During my few months looking after the church at Goremead I presented one candidate for confirmation. The service took place in an evangelical parish nearby. I was waiting with the bishop in the vestry when the vicar popped his head round the door. ‘I hope you don’t mind,’ he said, with no sense that he was asking permission, ‘But I won’t wear a surplice until the communion. It looks so silly.’ And with that he vanished again. The expression of the bishop – properly attired in stole and alb and carrying his crozier – was priceless, as it would be again at several points as the evening wore on. I felt like saying, ‘You don’t think you look any less silly in a suit?’ but that would have been cruel.
I will talk more about General Synod’s July decisions and indecisions later, but I will warm up, as you might expect, by discussing vestments. Synod decided to dispose of the old rule that when celebrating communion clergy had to wear either surplice, scarf and hood (the conservative evangelical option) or the traditional Mass vestments (the Catholic option), and instead they only need dress in a way which is ‘seemly’or ‘appropriate’. It was nice that the Torygraph mentioned Goth services in one of its write-ups of this subject, and perhaps even nicer not only that they got Fr Giles Fraser to admit wearing a Chelsea T-shirt while celebrating Mass (albeit under his vestments), but put up a completely irrelevant photo of a rural church in the golden light of a setting sun, which is how Torygraph readers imagine the Church of England always is.
To be honest I had a memory that the Church had already dealt with this some time ago. In so many congregations, everyday dress is considered de rigueur even for the least quotidian of events (albeit it happens every day) – the re-creation of the sacramental presence of the eternal Word of God in bread and wine – that the rules haven’t actually been enforced in years. This is just catching up with reality.
Piggybacking on this more general matter, though, came the specific one of the bishops’ mitres. Dr Ian Paul, who is on the staff of resolutely evangelical vicar-factory St John’s College, Nottingham, did a good job of publicising his opinion that the bishops should give up their pointy hats. On his own blog he begins by suggesting mildly that there is ‘nothing very Anglican’ about bishops wearing mitres, and that they’re silly-looking, and works himself up to arguing that they’re a facet of covering up child abuse, which is quite good going. He turned up on the Today programme on the 10th: the editors put him on opposite Ruth Gledhill, enough to make anyone lose their will to live, and he reeled out his potted history of vestment-wearing which Gledhill managed to collude with in a frankly loopy contribution. I was most struck by the bit where Fr Paul described Blessed Edward King as ‘the first bishop we know to have worn a mitre’ (sic) and said he adopted it ‘because he wanted the Church of England to look more like the Church of Rome’. This is both true and untrue. It would be more accurate to say that Bishop King, like other 19th-century Tractarians, believed that the bishops of the Church of England had as great a claim to the title ‘Catholic’ as their brethren of the Roman observance, and adopting the mitre was a sign of that. Far from being a signal of pomp and self-aggrandisement, it existed – as a recollection of the flame of the Holy Spirit which drove the Apostles from their Jerusalem bolt-hole on the first Pentecost Day to proclaim the risen Christ – to stress the Church’s independence of the powers of the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. Bishops were the successors of the Apostles, the Tractarians argued, not ecclesiastical civil servants in the pay of the State. It seems clear that what we have in Fr Paul is a late flowering of that perplexing anti-Catholicism which thankfully has almost died out even of the crustiest corners of evangelical England – though not completely, it seems. No Popery! is still the cry there.
(Of course, he’s not entirely right about the history of the mitre. Robert Pursglove, Henry VIII’s Bishop of Hull who died in 1579, had his memorial brass in Tideswell Church depict him in full Mass vestments, mitre included, pushing the wearing of one way past the Reformation. The Coggeshall brass of Charles I’s Archbishop of York, Samuel Harsnett, also shows him in one, and he died in 1631. Even when Anglican bishops ceased to wear mitres, they still had wooden ones carried in front of them at their funeral processions.)
I don’t know whether mitres do look that silly: I certainly don’t think they have to. A woeful lack of any kind of aesthetic sense afflicts the modern Church, and as a result we have some awful rubbish paraded about. Archbishop Justin’s mitre gains its bizarre appearance – no bishop has ever worn one of its shape before – from the fact that it was made for someone else with a bigger head, and he had it taken in. I can't decide whether he deliberately decided to make it look ludicrous, or whether it just didn't occur to him.
Much of the time bishops do not cart their tat around with them, any more than the rest of us do, and they make do with whatever the setting they’re worshipping in has available. Here are our two archbishops at York Minster sporting particularly egregious examples:
Yet Archbishop Sentamu can look splendid given the right kit:
And of course when bishops wore stuff that followed the lines of proper medieval examples, and was put together by proper embroiderers, even the most personally shambolic of prelates looked the part:
Well. Underneath the anti-Catholic prejudice and partial history is a more interesting question. How far should what the Church does be accommodated to what the world expects, and how far should it be distinguished from it? Does the Gospel transform culture, or does it fit in with it? Is it more effective – does it make souls more likely to encounter Jesus Christ – to signal difference, or sameness? I certainly believe that at the centre of the Church there has to be difference, there has to be some sense that God transcends the world, and wants to pull it towards him, and that the Church is anchored there, not here. You might think the result of human beings trying to hook themselves into divine eternity by means of needlework ‘looks a bit silly’. It looks something, anyway. But bodies, with all their silliness, are all we’ve got to work with.