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Riots, ritual, and riding bishops

17 June 2016

In the second part of our series, Robin Ward outlines the development of clerical vesture from the Reformation to the present day

H.S. Photos / Alamy Stock Photo

Properly dressed: Cosmo Lang (when Archbishop of York) in frock coat, apron, and gaiters, 1918

Properly dressed: Cosmo Lang (when Archbishop of York) in frock coat, apron, and gaiters, 1918

THE English Reformation, as it got under way in earnest during the reign of King Edward VI, was thoroughgoing in its iconoclasm, and the whole panoply of medieval ecclesiastical vesture rapidly succumbed to the new mood. The Prayer Book of 1549 tried to ensure that the priest wore at least some of the more important of the old vestments — alb and chasuble or cope — to celebrate the holy communion, but Protestant aversion made this a dead letter, and by the time the Prayer Book of 1552 was published, this had been dropped.

After the brief Marian interlude, Elizabeth restored the polity of her brother with some token concessions to placate conservatives in the Prayer Book of 1558. Fundamental here was the so-called “Ornaments Rubric”, which required that the minister use such ornaments as Parliament had authorised “in the second year of the reign of King Edward VI”, that is, 1549.

It was quite clear by the mid-1560s that it was going to be difficult enough to ensure the clergy wore the surplice, let alone chasuble or cope, and the rubric remained a dead letter. But the Queen, with her characteristic cunning, would not allow the bishops to supersede its authority. Instead, she let them enforce a discipline by which the clergy had to wear a cope for the communion in cathedrals, a surplice for all other public ministrations, and cassock and gown as their ordinary day dress, thus making them bitterly unpopular with many of their most convinced Protestant supporters. The Ornaments Rubric remained untouched, with momentous consequences for the Church of England later on.

The Elizabethan compromise received formal authority after her death in the Canons of 1604, which required the use of copes by the ministers at the communion service in cathedrals and the surplice for all other public ministrations. The university hood makes its first official appearance here, being required for both the higher clergy in cathedrals, and for parish clergy who are graduates, when officiating and when preaching. Non-graduates are to wear a cloth “tippet”, which seems then to have meant something closer to a hood rather than the scarf now invariably worn with the hood by the clergy and by Readers.

This is a recent innovation: the scarf used to be the mark of a cathedral dignitary, a Doctor of Divinity, or the chaplain of a nobleman, the latter privilege being particularly valuable as it allowed the fortunate clergyman to hold benefices in plurality. The Spectator in 1714 usefully employed a military analogy: “We may divide the clergy into Generals, Field-Officers, and Subalterns. Among the first we may reckon Bishops, Deans, and Archdeacons. Among the second are Doctors of Divinity, Prebendaries, and all that wear Scarves.” The illicit assumption of scarves by curates-on-the make in watering places was an endemic problem, noted in the same publication.


ONE of the most distinctive aspects of English clerical dress was the way in which the ordinary day dress of the clergy remained highly conservative until well into the 18th century. Despite fierce Puritan opposition, the clergy continued to wear cassock and gown — to which, after the Restoration, were added the linen bands, essentially an ornamental elongation of the shirt collar.

During Queen Anne’s reign the gown provided an opportunity for political point-scoring: Tory clergy wore their MA gowns, while Whigs wore the distinctively clerical “pudding” gown with closed sleeves. This form of dress survives to the present day, in its most exotic form, with the addition of shoe buckles and a tricorn hat, as clerical academic dress in the ancient universities, and as the formal wear of clergy acting as chaplains to civic dignitaries.

Elegant and becoming though this dress was, it cannot be worn to ride a horse, and during the 18th century across Europe the clergy who had formerly worn the cassock as their ordinary day dress begin to wear it in a more truncated form. The English version of this consisted of a long black coat, worn with breeches and stockings, sometimes with a shortened cassock called an apron worn under the coat, and gaiters on the legs.

This practical form of dress, by force of sheer conservatism, came to be the exclusive formal dress of bishops, deans, and archdeacons until the 1960s. Even the cords used to tie on the travelling prelate’s hat were solemnly reproduced on the silky top hats of Victorian bishops, and the Hanoverian cockade survived as the black rosette by which canons and rural deans distinguished themselves from their lesser clerical brethren.

One or two dignitaries continue to appear from time to time in this outfit, and rather more of the ordinary male clergy still possess a long black coat to wear at weddings and so forth when the invitation proposes morning dress. The version for use when the laity wear white tie abandons gaiters for silk stockings, and gives the bishops a coat and apron of purple. Worn with trousers, this coat is an acceptable clerical version of black tie.

The episcopal wig, by contrast, died out during the reign of William IV, who disliked them. This was a survival of a particular sort of 18th century clerical wig — worn well into the 1850s by the ancient President of Magdalen College, Oxford, Dr Routh, whose own wig remains in the college after having been preserved in a calcifying spring. Bishop Van Mildert of Durham, the last Count Palatine, used to wear a judge’s wig in the House of Lords, much to the annoyance of Lord Chancellor Eldon.


ALTHOUGH the Puritans bitterly opposed even the surplice as “Popish”, its defenders did not at first invest much doctrinal energy into defending its use. Richard Hooker gauges the temperature pretty accurately in the Fifth Book of the Ecclesiastical Polity when he paraphrases St Jerome: “Is it enmity with God. . . if I wear my coat somewhat handsome?” He puts a bit of effort into suggesting that the whiteness of the surplice symbolises the angelic nature of the ministerial office, but fundamentally his argument against the Puritans is one of decency and conformity.

