Monday, July 10, 2017

O Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness: the "Ditching of Vestments", the Church and its Priorities in Today's World.


First of all, I have to start by saying that I did reflect a while before writing this article as I might have been rather irrational at first when hearing that a senior member of the Archbishop's Council, the Rev'd Ian Paul stated that mitres belonged to the past, because "they look silly"
His argument was based on how mitres, the traditional liturgical hats worn by bishops, belonged to the past and made them appear above the rest of us: the mitre has become a sign that this person is a bishop, it makes them distant and it makes them look silly, he added that these hats were Roman Catholicism by the back door, he concluded that 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, possibly for good reason. 
Now, I would like to comment this statement and the followings according to my own personal view, let us start by the first point. 
In the first place, I would like to begin with a little historical background, the mitre is of Roman and Pontifical origin, it derives from a non-liturgical papal tiara knowns as the camelaucum - it was worn as early as the eight century, as shown in the Liber Pontificalis, the biography of the Popes. Around the 10th century it started to be worn at important processions and services by Bishops and during the later Middle Ages its use became more or less defined as we know it today with the mitre being used for dramatic moments during the Mass, during the Te Deum or originally even at particular times during Advent and Lent, Good Friday or Candlemass liturgies, etc. The use of mitres was adopted quite soon in the English Church as well, by the 12th century it was widespread throughout the country, we do know of very fine examples of embroidered English mitres from the 12th to 16th centuries. By the time of the Reformation, especially under Edward VI mitres fell out of use and it was not until the 19th century, in the wake of the ritualist revival it was once again adopted, notably thanks to Bishop Edward King of Lincoln. Although the history of the Church in England goes back to Saint Augustine of Canterbury in the 6th century, its Reformation only goes back 500 years and the mitre was only unpopular for about 300 years and its use has again been part of the Anglican tradition for about 200 years.
As Anglicans we affirm the importance and centrality of Scripture, Reason and Tradition as understood by Richard Hooker, one of our greatest theologians. Indeed to ridicule a liturgical garment, symbolising the tongues of fire upon the Apostles and our historical priesthood, a sign of our place in the world as a catholic and apostolic Church, it would be quite uncharitable and I would add, naive, to deride a part of our patrimony, however small. Personally, I believe that the mitre does have to symbolise the person of the bishop, and yes a bishop needs to be recognised - as we belong to a Church of catholic ethos with an episcopal polity, our faithful need to recognise who is a bishop, just like priests and deacons can be recognised by their own stoles. Instead, I do not believe it makes bishops distant but simply more recognisable, which is partly the reason behind so much Christian symbolism... It is not as Rev. Ian Paul states "Catholicism at the back door" but simply our patrimony, I shall not comment this further as this is simply rude and prejudicing. Is "his" Puritanism at the back door anyway? Do mitres look silly as he also states? I shall respond with another joke: only if the design is ghastly! Behind the joke there is also some truth, mitres are usually white and with no motifs, or at least embroideries should be of the same colours or shade, some modern ones indeed do look silly but it has nothing to do with the mitre itself! Last but not least, Rev. Ian attacks the "hierarchical authority" of the Church through the mitre's symbolism, how can we respond to this if not by saying that this is simply the polity chosen by the early English reformers who wanted to maintain the episcopal structure of the early Church? Who wanted to maintain continuity with the early Church, the Medieval Church, and maintain this patrimony of faith. An attack to this is an attack to our sense of continuity and what makes Anglicanism so unique and which was preserved with extremely brave efforts, for the sake of Tradition, this is why the separatists couldn't stand the Church in England in the 16th and 17th centuries, because it retained its catholic heritage, a heritage of faith and this is still the power that moves these accusations. Tradition teaches us that the first Church, the Church of Christ, was an episcopal Church, Tradition teaches us that what is part of our patrimony is inspired by the Holy Spirit through the ages and that is why the reformers kept the sacramental church and the holy orders of old and that is why we we will keep the mitre that was and has become again part of our patrimony.
