It would certainly be a revelation – but not of the kind to be found in the Bible.
The Church of England is considering changing ecclesiastical law specifically to make it illegal for clergy appearing at the altar dressed in overly revealing clothing.
While the prospect of vicars in lacy underwear or bishops in mankinis might seem outlandish – at least in most congregations – it is an apparent peril which has so vexed Church officials that they are planning to amend canon law to prevent it – just in case.
Under proposed legislative changes to be put to members of the Church’s decision-making General Synod for approval later this week is a new clause banning clergy from conducting services while wearing anything not considered “seemly” or which represent a “departure” from its official teaching.
As well as outlawing unnecessarily revealing clothing, the rule would also apply to items such t-shirts with atheist slogans or promoting extreme political views.
The unlikely change is contained among dozens of minor amendments to existing or proposed ecclesiastical law to be put to the General Synod, which holds its main annual gathering in York next weekend.
Other changes include a slight simplification to the process of selling off ancient glebe land – historic tracts of pasture traditionally used to support livings for the clergy – and rules on altering parish boundaries or names.
The ban on revealing priestly attire comes amid moves to relax theChurch’s long-standing rules on clerical vestments.
At present canon law requires priests to wear traditional clerical robes, which maintain a tradition dating back to late Roman times, when leading communion or one-off services such as weddings, baptisms or funerals.
The rules are already often ignored, especially in congregations which use more modern, informal styles of worship. Supporters of the changes say they will help make church services seem more “relevant” to younger people and win new converts.
But opponents of the plans have warned that abandoning the legal requirement could leave the Church appearing “slovenly”.
Under “draft amending canon number 36”, clergy would now be able to drop abandon traditional vesture altogether in favour of “some other form of dress” if leading members of the congregation agree that it would “benefit the mission of the church in the parish”.
But a new paragraph has been inserted into the draft by canon law experts adding: “Where a minister adopts a form of dress other than vesture of a form specified in this canon, the form of dress so adopted must be seemly and must not be such as to be indicative of a departure from the doctrines now contained in the formularies of the Church of England.”
The Rev Dr Giles Fraser, the vicar and broadcaster, who described himself as an “arch-traditionalist” when it comes to clerical robes, said: “The most unseemly thing I may have taken the eucharist in is a Chelsea top, but that was underneath my vestments so no-one could see it.
“I think the whole point about having vestments is that it stops all this stuff being an issue.
“I would certainly be extremely disturbed if I saw the Bishop of Willesden celebrating the eucharist in his Tottenham t-shirt.
“You can actually wear what you like underneath – on a hot day you don’t even have to wear trousers if you are wearing your vestments properly.”
But he emphasised: “A mankini is never acceptable, it is against the doctrines of the Church of England however it is worn.”
He added that the fact that canon law now had to stipulate that clerics do not wear inappropriate clothing in services was a sign of how far standards had fallen.
“I remember Colin Slee [the former Dean of Southwark who died in 2010] not even allowing people to wear brown shoes at eucharist.
“He was liberal in just about everything else but that was his red line, you had to wear black Oxfords at eucharist.
“There is a little bit of that in me.”
A spokesman for the Church of England pointed to the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “seemly” as “conforming to propriety or good taste; fitting, decorous or proper.”
“In short the meaning of ‘seemly’ needs to be determined in the context of the particular service in question,” he added.
That means that macabre clothing styles worn by participants, including clergy, at special “goth” services, such as those held at Whitby Abbey or Coventry Cathedral in the past, would not be banned, he said.
Nor would the annual Grimalidi service held each year at Holy Trinity Church in Dalston, east London – in memory of Joseph Grimaldi, the so-called “king of clowns” – at which the entire congregation is made up of clowns in full costume.
But he added that anything sexually explicit such as a mankinis or thongs would be viewed as inherently unseemly, he said, as might t-shirts with the French Connection “fcuk” label.
Shocking though this article might appear to the more conservative of our Church leaders, the author, John Bingham in his ‘Telegraph’ piece, highlights the conundrum of what might be considered appropriate wear for clergy – in the pulpit and when conducting the worship of the Church. This is a serious subject due to be debated at the Church of England’s upcoming General Synod this month.
In these days of increasing informality – especially in the more Evangelical styles of worship – Anglican clergy can sometimes be seen to ignore local diocesan regulations about attire of the clergy in the conduct of formal worship. In ACANZP, for instance, clergy are required to wear appropriate clothing for the formal celebration of the Eucharist taking place in an advertised public worship service. Collar and tie , open-necked shirt, or even tee shirt, is not considered to be appropriate dress for a priest on such an occasion – unless it is covered up, as Fr. Giles Fraser in this article suggests, by an appropriate canonical vestment, whether the traditional chasuble or the less formal alb and stole. Giles also admits that a cassock alb can cover a multitude of dress-styles.
Less formal celebrations of the Eucharist – maybe at a school camp, or other informal occasions – are generally given more licence to vary the clothing of the Celebrant, but, like the article here says, the wearing of a ‘mankini’, Borat-style, would not be countenanced.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand