Anglicans OK casual-dress liturgical option: Did The Guardian know this is part of an old war?

As a rule, your GetReligionistas critique religion-beat stories in the mainstream press when journalists get something really right or really wrong. Often we simply note the presence of "religion ghosts" in stories, our term for a religion-shaped hole in the content that makes it hard for readers to know what is going on.

On weekends, I often point readers toward "think pieces" linked to religion-beat trends and issues -- essays, op-ed page columns, etc. -- that we wouldn't normally feature, because of our emphasis on basic news reporting.

The following piece from The Guardian -- "Clergy to ditch their robes in further sign of dress-down Britain" -- is a little bit of all of this.

First, it's a news piece about a highly symbolic and rather edgy decision made by the Church of England. Second, it contains material that -- think-piece style -- points to larger trends in England. Finally, while the story is pretty solid, it does contain an important hole that editors could have filled with a few sentences of content by a religion-beat pro who knew what she or he was doing.

The overture does a great job of putting this church decision in a wider cultural context:

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.

So what, pray tell, is a "surplice"? What are "vestments"?

This is where The Guardian team needed to add a few extra sentences. For starters, the editors seemed to think that all Christian bodies are branches on the same tree, when it comes to traditions about liturgical details. Instead, this latest Anglican innovation is yet another sign of a church body moving toward Protestant influences and away from it's ties to ancient Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

Of course, the Church of England has been struggling with this "via media" issue for decades, if not centuries, with its "high church" Anglo-Catholics leaning toward Rome and its black-cassock Morning Prayer Protestants adopting a more casual, some would say "humble," style. Click here for some helpful information in an online Anglican forum on this topic.

The Guardian team seems to think that this is simply a debate about modern trends clashing with a kind of generic formality from old England.

No way. The editors need to know (a) there is theological content to all this and (b) it would help to contrast this Anglican trend with the norms at Roman Catholic altars. After all, for a decade or so, more Brits have kneeled in Catholic pews than in Anglican pews. This raises another question: Did anyone at The Guardian consider calling Catholic sources for reaction to this liturgical news?

Meanwhile, readers are given this rather confusing summary.

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. ...
(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.

OK, is all of that material about what is happening at Anglican altars alone or has some material drifted in from the world of nondenominational, megachurch Protestantism?

Here is the question that fascinates me the most: In the Anglican or Episcopal Church world, folks on the doctrinal left have almost always leaned toward a Catholic STYLE in worship, but with many of the details modernized in ways that turn traditionalists into pillars of salt. Surf this Google search for "ugly church vestments" for some info on this warfare.

Meanwhile, conservatives on the low-church Protestant side of the fence lean toward a more casual, some would say "evangelical" style.

So where is this push in the Church of England coming from, the doctrinal/cultural left or the right?

I could see this decision leading to some wild stuff on both sides. I mean, think of the implications of this passage:

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.

OMG. Duck and cover.

All in all, this is an interesting story about an important trend. I also agree that the whole "dress-down Britain" theme is relevant. But what else is going on? What about the actual doctrinal content of this story? How does this move fit into the vestments arguments that have been raging for a century or two in England?

Please respect our Commenting Policy