Dress code for vicars – surplice to requirements?

The sight of our vicar celebrating communion in a hoodie or leading evening prayers in jeans would come as a shock to most of our congregation, but the Church of England is set to scrap its dress code to make the traditional robes optional.

The Church’s canon currently states that during holy communion and morning and evening prayers on Sundays:

“….the presiding minister shall wear either a surplice or alb with scarf or stole”.

A surplice is a knee-length white tunic, a shorter version of the ankle-length alb. The stole is a band of coloured cloth worn around the neck, a more ornate version of a minister’s scarf, which is often black.

Under proposals to be put to the General Synod next month, the rules are set to change to say:

“In relation to the holy communion and morning and evening prayer on Sundays, the minister would be able to depart on a general basis from the normal requirements as to vesture”.

They would also be able to dress without robes for weddings, funerals and baptisms if the family involved wanted a less formal service.

The proposals say vicars would first have to seek approval from their church councils (the PCC), but does not specify a replacement dress code, stating that any alternative would have to be “seemly”. I’m sure that’s going to lead to a fairly wide interpretation, after all jeans and trainers are now considered to meet the criteria for “smart casual” and acceptable for dining out, going to the theatre or even the opera.

It is – like so many changes taking place in the Church of England (best not to digress into the issue so women Bishops here) – a divisive issue. Some will see this as the Church moving with the times and becoming more relevant to modern society.  Others will see this as part of the gradual erosion of the reverence, dignity and order of prayer and worship.

I haven’t quite made my own mind up about this. I do like some of the dress formalities of the clergy, which identifies them as ordained ministers and authoritative figures, in terms of leading the service. However, I can also see that this might be intimidating or just plain odd to those not familiar with services in church. I guess I’m thinking specifically of the younger generation here, or anyone not familiar with Church traditions.

If we accept that whatever we wear is a statement of some sort, having some agreed standards for clergy vestments does seem right, though I think there is perhaps some room for manoeuvre here, e.g. less formality for ordinary services and keeping the surplice or ankle-length alb for special services over Christmas, Lent and Easter.

What we must avoid is making the dress code more important than or a distraction from the service; it would be quite tragic if the congregation became more interested in what the vicar might turn up wearing this week than the content of the service itself!

What do you think?

[The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of St Michael’s Church, The Diocese of St Alban’s or the Church of England]


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