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Trendy Vicars look like Neo!

A photo of Keanu Reeves as Neo in the Matrix

The Daily Mail isn’t prone to running ridiculous stories about Trendy Vicars, at least not since they last did it a month ago. It does slightly boggle the mind, however, to think that the Daily Mail thought the best way to greet Christmas was with a ridiculous story about Trendy Vicars and what they choose to wear in church.

“Never mind the Cassocks” they say, “vicars could soon be conducting services in shell-suits, shorts or even football shirts under radical plans to overturn centuries of Church tradition.”

“The Horror” says the nation. “Typical” says Mr Angry of Tunbridge Wells. “Pile of garbage, Daily Mail” says anyone with an ounce of common sense.

From time to time, we get attempts in the General Synod to change the Canons of the Church concerning clerical attire and another one is coming this February.

The reason such attempts keep coming is that there is good reason for a change. The Canons are restrictive as to what is appropriate for a Vicar to wear both in church services and in day-to-day life and I think a lot of clergy, me included, would just like a bit of flexibility to make the most pastorally appropriate choice.

Some Clergy ignore the rules. They do as they please. They don’t robe in services or even wear a clerical collar to clearly identify themselves as a clergyperson. They justify it by saying that the robes and the collar can ‘get in the way’ of ministry. And to a certain extent, they have a point. There are those who find clergy in robes intimidating. There are those who react badly to authority figures. It was my great privilege a few years ago to minister to a guy before he died who had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a priest in his childhood. Needless to say, he wasn’t keen on me wearing clerical gear around him.

But I also have to say that I find most clergymen (and it tends to be men) who rail against the clerical gear also tend to be those who were born as ‘Boomers’. Since the day they were born, the Boomer generation has railed against tradition and either rejected it or tended to redefine it. They’ve always been those who were going to do it their own way. To them, I wonder whether robes and clerical gear is not so much a question of mission and pastoral care, as it is about a weekly representation of the institutional straight-jacket. Someone telling me what I can and can’t do. I note that the General Synod member bringing this motion is a gentleman of exactly this Boomer generation.

I say that it does tend to be the men, because the clergywomen of that generation will, in some circles, have a hard enough time trying to gain acceptance anyway. To reject the clerical gear would only add to the problem. For them, I would imagine, the gear is a sign of authority and legitimacy. Of course, they’re going to want to wear it… although I know a good few of them would like some more options that suit a woman’s shape.

For clergy of my generation (Generation X), we are a bit of a mixture. There are those (often those who have sat at the feet of rebellious Boomer forebears and taken on their clerical values) who don’t much like clerical gear and will avoid it whenever they can. However, there is also a significant number who embrace the clerical gear. In fact, I think most of my generation embrace it. I certainly do.

Personally, I’ve never found that a clerical collar creates a barrier to ministry. Quite the opposite. When I’m out and about and wearing my clerical collar, strangers will greet me in a way that they don’t when I’m in civvies. When I wear my clerical collar, strangers will open up to me and confide in me in a way that was never the case before I was ordained. The clerical collar is not a barrier. It’s a key that opens doors in ministry and mission. It happens all the time. Why would I not want to wear it?

That said, I would like a bit more flexibility in how I have to robe for services, and this is at the heart of the Private Member’s Motion that will be before Synod. Most of the time, a Cassock Alb or Cassock and Surplice are absolutely the robes to wear. I appreciate wearing them because it gives me more of a ‘representative’ role. What’s important is not me or my own personality, but that someone has been asked to take on that role at the centre of the hourglass, if I can describe it like that, and bring the people before God and bring God before the people. I represent that priestly ‘hourglass’ function and it’s an honour to do so. The robes help me to disappear, so that what is important is what has always been important: people and God reunited and relationship renewed.

When you meet a policeman, I doubt you care much about their personality. I’m sure they are very nice people, but what you care about is that they do their job and do it well. The uniform speaks to that level of authority and personal ‘invisibility’ that is helpful, most of the time, in enabling people to worship God. It also helps avoid the danger present in some personality-driven churches that the congregation might worship the minister.

However, some of the time, robes are not really the most appropriate choice. I’ve run a Café Church service with heavy audio-visual elements and a relaxed, coffee shop vibe where robes just didn’t feel like the right response. In a service heavy with pre-school children and their parents, for the little ones there is so much new in what is (to their eyes) a vast expanse of a building, that to see a stranger looming above them in a flowing bed sheet is just plain scary. To a mostly non-churched audience for certain one-off occasions, sometimes (but not all the time), a smart suit and clerical collar would be the best approach.

So some flexibility would be good. I don’t advocate losing the clerical collar but I would like a bit of flexibility in how I robe or don’t robe for services. But until then, I’ll continue to play by the rules.

The way I look at it is that when I was ordained, I agreed to abide by Canon law and so I robe and I do all that I promised I would do. If you don’t like it, go lead a church some place else. I do my best to abide by the rules of the Church. I see it as a demonstration of my commitment to this community of people. But where I think those laws are an ass, I will still do my bit to try and see those laws changed.

Clergy vestments and robes get some clergy very worked up. Most of the population, meanwhile, just look on in bemusement. I know that various things can be read into a church and a clergyperson’s choice of attire. If you have this many buttons, it means you’re more catholic. If you’re collar is wide or thin, it means this or that. If you wear a black scarf, you’re low church. If you wear coloured stoles, you’re high church.

