Clergy Robes and Mission Priorities

Clergy Robes and Mission Priorities by Andrew Atherstone

Cambridge: Grove Books, 2008       28pp               £3.50  pb              ISBN: 978-1-85174-700-9

Andrew Atherstone begins this short and useful guide to the issue of robes with a clear statement of the current position.  He says, “the law of the Church of England governing the wearing of robes by ordained clergy is absurd in the twenty-first century.”  He is absolutely right.  He does not, however, argue for the full abolition of robes, as many Evangelicals might wish him to do.  In some cases, they are clearly still felt to be culturally appropriate, and it does not harm the ministry and mission of the church for clergy to wear them.

What is entirely inappropriate, however, is for such vestments to be made compulsory in every circumstance and for rules to be imposed by a blanket law made centrally and enforceable by canon.  “In the twenty-first century,” writes Atherstone, “Anglican ministers must at last be given the freedom to decide their own clothing, in consultation with their congregations, based on their local setting.”  This sort of subsidiarity or “localism” is popular in secular government at present, and it would be entirely right for it to be applied to church life. To enforce the law on cassocks and surplices, at a time when every doctrinal boundary can be flouted with impunity, is patently ridiculous.

This is not an irrelevant topic but remains an issue for clergy at every stage of their training and deployment.  It is right for ordinands to gain an appreciation for real contemporary ministry (perhaps outside their cultural comfort zones) by trying on the robes they may have to wear regularly in their curacies.  They need to appreciate what Anglican ministry truly is, not just what they would like it to be with their own limited experience.  It is also right for them to think through the issues concerning why certain clothing is inappropriate for a minister of the gospel word and sacrament.  Too many are still faced with an attempt by bishops (beyond their canonical authority) to compel them to wear stoles at ordination. Many face these issues only later when considering incumbencies in non-Evangelical parishes – where do they draw the line, and on what basis?  Some feel unable to take up invitations to diocesan occasions or to officiate in other churches on an ad-hoc basis, because of the sartorial requirements imposed on them.

It is important to have a thought-through approach to the issue when it arises and not simply dismiss those who wear something different to us out of hand.  Atherstone’s booklet is a clear and insightful summary of the current legal position, and a telling expose of its absurdities and inadequacies.  He gives Evangelicals some excellent material to use in arguing their case if needs be. Recent attempts in Synod to make the law even a little flexible have failed, leaving us with the stupendous situation that the one thing the Church of England has definitively decided to be utterly unyielding on is not the gospel, not who Christ is, not doctrine, not even morality, but what the minister wears. Yet there is no actual uniformity in practice and no two Anglican churches seem to look the same on any given Sunday.  Until the law can be changed (it is simply “not fit for purpose”) it is important that we know our way around it. This is the kind of clear, sane, and informed booklet needed to help us do that, and to help persuade others of the idiocy of the current law.

This review first appeared in Churchman 126/1 (2012).

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