There is nothing authoritative about it but the love and the gospel and the sacraments passed on from Christ unto our very clergy, it is the oldest type of ecclesiastical structure and it has stood the test of time, but this needs no justification. I can't see but beauty in this preservation of God's priesthood of old. Also, as I know quite well, you have to swear allegiance to bishops in order to be ordained, did he skip that part? Did he lie..? Finally, I believe the Church is not made irrelevant to modern questions by mitres, which by the way are not worn by bishops all the time... I believe people, the young, the sick, the aged, seek deeper answers, for more profound questions: they want to know why their sick child is dying, why they can't find a place for God in their successful or unsuccessful lives, why their marriage blessed by the Church and by God is falling apart... these are the questions people want answered, and as we churchy people have friends of all kinds, I believe we can all comfortably say, that people's issues are not about the odd hat worn by that overly decorated priest visiting our church once a year. 
Interestingly enough, this would have passed unnoticed if it weren't for something slightly more official coming from the recent synod of the Church of England, recently held in York.
A historical decision was taken over vestments, clergy in England has been given permission to ditch liturgical vestments during services for the first time in the history of our Church.
Again, first let's check some historical background first, originally the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer of 1552 (rectified in the 1662 version) states that vestments, (possibly surplice and stole), had to be worn for Holy Communion, and this has been the law until chasubles were introduced during the 19th century Oxford Movement, today Canon Law states that at the Holy Communion the presiding minister shall wear either a surplice or alb with scarf or stole. When a stole is worn other customary vestments may be added. The epistoler and gospeller (if any) may wear surplice or alb to which other customary vestments may be added (§36.B8.3). The use of vestments is entirely based on Scripture, both in the Old and New Testament, but this would need an article on its own.
Again in this case, the question is very complicated. It has to be said that in some churches vestments are usually not worn anyway, since Holy Communion, does not take place often. In the end this outcome may only result as unnecessary as the Catholics will keep wearing vestments and as the Evangelicals will keep wearing a stole for Communion and everyday clothes for other services. It might be the case though that some will indeed celebrate Communion and consecrate what we believe to be Jesus' body and blood in everyday clothes, and this, in my humble opinion, is complicated, because of the way the apostolic priesthood is understood, as vestments symbolise the sacrificial nature of the sacrament and distinguish clergy from lay people, without making them any different, in Anglican theology.
I believe, vestments have always been part of this heritage, our Tradition, that the Church accumulated throughout history in a form or another, and they do help the faithful to focus on the altar as well as to give respect to the sacrament of Jesus' sacrifice. It might be the view of the catholic wing of the Church, but news is that exists too! We are a liturgical Church and vestments are part of our identity, although they might have been simpler after the Reformation, this is part of what the Church deemed important to retain and what constitutes Anglicanism.
I do believe this won't affect many, but there will be occasions in which people will be surprised to see people in everyday clothes saying Holy Communion, diminishing the catholic understanding of such sacrament, but hopefully it won't happen often, as I said the Catholics will keep wearing vestments and the Evangelicals won't.
What I truly ask myself is: are these the questions that we, the Church, really need to ask ourselves to make us relevant? Do people come to us and judge us for what we have always worn since the Priesthood of Melchizedek or for what we say, preach and do? Why should we come across as insecure and change our very Christian heritage? Have we asked ourselves whether people want to enter another world while in church and adopt a different visual and bodily language? Perhaps, to escape normality and normal life problems? Have we asked ourselves whether relevance is about helping people to understand how can God bless marriages and destroy them or whether they want priests with or without a stole? And a long list of other, more profound questions. Are mitres and vestments the issue? Or something way more profound? Let's start and ask clergy to train themselves in understanding people more, let's leave our Tradition alone and let's focus on people. That is our mission as followers of Jesus Christ with the prayers of the Saint Mary the Virgin.
On my behalf, I will still worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

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