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Vesture and funerals after suicide prompt debate at Synod

15 July 2016

Sam Atkins

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith

THE Synod gave first consideration on Saturday morning to Draft Amending Canon No. 36, Canon B 8 (Of the vesture of ordained and authorized ministers during the time of divine service) and Canon B 38 (Of the burial of the dead).

Introducing the debate was the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, who chairs the steering committee. The draft amending canon was the result of private members’ motions from the previous quinquennium.

The first concerned Canon B 8 and asked that it be amended so that wearing vesture — specifically a surplice or alb, with scarf or stole — be made optional rather than mandatory. The changes would allow priests to adopt another form of dress if doing so would “benefit the mission of the Church” and after consulting with their PCC.

Similarly, for occasional offices, priests would be allowed to dispense with vesture after discussion with those involved in the funeral, baptism, or wedding. If a minister chose not to wear robes, what he or she did wear instead would have to be suitable and “seemly”.

The amendment to Canon B 38 would allow a minister to use the normal funeral service, prescribed in either the Book of Common Prayer or Common Worship, for someone who took his or her own life while in sound mind, or who died unbaptised. Currently, priests could conduct funeral services in either instance, but the service used must be a special one approved by the bishop.

“The funeral service used should not amount to a judgement on the state of mind of the deceased,” Dr Smith said. The same was true for those who died unbaptised, which would not routinely be known by the minister. The amending canon also included a conscience clause for any priest who objected to offering a normal service, if, for instance, the deceased was a prominent and avowed non-Christian or had died as a result of assisted suicide.

The amending canon would also remove any reference to funeral regulations for those who died while excommunicate.

The Revd Alastair McHaffie (Blackburn), in his maiden speech, said that he was keen to see the changes made to the vesture canon. While in some of his parishes he had robed for services, in his current post he did not, as previous incumbents had dispensed with vesture since the 1980s.

“If I were to revert to wearing robes again, it would remove something of the informal and family nature of our services, which I think in part has led to the growth of our church in recent years,” he said. “I’m a compliant individual: I like to obey the law; and so for me, and a significant number of people like me, we would be delighted to be able to lead services in the knowledge we are fully compliant with Church canon law.”

Nevertheless, the proposal should be changed so that the assent of the PCC was required, not merely a discussion. There were also questions over the word “seemly”, which was hard to define and might vary from parish to parish.

The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, said that Canon B 8 was not a piece of legislation that particularly needed reform. No one had ever heard of a priest’s being censured for not wearing vestments. He echoed comments that the proposal was ambiguous about consultation and what counted as “seemly”, and said that, while a parish priest, he had never once had a conversation about what he should wear.

Prebendary Stephen Lynas (Bath & Wells) said that it was good that this particular piece of simplification had come about from a private member’s motion. He dismissed concerns around safeguarding, saying that wearing robes did not make any minister more or less safe: that had to be addressed through other means. He also suggested that the bishop’s approval be required before a priest could stop wearing canonical vesture, to ensure that the decision had been “rubber-stamped so there couldn’t be any aggro in the parish”.

The Revd Dr Rowan Williams (York) said that, in the context of the young people she served at the university, her clerical vesture was important, to show that she was “still here and still functioning” as in term time. She raised concerns over safeguarding in that, at present, robes could be removed from clerics who had been found guilty or investigated, as a symbol of the removal of the right to officiate at divine service.

Without vesture, they would be taking away the force and sense of that legislation, she said. It would also affect mission among young people. Her students said that her uniform was a visual cue to authority, and helped them to identify corresponding figures of authority in new churches. She concluded: “I want us to be careful about how we word our concerns about vesture going forward.”

Enid Barron (London) said that she was not enthusiastic for the change, as it brings canon law into disrepute. She suggested that there should, at the least, be a “minimal standard of seemly dress” to avoid embarrassment for newcomers in church and to identify a figure of the Church out and about. She also suggested that the vote be separated from the issue of suicide burial rites.

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) said that he had raised the issue of vesture at the funerals of children and teenagers, where it seemed appropriate to discuss with the family whether he should dress in a suit or robes. Clerics should not be arguing over vesture for special offices, but, should this be the case, the family should have the last word.

Canon Priscilla White (Birmingham) spoke of her grandfather, a veteran of both world wars, who took his own life. His suicide was not the only one in the family. Eighteen years ago, she had taken her mother to a municipal cemetery, and had been unable to find the grave. Attitudes to suicide in 1940 had been very different, and it was “good to see canons possibly catching up with reality”.

