Word of the Lord
ALTHOUGH I enjoy taking part in the General Synod, during a
debate I often feel as though I have strayed into a parallel world.
This is certainly noticeable when we are discussing liturgy.
In General Synod-land, we agonise over every word, punctuation
mark, or rubric, trying to achieve perfection, as though we believe
that clergy everywhere are anxiously awaiting the results of our
labours, and that when we have produced the definitive version,
they will all follow it with the same scrupulous care, chastened by
the threat of the dreadful wrath of the bishop to whom they have
made the momentous Oath of Canonical Obedience.
In the real Church of England, to which Synod members return
when our meetings are over, we know very well that each incumbent
will do what is right in his or her own eyes, and the bishops will
tactfully avert theirs.
I well remember a debate a few years ago, in which we spent what
felt like hours discussing the optional omission of two verses in
one Bible reading. Grave theological consequences apparently hung
on our decision. We persevered doggedly, although we were all
perfectly aware that, whatever we decided, in churches throughout
the land officiants would, at their own discretion, variously read
the two verses, or omit them, or read something completely
different, or not hold that particular service at all.
I WAS reminded of this when the Liturgical Commission recently
issued a draft revision of parts of the baptism service. For once,
the press reported this, even though it was the Church talking
about something other than women and sex, and its reaction made up
in excitement for what it lacked in accuracy: "The Church of
England. . ." (or, often, "The Archbishop of Canterbury. . .",
although the poor man had not written the text) "has abolished the
devil and sin" (News, Media, 10 January).
This startling achievement - instantly deplored by many
commentators, who complained about "dumbing down" - in fact refers
to the recasting of the responses required of parents and
godparents in "more accessible" language, considered more suitable
for the non-churchgoing families who now compose a large proportion
of those who bring children for baptism.
The new liturgy will be used experimentally in some parishes,
and will then be brought to the Synod, where we shall give it our
usual word-by-word consideration, and, for all I know, may decide
to reinstate the devil.
What the people want
BUT will the clergy obey? The new proposals have prompted many
who are dissatisfied with the Common Worship service to
explain the liturgy that they currently use instead. They may have
omitted portions that are described as compulsory, or have devised
their own wording, perhaps using some or all of the ASB rite (not
Most startling of all, some have proudly declared that they
offer instead of baptism a non-sacramental form of service which
they call "christening" ("because that is what people ask
They are clearly totally unworried by the prospect that a
draconian bishop will read their blogs and visit appropriate
punishment. And the General Synod still believes that it controls
BAPTISM is for another day, but next month's Synod meeting will
be discussing the hot topic of what clergy wear. The proposal is
that the Canon that prescribes that, at Divine Service, the
minister should wear the clothing authorised for that service,
should be amended. The proposer argues that one reason for this
amendment is that the Canon is already widely disobeyed, and that
the reluctance of bishops to check this disobedience is an
indication that this prescription is widely seen as outdated.
It is certainly true that those forms of clergy dress now
fervently defended as "traditional" are, in many cases, at least
for the Church of England, 19th-century innovations, hotly
contested at that time. It is also true that, of all the issues
confronting the Church at the moment, the insistence on particular
dress is one of the least important.
I recall the memorable statement of Archbishop Michael Ramsey,
during a previous argument about vestments: "I myself have
frequently celebrated the holy communion wearing nothing but a
black scarf." I cannot believe that in the eyes of eternity it
matters in the slightest whether the person taking the service
wears surplice and hood,or alb, stole, and chasuble (withor without
maniple), or cut-pricehigh-street clothing, or haute couture.
It may, though, matter in this world, where clothes send
messages. Traditional vestments may help to liberate women clergy,
in particular - at least those women clergy who do not enjoy the
blessed freedom of a religious habit - from the tyranny of fashion,
and the critical scrutiny of its devotees.
I prefer to wear vestments - or at least a stole over my habit -
because it provides an immediate answer to the question: "By what
authority do you do these things?"
The Revd Sister Rosemary CHN is a nun at the Convent of the
Holy Name in Derby.