Last month, the Church of England’s governing body, General Synod, met in York.* Alongside conversion therapy and rites of passage for transgender people, the agenda also included a change to rules on what clergy wear during services, including special occasions like weddings and funerals.
At present, all C of E clergy are legally required to wear traditional robes, a mode of dress little changed since the question of suitable clothing was debated in the mid-sixteenth century. The new ruling empowers brides, grooms and mourners to make a decision on the vicar’s dress.** The change is not immediate: as with other national laws, the Queen has to give her royal assent.
Reviewing the discussions that led to this decision, there are some informative parallels in the early modern debates, when a distinctive “Church of England” was still taking shape.
When the Church of England broke further away from Rome during the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553) the symbolism of church clothing was briefly high on the agenda: Chosen to become Bishop of Gloucester, John Hooper resisted the demand to dress for the part. Overall, there was agreement that what one wore was not an expression of faith: it was res indifferentes, an indifferent matter. Yet where faith did not force someone to take a position in either direction, others argued the monarch could command obedience (an outworking of supreme headship, confirmed by the 1549 Act of Uniformity). Hooper’s persistent independence led to his imprisonment, until a compromise could be found. Leading European reformers were consulted. They respected Hooper’s conscience, but they also recognised royal power. Hooper eventually consented to dress for the occasion, and wear correct clothing whenever preaching in the King’s presence.
The debate reignited early in the reign of Elizabeth I. The Act of Uniformity, removed by her Rome-sympathising sister, had been reinstated. In January 1665 Elizabeth’s new Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker began demanding compliance. Within two months, Parker and colleagues received a petition requesting exemption from wearing vestments. Prominent signatories included Miles Coverdale (the man behind the first English bible in print and sometime bishop of Exeter), William Whittingham (chief among the Geneva Bible‘s translation team and then Dean of Durham cathedral) and John Foxe (author of the bestselling Acts and Monuments, alias Foxe’s Book of Martyrs). Meanwhile, the Dean of Wells had begun mocking the whole proceedings by prescribing the wearing of a priest’s cap as penalty for adultery. Finding an effective way to compel clergy to wear a white outer garment and cap was problematic, but Parker’s surplice-requirement shaped the regulations that became fixed in the early 1600s.
The general attitude to the new rule change will probably be one of relief. Clergy have been actively breaking the law for some time. Since the current discussions began, prompted by a private member’s motion in 2014, bishops and their subordinates have repeatedly acknowledged the breadth of non-compliance. Bishop Peter Broadbent reckoned clergy in one third of his Willesden parishes regularly conducted public worship wearing ordinary clothes (see his remarks in the 12 July 2014 Synod discussions). The recent debate has been underpinned by the conviction of some that priestly clothing can be an obstacle to the unchurched, with “mission” central to the arguments in favour of changing dress requirements. In a nation where many have little or nothing to do with religion, what the vicar is wearing may seem like so much of nothing.
Knowing the broader context of Parker’s Elizabethan-era campaign may teach us sympathy with those who favour obligatory robing. Soon after her coronation, the Queen issued a proclamation to reform “servants in certain abuses of apparel”. According to the document, servants were wearing the wrong clothes. Simply put, they were too well dressed. Why was this a problem? An appendix to the reprinted proclamation includes a list of permitted garments. Golden or silver garments were only for Earls, Viscounts and Barons. Dukes, Marquesses, and other specified nobles could wear red velvet and black furs. To wear imported furs, one’s annual income must be at least 100 pounds. While silk nightcaps were restricted to knights’ families or those with an income of 200 pounds. Reading between the lines, it is evident that people relied upon dress to determine a person’s social status. Wearing the wrong clothes aided identity fraud. Being required to wear specified clothing in church then was not only about the monarch’s authority to require it, nor respect for the holy occasions. Wearing uniform garments set clergy apart from the secular ranks of society, and outside a system based on birth, class and income. An atypical church dresscode is not without merit (and arguably more suitable than the hippest Reebok Air).
*This is one of those moments where my past life (directing the team dispatching General Synod papers to interested parties) and present (delving into the contents of Early English Books Online) coincide.
** Of course, it isn’t really the expectation that a bride will pick out the vicar’s outfit. And clergy are still required to dress and conduct themselves with dignity (Canon C27)—no pink tutus, then. The concession is intended to avoid upset or surprise if parish practice is to dress down: for weddings, funerals, and baptisms outside regular worship, this must be discussed beforehand, with families having the right to ask their officiant to robe.