The news that the Synod of the Church of England is considering allowing vicars to wear ordinary clothing at services no doubt brought forth more than the usual number of bad jokes, from ‘surplice to requirements’ through to ones about ‘divesting’ and ‘defrocking’. The proposer of the motion says that as Church Law is being flouted on a regular basis, it is best to regularise the situation; this, I am sure, is an argument that will appeal to all who have been caught speeding, and is, indeed, one we often come across in contemporary life: something is not being observed, so let us not try to enforce its observance, let’s just forget it and regularise the forgetting. But it seems as though even Gile Fraser, who is always at the forefront of any trend, dislikes this one. It will be interesting to see how it goes.
As a Baptist I have no dog in this fight. I wear the same suit I have worn to our meetings for the last twenty years, and so do the other elders; folk turning up for service wear their ‘Sunday best’, and for us all, it is a way of showing respect; we’re in God’s house and we dress the way we might if we were going anywhere extra special. The Methodists across the way do the same, although their Minister has been known to adopt a clerical collar, something we do not. But then our services are in the line of descent and dissent from the Baptists of old, and it would be fair to us, I hope, to say that they rely upon the spoken word, the Good Book, and good hymns; they are, in short, an exercise in listening, singing and remembering; there is, and I hope I offend no one here, no sacramental element in what we do. For some of us (myself included) there is the mystery that He is with us in the bread and wine, but I’m averse to words like ‘confect’, and we’re not great ones for symbols which may, I suspect, be our loss; but it is the Yorkshire way. We are like a crew of Doubting Thomases – we like to see, to touch, to hear, and we’re not great ones for reading signs and symbols.
I can see that if your Liturgy is full of the signs and the symbols, one might indeed wear special vestments; the Jews of old did, and it seems probable that once they had been expelled from the synagogues, the early Christians continued with a sacramental form of worship in which those presiding wore robes. If you need to mark off your Minister in some way, vestments are a good way, although I have to say that some of the things you see nowadays suggest that sober good taste may be at a premium – there is, I am told, a whole blog devoted to bad vestments (warning, it may offend anyone with a modicum of good taste or sense of colour coordination). I’ve a particular aversion to modern Roman Catholic vestments where the priest seems to me to be wearing a version of what used to be called a ‘shortie nightie’ – I can’t think lacy fringes quite the right thing for a man to be wearing. I also wonder to what extent all the dressing up attracts a certain sort of chap.
This division between the sacramental and the non-sacramental is one which is very basic in the West. Bosco, for example, clearly doesn’t have a clue why Chalcedon is going on about the ‘second Eve’, and clearly regards any image in a church the way a Muslim would. I’ve a tendency that way myself, so I think I can be critical without being harsh to him. I think there may be something we’re missing, and as so often, we replace what we can’t see with what we think we see. I wonder how often that undermines mutual understanding? There’s a serious thought for Christmas.