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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.

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