She was concerned that the suicide of someone considered to be of sound mind was still to be treated differently, providing a conscience clause. She was also concerned that matters of vesture in church and the burial of suicides were being taken together: they were “nowhere near the same”.

The Revd Paul Hutchinson (York) was also keen to see the two matters divided. He noted the prohibition in Book of Common Prayer: the burial service was not to be allowed for those who had taken their own lives. “It does beg the question, given that the Book of Common Prayer is to some senses doctrinally normative, as to whether or not we have done enough by amending the Canon to put this to bed.”

The Revd Charles Read (Norwich) said that the Synod was “in danger of being in a tangle if we do not ask some theological questions about what is seemly”. He suggested that there was the need for theological thinking “about what would be seemly and what is it for?”. He described how, before his ordination, after the clergy in his church stopped wearing robes, he was told as a Reader that he must wear a lounge suit rather than the clothes he wore to teach in secondary school. He also found, as a priest, that, when serving as a sidesman during Christingle services, he wore a clerical collar, as “you never know who might want to speak to someone, and it’s a helpful badge.”

The Archdeacon of Oxford, the Ven. Martin Gorick (Oxford), described how he had seen people laugh at a bishop wearing a mitre. “Do we want to see that happening?” The current law “set a tone and a helpful one. It has not stopped churches dispensing with robes for missional reasons. Lots of people do it for good reasons, and are not being stopped, but it does establish a norm. Do we open can of worms about what is seemly and what is not? Will that be different for men and women? Why are we opening all this up?” Was it really simplifying or complicating? “Keep the norm as it is.”

Liz Holdsworth (Peterborough) pleaded: “Please do not steal the laity’s clothes, because we need them, and we need our clergy to be distinctive.” She suggested that missional life was “confusing enough without asking them to play Where’s Wally when it comes to identifying the vicar.”

She suggested: “People are looking for something different and other when they come to church, which is represented and embodied by clergy as they lead worship.” She was “not convinced that we know what is missional when it comes to dress. I want to challenge the assumption that alternative clothing is missional.” Chinos and lounge suits were “just very middle-class, and, sadly, already dated”.

She warned: “Whatever we choose, it may attract some, but it will probably exclude others who will probably never tell us. Clothing is never neutral.” Clergy robes could “speak very powerfully of a faith that is rooted in historical reality and tradition and we let go of this at our peril. Changing to blend in is not radical; being clearly distinctive is.”

The Revd Dr Rosalyn Murphy (Archbishops’ Council) spoke in favour of the amendment; she robed for only one of her six congregations, a midweek Book of Common Prayer service. Most of the growth in recent years in her parish had been through fresh expressions, where “a cassock or alb, surplice, and stole can appear to be extremely overdressed when my dog collar, a nice skirt, and a funky pair of heels will do”.

Like St Paul, Dr Murphy said that she would become all things to all people, to win a few for Christ. The Church must have confidence in the discernment of its priests and give them the flexibility.

Jayne Ozanne (Oxford) also supported the amendment. The debate on vesture was really a proxy debate about trusting those who were different. “There are many large Evangelical churches who don’t wear vesture even now,” she said. “Some of you will frown at that and want to change that, but that’s the reality of the mission imperative you have.” She, too, had experienced a church of 400 children bursting out with laughter when a bishop entered in full episcopal garb. The C of E needed to celebrate difference, not fear it.

The Revd Charlie Skrine (London) said that, from the “mankini wing of the Church”, he actually quite enjoyed wearing robes, even though his current parish didn’t let him wear them much. Nevertheless, they could be a hindrance to his mission, especially among the under-30s in London whom he served. “This is a permissive measure, not a punitive one,” he reminded the Synod.

April Alexander (Southwark) said that she opposed the amendment on vesture. Despite the current rules’ being honoured more in the breach, they still had value as establishing a norm. She also warned that women priests would be held to higher standards of what “seemly” meant if the current rules on robes were relaxed.

The Revd Barry Hill (Leicester), who said that he wore all kinds of dress in his work, said that this move was permissive and wouldn’t force anyone to stop doing anything. He cautioned against a form of “Anglican snobbery” which would see some non-primary issues, such as wearing robes, as proper, and those in fresh expressions or more informal churches as not true Anglicans.

Canon Kate Wharton (Liverpool) said that if the Church could allow churches to have different identities and contexts, surely they could allow for different kinds of dress. “Does not wearing [canonical vesture] have missional advantages? Yes. Am I in the best position to work out what is appropriate in my context? Yes, I think so. I want what I do to be not just in the spirit but also the letter of the law,” she said.

The Synod voted to commit the draft amending canon to the revision committee.

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