Personally, I always thought most of that was garbage. I like to confuse those who get worked up about such things by wearing things I have no business wearing. I’m pretty low in my churchmanship generally, so I’ll happily wear stoles or a chasuble. If nothing else, it proves how daft the whole thing is. If you don’t know what stoles or a chasuble are, don’t worry. It’s really not important. Yes, Clergypeople, I did say that – it’s really not important.

Personally, when I was at college and it came time to ordering my robes, me and my mates went along to meet the various suppliers and there were only two crucial questions in our heads. In my cassock alb, do I look like Obi-Wan Kenobi? Does this black cassock make me look like Neo?

Now that’s what I call trendy.

Remembering that this isn’t a game

A photo of two red dice rolling.

In all that follows, I want to underline and emphasise what is always true of posts on this blog. These opinions are my own personal opinions, and do not represent the views of my Bishop, diocese or other colleagues. Any alignment with their own views is purely coincidental.

In the last couple of days, I have been trying very hard to process devastating news.

Since 2011 when I arrived in my current parish, I have been championing Kings Hill’s need for an extra primary school. Kings Hill very obviously needed the extra school places and local people felt that the Local Authority wasn’t listening. Just as I arrived, a Free School bid had been unsuccessful but the pressure in the community was beginning to mount. Read more

The Genesis of a Non-Story

A screen grab of the headline from the Mail on Sunday

The other day I received an email from the Comms Unit at Church House. A journalist from the Mail on Sunday had been to church (at All Souls, Langham Place for a family event) and was intrigued to see the church used projector screens and also had flat screens on pillars. She wanted to write an article about its use in church.

The journalist spoke to the Comms Unit. The Comms Unit spoke to Publishing. Spotting the chance for a bit of free promotion, the staff at CHP talked about the days of Visual Liturgy, their current work and the (relatively less complex) development of a couple of new iPad apps to help clergy with the lectionary. Finally, they said, if she wanted to know about projection, she really needed to talk to me. Read more

A contemporary Advent parable

A photo of Paddy and the girls from ITV show Take Me Out

The girls were ready, Paddy had the TV studio audience to their usual fever pitch but as the lift descended, some of the girls were already making up their mind.

No pounding dance track, no rappers promising steamy nights of passion or singing of male bravado. Instead, the haunting voice of Enya singing ‘O Come o come Emmanuel.’

The audience were momentarily silenced, not quite sure what to make of it all. Read more

The discrepancy between Diocesan and General Synods


The list of who voted yes and no in the debate on women bishops (opens PDF) has now been published. Electronic voting systems have their plus points and their negatives, I guess.

The Head of Communications for the CofE has encouraged everyone to “love your enemies” as they look through the list.

I certainly think it is important that people don’t vilify or criticise those who chose to vote ‘no’. That doesn’t help anyone.

I would, however, like to use it to illustrate something of the Read more

Where did it go wrong? Structural issues have done us

A photo of tears, frustration and disappointment at General Synod today

I appreciate that, in the rarified bubble that clergy can sometimes inhabit, it probably feels like the entire world will have noticed tonight that the Church of England has failed at the final hurdle to pass legislation to enable women to enter the ranks of Bishops.

I’m sure the reality is that lots of people aren’t paying the blindest bit of notice.

I’m not going to comment on the why’s and wherefore’s of those in favour and those against. My task now, like all of us in the church, is to Read more

Bringing the cloud of witnesses close (cloud christianity)

A word cloud of famous Christian leaders and saints

Tomorrow is All Saints Day, a day to remember and honour all those who put their faith in Christ and have gone before us into glory.

As a result, it seems the perfect time to develop some ideas that I first put forward at the recent Christian New Media Conference. The more I think about the Communion of the Saints, the more I think that the Internet is opening up new dimensions theologically for that Communion. Check this out from Hebrews… Read more

Reflections from #cnmac12

Christian New Media Conference badge

On Saturday, I travelled up to Kings College, London to participate in (what was apparently) the sixth third annual Christian New Media Conference (the awards night has been running much longer).

I signed up to attend months ago, pretty much as soon as tickets were available, and as it turned out I ended up going as a contributor, leading a seminar on ancient-future lessons and what the Tradition of the church has to say to us today. Read more

Ancient-future lessons (CNMAC 2012 seminar)

An image showing an icon of St John of Damascus

This is the transcript of my seminar today at the Christian New Media Conference. Thanks to those who came to the seminar and for all your encouraging and positive interaction and feedback. For the accompanying Powerpoint, you can download it (.ppt, 7.9 Mb)

Now, as someone who has lived his Christian life through both the Anglican and evangelical traditions, images of God is not something that comes very naturally to me. I am sure we all know the Ten Commandments instruction to not make graven images (perhaps better translated as not making an idol) and not to bow down or worship them.

Indeed, the protestant churches (from which I’m guessing a good proportion of us come) generally draw their heritage from Read more

Forgiving God

Forgiveness is not something we do for other people. We do it for ourselves - to get well and move on.

It is one of the abiding privileges of being a Priest that I am asked to accompany people as they face the last days of life and prepare to die. For those with a strong Christian faith or even just a tantalising sense of the grace and love of God, such moments are always beautifully coloured by the knowledge that one day things will be set right.

For a watching world that frequently doesn’t want to engage or think about such things, it might sound ironic or even inappropriate. Read more