On Maundy Thursday I attended the diocesan "Chrism Eucharist." This of course is a very modern fad (though made out to be a 'tradition') which dates in Anglicanism to only the 1970's and before then only to the Roman Church by a decade or so. Whilst I don't recognise as Anglican or biblical the use of oil in ordination or confirmation it is certainly enjoined for use with prayer in healing (James 5.14). Sure, the idea that a bishop needs to pray over it is nonsense but such a "Chrism Eucharist" is still important in as much as it is pretty much the only time all (or most) of the clergy of the diocese get together and show unity with their bishops.
This year only myself and one other minister wore the traditional robes of an Anglican: a surplice, tippet, and hood (to which to truly complete it I had a Canterbury Cap—though any academic "square cap" would suffice). Everyone else present wore surplice and white stoles or alb and stole. The other person wearing scarf and hood when I asked why he wore it said simply "To fly the flag for Reformed Anglicanism." Which is of course a very good answer (though one should not need to preface Anglicanism with Reformed!)
I do not for a moment think that what clergy wear is a first order issue—or even perhaps a second order one! It is a but a "little" thing really. But it is still important because faithfulness in little things engenders faithfulness in greater things whilst compromise on the minor matters betrays potential compromise on the major. I have great personal respect for the ministry and faith of many Anglican evangelicals who wear stoles and albs and even chasubles. Nonetheless, for myself, I feel that wearing such garments is a betrayal of the Reformation, a shameful mimicry of Rome, and something with no place in Confessional or Historic Anglicanism. I believe that Anglicans should be proud of our heritage, the gospel truths we proclaim, and the unique synthesis of Scripture and godly tradition which has formed our denomination.
In this post I wish to firstly consider the historical reality of what Anglicans wore and then secondly make a plea for the Anglican distinctives.
So what place has wearing stoles and chasubles (vestments) had in Anglicanism? The answer is very, very, little.
In the most early and fledgling days of Anglicanism under Henry the VIII and the first few years of Edward's reign Thomas Cranmer did not wish to push Reform too quickly. His vision was not on the small scale of reforming a single town or city like Geneva or Zurich but utterly transforming an entire nation under God! This required careful and staged reform to get people on board so as not to cause undue dissent and protest. It is thus not surprising that he would have kept vestments in his first Prayer Book of 1549 in the second year of King Edward's reign.
The 1549 book was supplanted in 1552 by a fully reformed prayer book. In this prayer book all vestments were to be banished (and by separate injunctions destroyed) and the surplice with academic hood and scarf were to be worn as every time of public ministry and prayer. No longer were there special vestments for the Lord's Supper or other sacraments. The minister had one dress for all worship and only one.
What this dress was to be is in itself significant. Gone were all the robes associated with the sacerdotal theology of the Roman Catholic Church and her sacrificing priesthood. In their place was a plain white surplice without any ornamentation. Bullinger remarks that the surplice and square cap were worn merely to distinguish the minister from the people and sees no issue with such robes. Likewise in 1571 Cox, bishop of Ely, would remark that "the surplice was used in the Church of Christ long before the introduction of Popery." With the gaudy colours and priestly patterns of sacerdotal priesthood removed the minister was to be garbed in simplicity and in a way which emphasised their primary role—a teacher and preacher. Academic hoods showing degrees and tippets (originally part of academic hoods) become the order of the day and alongside them was to be worn an academic cap. It was immediately obvious that this break was about more than simple distancing from sacrificial priesthood but rather about clearly promoting a teaching and preaching presbytery.
The premature death of Edward was to seriously mess things up. After Mary's bloody reign in which the streets of England were painted with the blood of our great Reformers (who died wearing the academic centric garb they had introduced to the church!) her half-sister Elizabeth took over. Elizabeth was not fully on the same wavelength as her Reformed bishops. She wanted a rather more gaudy worship. She got her way with copes (without crosses on the back) but the bishops won through on the general robes of a minister. The history is not exactly easy to grasp at this point but I will do my best to briefly summarise it.
In 1559 the Act of Uniformity restored the 1552 rubric to the new BCP meaning the legal rubric required the surplice at every service (thus outlawing mass vestments). However, the Act of Uniformity later went on in section 25 to require that the ornaments of ministers outlined in 1549 were "to be retained, and be in use...until other order shall therein be taken...." Either the Act is simply contradictory or else the phrase "retained and be in use" actually means that they are not to be destroyed but rather kept till further notice is given. This is certainly how Bishop Sandys understood the wording of the Act at the time it was published.
To complicate matters further the Book of Common Prayer printed in 1559 actually changed the 1552 rubric without any authority and in direct contradiction of the carefully outlined changes allowed in the Act of Uniformity. In essence the new "unauthorised" rubric said what our current one does with the addition of a final few words saying that this is all "according to the Act of Parliaments set in the beginning of this book" (at the time the BCP was published with the Act of Uniformity as a sort of forward).
So which was it to be? Were the 1549 or the 1552 rubrics the ones to be used? If there was any doubt the injunctions by the Queen and her bishops which shortly followed the printing of the 1559 Prayer Book cleared things up. Across the land the Queen sent commissioners with injunctions to which all churches were compelled to comply and accept. the 30th injunction insisted on ministers wearing both within church and without the seemly garments prescribed in the 1552 BCP and the 47th injunction insisted all vestments, copes, and other ornaments be handed over to the commissioners for the use of the Crown (likely to be destroyed or sold by the Crown to stop parishes doing it themselves as records show they were doing).
