to happen in church."

George Newton (Guildford), supporting the motion, said that he had observed that, in newly planted congregations, those where the clergy didn't robe had grown more than those where the clergy robed.

The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Michael Perham, said that he subscribed to "the view that liturgy is a drama, and those who lead it play a role enhanced by what they wear." The argument he could not ignore was the missional one: some argued that "robes get in the way. I respect their view and am content, with certain safeguards, that they dispense with robes because of their mission context." He asked the Synod to support a "modest" change in the law, so that, while maintaining robes as the norm, it enabled clergy and bishops to dispense with them on appropriate occasions.

Philip McDonough (St Albans)spoke as a licensed Reader. Putting on his robes before service was part of his preparation. He would vote against any "slovenly" relaxation.

Heather Pritchard (Church of England Youth Council)made the point that young people had a huge variety of views on this topic. A vote in favour of the motion would reflect the "true diversity of practice".

Tim Hind (Bath & Wells) emphasised that the Church must be "consistent about what we are doing". He was in favour of the motion, because, "if something is a barrier, it should not stand in the way of mission."

The Revd Neil Patterson (Hereford)had chosen to wear a bright-yellow shirt "as a demonstration of the risks of allowing clergy to express their personality freely". But his amendment - that "the vesture of ministers when exercising their ministry in leading divine service shall clearly identify them as such" - reflected the fact that "we do care about the principle of Holy Orders."

The Revd Dr Jonathan Gibbs (Chester) expressed concern that the attempt to introduce a greater level of detail was "likely to increase litigiousness thereafter".

Mr Paterson's amendment was voted on and lost.

Brother Thomas Quin OSB (Religious Communities), introducing his amendment, said that he did not dismiss Mr Hobbs's concerns, but wanted to offer a solution. "The problem is that Canon B8 sets down rigid regulations and inhibits mission and pastoral engagement in a variety of situations," he said. He argued that his amendment would offer safeguards for those who were uneasy about the change.

The Archdeacon of Chesterfield, the Ven. Christine Wilson (Derby), said that she supported the amendment, because there needed to be consultation before long-standing parish traditions were changed by a priest.

The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent (Southern Suffragans), said that this was a canon that was "much breached", and therefore did require a solution.

Canon Simon Taylor (Derby) said that he opposed this amendment with a "heavy heart", as it asked the right questions, but not all of them. He said that, whatever the rules on vesture were, they could not be left up to the whim of individual priest, but he acknowledged that there would be different rules for different times and different places.

Prebendary Stephen Lynas (Bath & Wells) said that he wanted to confess - at one parish he did not wear robes on a Sunday, as it was not the parish's tradition to do so. "Should I tell the bishop on a Monday that I broke Canon B8? Pass this motion with this amendment to make it clear where we are going."

The amendment was lost.

Prudence Dailey (Oxford) moved an amendment to the motion which would have provided a right of appeal for lay people concerning vesture for the occasional offices, which would "parallel the kind of provision that currently exists in relation to the forms of service to be used in respect of occasional offices.

"If you're getting married or arranging a family funeral and want the vicar to use the Book of Common Prayer and he insists on using Common Worship, or even, unbelievably, the reverse, then you have the right of appeal to the diocesan bishop."

She hoped that such things would never happen, and that the clergy "wouldn't be so insensitive to let things get that far", but she wanted to provide a right of appeal.

Mr Hobbs resisted the amendment as "too specific".

Victoria Russell (Oxford) said that she would be more inclined to support the main motion if the amendment were carried. To gasps from Synod members, she said: "I have seen some inappropriate dress - in one case, jogging bottoms and trainers."

The Revd Paul Benfield (Blackburn) resisted the amendment. "It is too specific at this stage in the process."

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, was worried that the appeal to a bishop would "happen at the last minute". He said: "I don't want to be going into one service and receive a phone call asking me to adjudicate about what is going on in another service 50 miles away."

The amendment was lost and the debate continued on the main motion.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, gave the final speech in the debate. He cautioned against the view that the only growing churches were those without robes, and mentioned the eight-per-cent rise in cathedral congregations.

The current canonical requirements applied to holy communion and to morning and evening prayer on Sundays, he said. "They do not apply to less formal forms of worship, including the forms that would be possible in the context of a Service of the Word."

Having cut up his clerical collar in protest at Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe, he emphasised that a clerical collar was not part of the canonical requirements.

The motion was carried:

That this Synod call on the Business Committee to introduce draft legislation to amend the law relating to the vesture of ministers so that, without altering the principles set out in paragraphs 1 and 2 of Canon B8, the wearing of the forms of vesture referred to in paragraphs 3, 4 and 5 of that Canon becomes optional rather than mandatory.

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