The Church of England has just launched into an epic consultation about whether or not clergy should be required to wear robes when taking services. A carefully worded consultation paper outlines the question and gives the background. Inevitably it focuses on the meaning of the wording of the current legislation. It also offers some history, which makes it quite clear that the received norms of clerical vesture were never really thought out. In truth, there isn’t much theory here.
The consultation has already got the attention of the national press, which is presumably delighted at the prospect of endless column inches of harmless fun, and we can all begin to imagine some amusing cartoons. Though let it not be forgotten that this has been a very hot and even violent subject in the past. I remember reading about the nineteenth century surplice riots in Exeter when I studied church history. And I did so with a degree of astonishment. I mean, who cares what clergy wear in church. The answer is that a lot of people seem to care very much.
The issue has arisen now because of a private member’s motion at the General Synod, but it’s one of those subjects that just goes round and round. A quick internet search shows that it also came up 2008 – and the arguments were much the same. The main one being put forward being that wearing robes makes clergy look different from everyone else.
It’s a good point, come to think of it, but as it’s also the main argument for wearing robes it’s hardly decisive.
So, what’s the issue?
There are those who say that it’s by dressing distinctively that the clergy help make a special atmosphere where spiritual things can happen. And then other people who rightly say that spiritual things happen with people in all sorts of clothing.
This is a version of the dispute that has been going on for thousands of years about whether or not it’s a good idea to have a special building for religious matters – whether or not people should, or even can, build a ‘house’ for God. There are those who say that this is ridiculous – you can meet God anywhere God chooses to show up. And yet just because you can meet God anywhere – say on Dartmoor – it doesn’t follow that you might not rather go to Exeter Cathedral, or the parish church at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, for a service of Holy Communion, a Baptism or a Funeral, and feel that it wouldn’t really be right to celebrate these occasions at Hound Tor.
But let’s get back to the case against robes. There are those who say that if the clergy don’t dress like other people the other people will think the clergy are aliens and conclude that their religion is a religion for aliens and so not for them – at least not on a day-to-day basis, though they might also feel that it’s nice to have the aliens help out when no one else knows what to do – such as at times of birth and death.
I have never really felt this to be a convincing argument, as even when dressed as an alien you can speak in everyday language, use familiar gestures and be a warm, sympathetic and empathic human being. Indeed it seems to me that this is just as much a duty for someone leading a religious ceremony as is looking the part.
My hunch is that there is actually no way to resolve the question of whether wearing robes is a matter of ‘may’, ‘should’ or ‘must’ for clergy. And so I wonder why we should worry about it. The reality today is that if clergy don’t want to wear robes they don’t wear robes and no one does anything much about it. And this is probably a good thing, or a good-enough thing, or at least a not very bad thing. I confess that I have taken at least one communion service without wearing vestments, and it all seemed to go just fine. I’ve also preached wearing a suit and even in less formal garb. There is something relaxed and friendly about it. But it’s not, and it shouldn’t be, the norm.
The sensible thing for the church to do on this matter would be to continue the current practice of having a norm expressed in Canon Law, but to carry on being tolerant about those who choose not to obey it. This is certainly a better way forward than one proposal on the table, which is that clergy should be allowed not to wear robes provided that ‘he or she had first ascertained, after consultation with the Parochial Church Council, that doing so would benefit the mission of the Church in the parish’.
The simple truth is that no one can ascertain any such thing. It’s all a matter of opinion, of personal choice; and if you have an institution with a weak centre and a strong and dispersed periphery you may as well recognise that the authorities are never going to have the energy to throw the book at you, so you don’t need to pretend that you know things that you don’t. You just need to get a local consensus and do the responsible thing.
However, this is manifestly not a debate about the sensible thing to do. It’s going to be a time and energy consuming exercise in which the wear-what-you-like clergy will try to make the robing clergy look even more odd than they do; and the robing clergy will probably oblige by pretending that there really are deep theological reasons for doing what is, in fact, at best only custom and practice.
There is no right answer to this one, and now the debate is open the smart thing for the church to do is to find some sort of compromise which allows local and sensible decisions be made about who wears what when, while insisting that there is a modest norm that involves dressing like an ‘other’; but not just any old other but like er, well, like a vicar. The norm needs to exist not so that clergy can dress themselves up like peacocks but so that they can be present with and for others but in not quite the same way as others. Because that’s the job, the role, the calling, the vocation.
Robe-wearing clergy are not aliens, but real people inhabiting a special and peculiar role on behalf of the community and by both vesture and demeanour signifying the possibility of that gracious mix of intimacy and transcendence that is Divine.
We should free the clergy from having to worry about what best to wear; we should certainly discourage them from looking like minor executives or life-style coaches. We need not insist on robes, precisely, but some sort of distinctive and objective dress is appropriate – and as there is no known way of designing such things from scratch we should let custom, not fashion, be our guide.
Let them wear robes!