The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, broke with tradition in late June to allow Members of Parliament to skip wearing jackets and ties in the chamber. Now the Church of England’s General Synod has decided it is in keeping with the modern world for clergy to have the choice of leading worship while wearing casual clothes.
In a similar vein. the Queen wore a dress and hat rather than the traditional robes and crown while presenting the traditional monarch’s speech spelling out the government’s program for the next Parliament. And on a hot day in June, men in the membership enclosure at the Royal Ascot races were allowed to dispense with jackets.
The synod decision needs an Amending Canon, after which it will go to the Monarch for Royal Assent. Many clergy, particularly evangelicals, ignore existing canon law that says “the presiding minister shall wear either a surplice or alb with scarf or stole” at Holy Communion, baptisms, and funerals.
Two decades ago, Pete Hobson, an east London incumbent, mooted the idea of allowing clergy to dispense with robes. The move failed in what were more conservative times. Much has changed since then, and with a multiplication of service styles, informal attire for clergy often looks the part.
General Synod supported a Private Member’s Motion moved by the Rev. Chris Hobbs (London) who spent three years painstakingly gathering signatures of support and asking advice from lawyers on how to present his endeavor.
Hobbs, who grew up in Sydney, said that in Australian outback worship, “to wear robes would have been seen as, er, eccentric.”
The Rev. Alistair McHaffie (Blackburn) recalled how his father seldom left the house without wearing a tie. “We’ve become far more informal in what we wear and how we address one another,” he said.
While supporting the changes, the Ven. Luke Miller, Archdeacon of London, said he “quite enjoys dressing up in different ways” and had worried about the possibility of “themed weddings” in which the officiating priest is color-coded with bridesmaids.
The Rt. Rev. Alan Smith, Bishop of St. Albans, told the synod that when traditional forms of vestment were dispensed with, the forms of dress adopted by the minister “must nevertheless be suitable for a minister of the Church of England officiating at divine service.”