This was not so with the Laudians whose ceremonial elaborations were so divisive in the national Church under the reign of Charles II, and whose use of the cope was particularly provocative, not many English people at that time having the specialist ecclesiastical knowledge to distinguish between a canonical ornament that simply looked Popish and the real thing.

The cope did remain in use in several English cathedrals, as prescribed by Canon, until well into the 18th century, when the indifference of the hierarchy and the decomposition of elderly vestments at length brought about its disappearance (in Durham, as late as the 1760s).


BY THE end of the Napoleonic Wars, the typical service in an English parish church on a Sunday morning would have consisted of morning prayer, litany, and ante-communion, taken by a minister wearing the cassock and surplice, but changing into the gown in order to preach. But a massive cultural and doctrinal change was about to transform every aspect of Anglican worship, in which the vesture of the ministers in church was to become one of the principal neuralgic issues. The Oxford Movement wanted to emphasise the Catholic character of the doctrine found in the Book of Common Prayer, and from the beginning key members of the Movement were engaged in liturgical study, which was both antiquarian and practical.

The first consequences of this were that people started noticing what the rubrics of the Prayer Book said. The notoriously confrontational Bishop of Exeter, Henry Phillpotts, decided to require his clergy to wear the surplice to preach, as he thought changing into the gown made them more likely to omit the Prayer for the Church Militant after the sermon. The “No Popery” riots that this innocuous change caused at St Sidwell’s, Exeter, in 1845 attracted some 5000 people before the Bishop backed down. Given this extraordinary reaction to preaching in a surplice, it is unsurprising that when some Ritualists began, on the authority of the Ornaments Rubric, to revive the ancient eucharistic vestments, ecclesiastical pandemonium broke out.

Anglo-Catholic mythology recalls that the first chasuble to be worn in an Anglican church since the Reformation was made of two Oxford MA hoods stitched together by the advanced High Churchman Dr Thomas Chamberlain, in his church of St Thomas the Martyr in the city, in the late 1840s. He did not have to wait long for others to follow his example.

As Anglican Ritualism moved beyond a pedantic adherence to the Prayer Book towards a more explicit imitation of contemporary Roman Catholic practice, so ferocious legal battles broke out, in which the use of eucharistic vestments featured prominently. Oddly enough, it was the flamboyant Disraeli, rather than earnest Gladstone, who as Prime Minster involved himself most in the attempt to suppress this ceremonial expansiveness, which he branded with his usual lapidary eloquence, “the Mass in masquerade”. It is worth keeping in proportion the extent of all this: in 1882, when the worst persecution began to fade, there were only 336 churches that used eucharistic vestments, a number that increased to just over 2000 by 1901.


HAVING failed to suppress Anglo-Catholicism in its ceremonial dimension, the Church of England then moved on to domesticate it. Two people are key here: Percy Dearmer, whose Parson’s Handbook painstakingly revived or invented cuts of vestment, colour schemes, and a variety of indoor and outdoor costumes for clergy which were both exotic enough for the most advanced enthusiast and impeccably un-Roman. His most famous legacies are the revival of the Canterbury cap (possibly the most inconvenient headgear ever invented), and the Lent Array, in which yards of unbleached linen are draped indiscriminately over ministers and furnishings during the penitential season.

The second person is Cosmo Lang, the theatrically minded Scot who was the first Archbishop since the Reformation to wear a mitre when he went to York in 1909, and the first regularly to wear the purple cassock and skull cap in public. A disciple of Bishop Edward King of Lincoln (whose mitres are preserved at St Stephen’s House), Lang made cope and mitre the default episcopal outfit for wearing in church, instead of the dull black and white of rochet and chimere.

Although King was certainly the first post-Reformation bishop to wear a mitre on his head, there is some evidence that bishops carried mitres at coronations during the 17th and 18th centuries. However, such is the conservative instinct in these matters that as late as the last coronation, the Archbishops did not wear the mitre during the rite itself, but only to come in and go out.


THE 20th century brought, on the whole, the acceptance of eucharistic vestments, provided that they reflected the English ethos of Dr Dearmer and not the rather more flamboyant style of Baroque vestments favoured by advanced Anglo-Catholics. This battle of the styles lasted until the 1960s, when the reforms of the Second Vatican Council introduced a new, simplified, and pedestrian liturgical fashion that reached its nadir in the infamous “jaws” chasubles (made from sew-it-yourself kits manufactured by Watts) for the 150th-anniversary celebrations of the Oxford Movement in 1983.

Mild agitation by Evangelicals over the insistence in the 1950s by Bishop Wand of London that ordinands wore stoles led to the definitive legalisation of eucharistic vestments in 1964, with the caveat that this implied no change in the Church of England’s doctrine. There was a very minor secession of low-church clergy over this, but in the long term what was meant to acknowledge the victory of the Anglo-Catholic position on vesture in fact undermined it: if there was no doctrinal issue at stake, there could be no fundamental objection to omitting the vestments completely, should circumstances so suggest.

As a consequence, the Church of England has never been more diverse on this issue than it is now: biretta-wearing priests, in lace albs and Roman-cut chasubles that would not look out of place in the entourage of Pope Pius XII, minister in deaneries where their colleagues take services wearing the reassuring Bash Camp uniform of off-duty-housemaster cords and Fair Isle sweater, and the archdeacon comes to preach in Alan Partridge sports casual. It is not difficult to think what the first Elizabeth might have had to say to her bishops about all this.


Canon Robin Ward is Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

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