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The day of disrobing comes closer

24 February 2017

AMENDMENTS to the canons relating to clergy vesture during the time of divine service, and to the funerals of those who have taken their own lives, completed their revision stage on Wednesday morning.

The steering committee for the Draft Amending Canon had decided to split it in two, the Archdeacon of Lincoln, the Ven. Gavin Kirk (Lincoln), who chairs the revision committee, told the Synod on Tuesday afternoon. The steering committee had been concerned that the separate amendments about the funeral service should not be lost, “should the changes related to vesture not obtain the necessary support at final approval”, he said. “We were unanimous that the Canon should be divided.”

After submissions, the committee had considered advising that the Amending Canon on vesture be withdrawn; but, he said, “we were clear that we should not do that,” because it had originated in the Synod’s passing a private member’s motion in 2014.

They had amended the canon on vesture. As it had been drafted, the proposals would have left the decision to the minister, he said. “The minister would have been required to consult the PCC, but it would be open to him or her to dispose of the wearing of the vesture even if the PCC was opposed.”

He said that the committee had received submissions from people who wanted to give the PCC a veto; but it “took the view that a PCC veto would go too far”. Another canon on changing vesture required the bishop’s direction to be followed in cases of dispute between the PCC and the clergy; and the committee decided to adopt the same approach on the question of dispensing with vesture altogether.

The Revd James Dudley-Smith (Bath & Wells), thanking the committee for its work, said that the end result was “a win-win for everybody”. His deanery contained many different types of churches, large and small, urban and rural, ancient buildings and modern ones; and “some churches blessed by newer forms of worship and others that feel blessed because they haven’t”.

He said that the proposals “hardly represent a revolution”, and were “a happy compromise between clergy, the PCC, and the bishop”.

Dr Andrew Bell (Oxford) also welcomed the Amending Canon. “It does not require any church to dispense with robes if wearing robes will benefit their ministry.” He was “well aware of churches where the wearing of robes benefits their mission. Flexibility is the key here.”

The debate was adjourned, and resumed on Wednesday morning.

The Revd Philip Plyming (Guildford) supported the Amending Canon. In his parish, a fresh-expression service had been run very successfully for many years, attended by 50 families who would not otherwise have come to church. “In that context, robes would not work in an informal setting,” he said. They would also make doing the actions for children’s songs very difficult. “Our God is a great big God, but our robes might not be. To wear robes would hinder this particular fresh expression of church we are passionate about.”

Adrian Greenwood (Southwark) said he was delighted that the debate had reached this stage, and wanted to remind the Synod that this was a permissive measure that would not require people to change anything they were currently doing if they did not wish to. “As a Reader, I would say I hope in due course those responsible would bring the rules about Readers into line with this Canon.”

Rhian Ainscough (Leicester) said that she could not help but notice the high occurrence of suicide among young people like her. It was right that priests could decide the right service to use for funerals after suicide. “Enable the Church to show care in such dire situations,” she asked.

Canon Patricia Hawkins (Lichfield) said that she remained unconvinced about the merits of changing the rules on vesture. “What troubles me is less the substance than some of the underlying assumptions,” she said. The idea that what you wore signified what you stood for was not strange to most of society. “I would suggest that people do get it, and young people do get it. Clothing is never neutral. Whatever we wear, we make a statement.”

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn, told Mr Plyming that he had always found a chasuble allowed for maximum freedom while performing the actions to children’s songs. “In Southwark, we have some spare ones we could give to you.” He said that an experience of preaching at one church where robes were never worn had emphasised how inappropriate they could be in certain contexts. “I give thanks for the permissive nature of this Canon, and look forward to seeing the fruits of it,” he concluded.

The Revd Alistair McHaffie (Blackburn) said that the Amending Canon on vesture was simply taking into account the current situation on the ground. The advantage of changing the law would be to create structures for proper consultation and resolving conflicts about vesture, which did not currently exist.

The Revd Charles Skrine (London) said that this was not a motion supported only by those who were against wearing robes. “This is a permissive measure. This is exactly about allowing parishes to choose what to say through what they wear. Please give us permission to be fantastic and appropriate, as Andrew Nunn said.”

The Synod took note of the report, and moved on to the revision stage of Draft Amending Canon No. 36.

Nigel Bacon (Lincoln) moved a “short” amendment that, he said, was the result of “considerable correspondence” between him and the legal department. He was putting it forward to “avoid misunderstanding”.

He was concerned at the use of the words “public worship” regarding baptism services, and said that some might interpret this not to include stand-alone baptism services that took place on Sunday afternoons.

He wanted to replace the words “At a service of baptism that is not held in public worship on a Sunday” with the words “At a service of baptism that does not take place during another service on a Sunday” in the part of the Amending Canon setting out when robes could be dispensed with.

This was because “the Draft Amending Canon could be read in such a way that the typical baptism service, held on a Sunday afternoon, is not part of the Canon, and that clergy would be free to choose what they wear at stand-alone service. There would be a risk that parents of young candidates or adult candidates could be disappointed if the minister was not robed. This may be rare, but it could happen, and it will happen.”

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, who chairs the steering committee, said that the committee wanted to resist the amendment. “It would be undesirable for canons referring to the same subject-matter to use different terminology.”

The amendment fell, and the revision stage was completed. The revision stage was also completed for Draft Amending Canon No. 37 (on funerals). Both stand referred to the revision committee for final drafting.

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