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31 January 2014

By The Revd Sister Rosemary CHN


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.

Trial run

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 currently authorised).

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 for").

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 liturgy!

Suitable raiment

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.

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