Wear any colour except black: Clergymen should follow the orchestral cue, lighten up and go casual, says Nicholas Roe

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The Independent Online
THE NEWS that two of Britain's leading orchestras are working on plans to drop their stuffy dress codes in pursuit of larger audiences raises an intriguing and perhaps inevitable question. What about that other bastion of dignified sartorial formality - the Church of England? Is it perhaps time for a change there, too?

Before you smile, think about the parallels which link an established church with an established orchestra such as the London Philharmonic. Both church and orchestra share a basis in music; their histories are inextricably entwined. Both touch the soul, one more obviously than the other, though it is arguable which is the most effective. Both need to put on a good show in order to survive, because both rely on large-scale audiences for financial success - if 'success' is not too strong a word for an organisation that claims only one adult in 24 as a regular attender (the Church of England, that is).

And both are experiencing new influences that are shaking their very roots. With orchestras the influence is electronic: Classic FM, CDs, laser entertainments, armchair wizardry that threatens to make live performances redundant unless carefully used as a positive weapon for progress rather than fought or ignored.

With the church it is women. And you still cannot afford to smile, because female priests already are changing the dress sense of the institution that has so recently, and so weakly, embraced them. As one ordained female admits, 'Men wear black shirts with a white strip in the middle. I have got one black shirt which I wear for certain situations, but I have red and green and jade and the whole range of colours. Men can get away with all-black, but that is very harsh and masculine. Black doesn't suit me.'

How many male priests have you ever heard saying: 'Black doesn't suit me'? The truth is that women are already bringing a small but distinctive revolution to the priesthood's street appearance, one that men ought to follow if they are not to risk looking silly and dull against a brighter background.

If orchestras can make the change in order to stay in tune with audience figures, should we not expect the same of our priests? You may not have been to Sunday service of late, and therefore not know what is on display in the pulpit. But take note of article B8 of Canon Law, which states: 'At Morning and Evening Prayer the minister shall wear a cassock, a surplice and a scarf; and for the Occasional Offices a cassock and a surplice with scarf or stole.' There is more: 'At the Holy Communion the celebrant, as also the gospeller and the epistoler, if any, shall wear with the cassock either a surplice with scarf or stole, or a surplice or alb with stole and cope, or an alb with the customary vestments.'

David Gazeley, of the clerical outfitters Watt and Company, explains that this boils down to low-church garb of black cassock, white surplice and a black preaching scarf (lots of black, you see). Middle to higher church, on the other hand, sports a white alb (a covering from head to toe) with a loose-fitting chasuble on top (a garment rather like the poncho Clint Eastwood wore in Fistful of Dollars), which may be colour-coded to match the season. There is also a stole. Its purpose? Mr Gazeley smiles and says, 'Purpose is not a question.'

But it is. The purpose of all uniform is increasingly questioned, not just within music but in other professions, too. In recent years, judges and barristers have debated the use of wigs in court but retain them for the present, partly on the grounds that they add anonymity in a risky field. In politics, however, Betty Boothroyd did away with the Speaker's wig when she took over the seat two years ago, though she keeps the gown.

Uniforms have a place even in a laid-back society, but the place is no longer accepted as inevitable - or God-given. So, go back to the church with its albs and stoles and chasubles. What is the purpose? A priest's uniform is no longer a mark of authority, and its role as a contribution to theatre has to be queried when other performers are coming up with different answers. It is not attractive. It may be considered ludicrously formal, even alienating, by a congregation which has already, by and large, given up their Sunday Best in favour of a more relaxed style. Bear in mind, too, the financial problems that dog the Church of England. What better conjunction of arguments can there be for reconsidering the style of the shepherd him (or her) self? Whether you chop or change would inevitably be a matter of heated argument.

Most clerics insist that a uniform marks the solemnity of their role - though a reply might be that a society raised on electronic stimulation is well aware that images are misleading. But whichever way you cut the debate, to wipe out all tradition at a stroke and leave the priest in jeans and jumper would alienate traditionalists.

Not even the London Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic will go that far. Their dress changes are to be periodic; they will retain best bib and tucker for major performances. Perhaps this is a compromise that the Church of England should consider: maybe the priests should look at the style of people walking past the church door and match it from time to time.

The change could be taken further. If shirtsleeves are right for one audience, a radical mood-catching redesign might be better for another. When airlines want to give themselves a new image, they offer cabin staff in modern gear that excites comment, approval, anger . . . something.

The church badly needs a similar relaunch, not just because its finances are awful but because one in 24 is a lousy attendance figure and nothing much else seems to be working. This is the colour age, and the church is mostly black and white. Women, with their fashion sense, change the look of the streets; maybe they should now restyle the pulpit.

(Photograph omitted)