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Symbolism of episcopal wear open to doubt

08 January 2016


From the Rt Revd Dr Colin Buchanan

Sir, — The Revd Dr Edward Dowler’s advocacy (Comment, 18/25 December) of valuing vestments for their meaning to my mind greatly strengthens the case for Bishop Pete Broadbent’s scythe of simplification.

My question here is not directly whether meaning should be attached to vesture, but more immediately to the actual meanings he attributes to "the traditional habit of bishops". Of these, the most plausible is the pastoral staff, which he quaintly calls a crozier. Also credible must be the pectoral cross, which "points to Christ’s sacrifice" (but puzzles me as thereby being that which distinguishes bishops from other Christians).

The ring, which I strongly suspect is in origin simply a signet ring, he explains as symbolising "the bishop’s quasi-marital commitment to his diocese" — but the moment its meaning derives from the "eternal" character of a marriage-ring then it surely must mean "till death do us part", and no ring-wearing bishop should ever be open to translation.

But Dr Dowler’s worst example by far is that "the mitre connects the Christian bishop with the antecedent Jewish priesthood (see Exodus 39.28; Leviticus 8.9)"; for this is a "connection" that should never be made: the "Jewish priesthood" was an antecedent to the high priesthood of Jesus Christ (see the Letter to the Hebrews passim), and, despite some of the tendencies of patristic authors, any attributing of such priesthood to the episcopate runs wholly contrary to the New Testament and derogates from the priesthood of Christ.

Before Bishop Pete Broadbent sweeps all this away, however, let us by all means debate what Dr Dowler calls "good theological, ecclesiological, and historical reasons" for the episcopal sub-culture. To begin that debate, let me submit that neither aesthetic nostalgia nor specific theological meaning (let alone apostolic precedent) gave rise to such of these accoutrements as began in the Church of England in the 19th century, but the much simpler criterion that they were the normal ornamentation of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and were therefore the mark of being truly "Catholic".

21 The Drive
Leeds LS17 7QB

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