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Surplice to requirement? Church of England may cast off vicars’ robes

Anglican clergy could be allowed to cast off their robes if Synod backs motion

Anglican vicars could soon be allowed to cast off their traditional robes and wear casual clothes at “café-style” communion services.

In February the General Synod will debate a motion that calls for a change to the rule requiring clergy to wear formal vestments at services.

About a quarter of the Anglican church’s governing body backed the proposal, under which vicars would be able to wear ordinary clothes if their bishop and church council agreed. The author of the motion, the Reverend Christopher Hobbs, admitted this could mean clergy could wear shell suits, but insisted he was “not a trendy vicar” and that robes would continue to be worn.

Mr Hobbs, of St Thomas Church in Oakwood, north London, said he was unhappy that church law was being ignored and wanted to formalise the current situation.

“In all walks of life people are less formal. And sometimes informality is good, even in a very traditional parish,” he wrote in a letter to fellow clergy. “Yes of course most churches will wear robes. As it happens I wear robes every Sunday, but not at every service. I don’t like breaking the law. If a bishop is coming and asks me to wear robes of course I do.

“But I would like some flexibility. I would like flexibility for all of us – perhaps it is a deanery service, or a penitential service when just cassock would do.

Speaking yesterday, Mr Hobbs insisted he was “not a trendy vicar” and that his surplice, the long, white outer garment, was washed and ironed ready for Christmas.

“I’m a very conservative kind of vicar, but the law shouldn’t be an ass,” he said. “The rule is that we should wear robes normally, but that’s widely not observed.”

Mr Hobbs said he usually wore robes during Sunday morning services and what he described as “smart clothes” at evening services.

He admitted the vote might backfire if the motion was defeated, as this might then lead to stricter enforcement.

The Reverend Peter Owen-Jones, the TV clergyman, said he was happy to wear his usual outfit of jeans, shirt, waistcoat and battered hat at baptisms and weddings, if his congregation approved. “The time has come to end the blanket requirement for everyone to wear robes, but I would be very sad to see that tradition go entirely,” he said.

However the Reverend Giles Fraser described the idea as “outrageous”.

“What will they do next? Maybe we will have Jaffa Cakes and Coca-Cola instead of bread and wine at Holy Communion,” he said. “Vestments are a very ancient part of the Church’s tradition and they bring dignity to worship.”

 A Church of England spokeswoman said the motion to be debated in February would essentially make the dress code “optional rather than mandatory”.