ENGLAND: Forcing priests to wear robes 'absurd', says theologian
Clergy should not have to wear robes during services because such rules are "absurd in the 21st century", according to a leading theologian.
By Graham Tibbetts
October 17, 2008
Garments such as the cassock and surplice are a form of "power dressing" which reinforce class divisions and prevent the wearer getting the Lord's message across, said the Rev Andrew Atherstone.
In a report titled Clergy Robes and Mission Priorities he called on the Church of England to allow ministers and parishioners to decide what dress code was appropriate.
"The existing law, which makes robes obligatory for all, belongs to a bygone world. In the 21st century Anglican ministers must at last be given the freedom to decide their own clothing, in consultation with their congregations, based on their local setting," said Mr Atherstone, a tutor at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University.
"Robes can be a barrier to mission, a hindrance rather than a help."
The wearing of robes, which have their origins in the era of the late Roman empire, is enshrined in a law known as Canon B8 which dates from the 1960s and was based on earlier rules from 1604.
Over the last four decades a number of attempts to amend the legislation have been thwarted.
During one debate in 1988 Bishop Pete Broadbent, a supporter of change, said: "Let members ask themselves whether there are not occasions...when they have been embarrassed by, or found evangelism hindered by, the clergyman up front in robes, looking a right wally?"
Fourteen years later an opponent of new legislation said it could lead to "shell-suits in the sanctuary".
Mr Atherstone, who is also an assistant curate of Eynsham and Cassington, near Oxford, said robes "built barriers" between minister and worshipper.
"Robes can be a form of power dressing - they can reinforce the divisions of a stratified society, where deference to rank and authority is key," he said.
However, the Church of England rejected the criticism.
"The requirements of the Church of England's Canons are not onerous. They simply state that at celebrations of Holy Communion, Occasional Offices (such as weddings) and, on Sundays, the statutory services of Morning and Evening Prayer, the presiding minister should normally wear a surplice or alb (essentially a single simple robe) with scarf or stole," said a spokesman.
"The Canons do not impose any particular requirements as to what the clergy wear at other services, such as a less formal 'family service' or an outreach event held outside the church building.
"We do not detect any widespread strength of feeling that clergy are unable to relate to their parishioners, or that their mission is somehow impeded, because of the current regulations."
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