Thanks to CF chaplain friend, @PadreShaun, for tweeting this piece from The Telegraph about a tempest in the Church of England over priests being “forced” to wear robes. According to the Rev. Andrew Atherstone, a curate and tutor at Oxford’s Wycliffe Hall, clergy wearing robes in worship are a hindrance to mission and evangelism because “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”.
Or, as Bishop Broadbent once said, no one wants to see “the clergyman up front in robes, looking a right wally”.
Familiar ground to many in churchland, I am sure. I seem to recall that the Reformation included many debates about the wearing of robes, or vestments to use the correct term, by worship leaders. I recall attending one evangelical bible church where the preacher rallied against his childhood upbringing in church, being told what to believe by guys in robes on thrones. And I get the fact that some of my low church Anglican colleagues are sceptical of liturgical traditions, including vestments. I also get the fact that when you see a bunch of us clergy in full costume as above, heavy drapery covering our pear shaped bodies, we can look a bunch of right wallies.
However, the argument of the Rev. Atherton to me carries more than a slight whiff of trahison des clercs about it. The silly reference to power dressing and stratified societies, other than showing how thoroughly post-structuralist theory has permeated the academy, reminds me of a recent interview with the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, who said that an emphasis on correct spelling and grammar was simply the upper classes buttressing their dominance by claiming correct language as a buttress of class dominance. And I thought the point of the OED was so I could speak and write real good.
I have no objection to messy church, street church, family services with puppets, whatever might allow the gospel to reach people where they live. That’s all fine. As an army chaplain, I’ve pulled my stole out of my pocket and thrown it over my fatigues to worship. No problem. But there is an Anglican tradition which Father Roland Palmer once summed up as “readiness and decency” which assumes that dignity, beauty, mystery and decorum have their place in worship. The reason I occasionally go out of my way to attend an Anglican parish where this tradition is upheld is because the right wally in robes points me to something greater than him or her and me, namely, to God. I worry that if the Rev. Atherton’s thinking catches on, people whose souls yearn for theses things will stop coming to Anglican worship, and go elsewhere to be fed.
So tomorrow, gentle reader, I’ll be the right wally in the front with the robe. And maybe even a chasuble if the spirit moves me.