Some chaos still reigned in the land when it came to the garb of the minister but it was not those who wore vestments (who didn't exist!) causing problems but rather those who refused to wear even a surplice and hood. In 1566 the Queen published, with the authority of Parliament, the Advertisements of 1566. These were officially the "other order" which the Act of Uniformity had hinted would follow to finally clear everything up. Whilst the Advertisements reinstated the cope in cathedrals and collegiate churches for all services it essentially kept the rules of 1552. The cope itself is a non-sacerdotal item—hence the use of it in all services without distinction—which was really just a cloak for indoor use not uncommon in secular usage at the time. There were to be no Roman vestments of any kind and the same 'uniform' was to be worn at all services. In 1604 the new Canons cemented in law that vestments were never to be worn but only a surplice with academic apparel and in Cathedrals and Collegiate churches a cope.
Come 1662 the unauthorised 1559 rubric was included but without the mention of the Act of Uniformity. It appears on the surface to allow or even insist once more on the 1549 vestments but this is farcical.
Context is king.
One can—and some have—read Article 32 as allowing priests to have gay marriages because they can marry "at their own discretion". This is clearly scurrilous, disingenuous, and frankly ridiculous. To interpret a text without historical context is a rookie error.
No one in 1662 started wearing Roman vestments; they were still illegal under canon law and we have records from every single diocese in the land showing that the status quo of the Advertisements and canon law were still very much in force. Beyond this the three most important archdeacons in the lower house of convocation involved in the 1662 revision also demanded surplices around this time in no uncertain terms. The King and both upper and lower houses of parliament understood the surplice alone to be required and mass vestments were not even on their radar. (See John Tomlinson, Tracts of Ritual - Tracts 89, 92, and 165 for very extensive detail on these matters.)
Fast forwarding to the Ritualist controversy in the 19th century when the Ritualists tried to bring back Roman Vestments based on the 1662 rubric seemingly pointing to the 1549 vestments we find that every single court of the land which tested it determined that they did not have a leg to stand on. Such Roman vestments remained illegal in the Church of England until the revision of canon law in the 1960's—though the law was widely flouted from the turn of the century onwards.
So what place did stoles and chasubles and the like have in Anglicanism historically? Virtually none. Clearly the traditional dress of the Anglican clergyman for the first 400 years of the church was what is today called choir dress; a surplice with academic hood, tippet, and square cap.
The question still remains: what does this history mean for us today and how should it impact what we wear in our churches?
If you wish to associate yourself with the timeless truths the Anglican church was grounded on, if you wish the associate yourself with our illustrious martyrs, if you wish to associate yourself with the Protestant and Reformed heritage of the Anglican church then wearing what they themselves wore— and ardently insisted upon—is clearly a very visual starting point.
Today the academic hood and academic cap are still popularly associated with learning, knowledge, and teaching (just look at a comic book depiction of a teacher or graduation scenes in films). Wearing these promotes the biblical image of a presbyter's ministry.
In our Confession of Faith the Roman Catholic Church is rightly called out for her errors, blasphemous fables, superstitions, and idolatry. Anglicanism protests for the Biblical truths of right religion but part of our very essence is also a protest against the errors summed up by the Roman Catholic Church and the Papacy. I struggle to see why any confessional Anglican would want to dress like a Roman Catholic sacrificing priest. Chasubles and Stoles represent a priesthood and church which believes dramatically different things to Anglicanism and these things were deemed so serious that our Reformers were willing to die—painfully—rather than be dragged back into association with them. Indeed one may question why ministers dress like Roman Catholic priests and not Eastern Orthodox priests or Ethiopian Tewahedo priests? What is it about looking like Rome that is so important and enticing?
A supporter of Manchester United Football club does not go around wearing a Liverpool football kit. They might both play the same sport but they are not on the same team! The Roman Catholic Church may be a creedal church and thus playing, as it were, the same sport as the Church of England but we are most certainly not on the same "team." To swap the uniforms of two incompatible understandings of priesthood and ministry is to sow confusion all over the place.
To my mind Anglicans should have no reason or desire to appear like Roman Catholic sacerdotal priests. As Archbishop Longley said on the 22nd of June 1866 "It is strongly felt that these innovations [wearing of Roman vestments] are but a mimicry of the Church of Rome, and involve, in some instances, the adoption of her erroneous teaching." Or as Bishop Tait said on 8th of September 1859; Anglicans wearing such things are simply offering a "childish mimicry of antiquated garments, as by so dressing himself up that he may resemble as much as possible a Roman Catholic priest."
I have no desire to mimic Rome on any matter. I don't wish to be associated with that church in great matters or small. I wish to promote a vision of ministry which is focussed on preaching and teaching. I wish it to be clear which team I am playing for: the team of the Anglican Reformers and the Biblical truths they stood for.
Is what we wear as ministers a matter of first importance? No.
Is it a "little matter" in comparison to many of the great challenges and debates the church currently faces today? Yes.
But let us not forget Jesus' words in Luke 16.10 "One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much."
Faithfulness in little things is a sign of faithfulness in greater things. I would implore you to also be faithful to our Anglican heritage and both the Biblical truths it promotes and the unbiblical ideas combats.