Clergy to ditch their robes in further sign of dress-down Britain

Church of England approves relaxation of canon law to allow its clergy to conduct services without traditional vestments

Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, wearing the traditional dress of Anglican clergy. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP

First it was ties in parliament, now it is surplices at communion.

Following Speaker John Bercow’s decision last month to relax the convention requiring male MPs to wear jackets and ties in parliament, the Church of England is to allow clergy to conduct services in civvies.

The C of E’s ruling body, the synod, meeting in York, has given final approval to a change in canon law on “the vesture of ordained and authorised ministers during the time of divine service”.

The measure needs to be approved by the Queen, who swapped her crown for a hat at last month’s state opening of parliament in another sign of dress-down Britain.

Clergy are currently required to wear traditional robes – a surplice or alb with scarf or stole – when taking communion or conducting one-off services such as weddings, funerals or baptisms.

On Monday, the synod rules that clergy could adopt different forms of dress, with the agreement of their parochial church council. Where there is disagreement, the bishop of the diocese will have the final say. For weddings, funerals and baptisms, the consent of the principal participants must be gained.

Traditional clerical robes date back centuries, but the rules have been increasingly ignored – especially in churches with modern, informal styles of worship.

Some clergy say surplices and albs put off younger people from attending, and set the priest apart from the congregation. Traditionalists maintain the latter is the point of formal vestments.

Alan Smith, the bishop of St Albans, told synod that where 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”.


Attitudes had changed with generations, said Alistair McHaffie, a clergyman from Blackburn. When he was a child he had addressed his friends’ parents as “Mr and Mrs” and 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. The change to canon law was simply reflecting changes in society. Hundreds of churches had already dispensed with robes, and the move was simply giving them formal permission to do so.

While supporting the changes, Luke Miller, the archdeacon of London, said he “quite enjoys dressing up in different ways” and had worried about the possibility of “themed weddings” with the officiating priest colour-coded with bridesmaids.

Meanwhile, a senior clergyman in the C of E has urged bishops to stop wearing mitres – decorative pointed hats, which neatly fold when not in use – because they are an “unhelpful and unnecessary” symbol of power. 

Ian Paul, a member of the archbishops’ council – the C of E’s cabinet – wrote a blogpost headlined “Why bishops should throw away their mitres”.

He said: “To most, and I would suggest especially the young, the sight of bishops in mitres puts them in another world. It is world of the past, a world of nostalgia, a world of deference – and mostly a world which is quite disconnected from present experience and values.

“It confirms for many the impression of a church irrelevant to modern questions, contained in its own bubble of self reference. And in its hierarchical understanding of authority, it is a culture of which contemporary society is becoming less and less tolerant.”

Monday 10 July 2017