THE CLERGY could be permitted to “depart on a general basis” from wearing wear robes or vestments for Sunday services if a possible amendment to Canon B8 contained in a consultation paper from the House of Bishops, circulated to General Synod members, is adopted.
The draft amendment would allow this departure at morning and evening prayer and holy communion if the clergy had “ascertained, after consultation with the Parochial Church Council, that doing so would benefit the mission of the Church in the parish”.
The clergy would also be allowed to depart from the normal vesture requirements at the occasional offices — marriage services, funerals, and baptisms — if the “persons concerned” (such as the bride and bridegroom, or parents bringing an infant to baptism) agreed, although “the prescribed forms of vesture would remain the norm.”
If agreement was secured, a priest would be free to wear whatever he or she chose, provided that this was “seemly” and did not indicate any “departure from the doctrine of the Church of England”.
If this Amending Canon was introduced to the Synod, it would need a two-thirds majority in each House for final approval — because it affects a matter relating to a rubric in the Prayer Book — as was necessary with the women-bishops legislation. The consultation runs until 15 April.
The current rules have more flexibility than is often assumed, a background note attached to the consultation explains. Priests are to wear the prescribed vesture “normally”, which means that the requirement can be ignored when the circumstances justify doing so.
It does not mean, however, that certain churches are routinely permitted to dispense with wearing robes. Furthermore, although the relevant canon says that the Church attaches no theological significant to the “diversities of vesture”, this does not mean that wearing robes or vestments is deemed to be irrelevant doctrinally.
Indeed, the tradition of the clergy’s wearing particular clothes while presiding at public worship dates back to the Early Church, another background note explains.
Each part of traditional clerical dress is based on an everyday garment dating from different eras. The surplice originates in the late-Roman tunic, hoods and scarves come from medieval scholarly garments, and the clerical collar is derived from an early 19th-century form of neckwear for laymen.
Disputes over liturgical vesture have erupted over the centuries in the C of E. In the 19th century, they led to some priests’ being imprisoned.
Nevertheless, the background note suggests that, since the Restoration in 1660, there has been no “significant dissent” within the Church about whether the clergy should wear “some form of distinctive vesture” while officiating at liturgical services.
Synod members’ responses are required by 15 April.