The Church of England's General Synod threw out a proposal to relax the clergy's dress code, which would have allowed vicars to wear jeans and T-shirts at all services.
Members of the synod voted yesterday against changing the law to allow clergy discretion on whether or not to wear traditional robes at services. Under Canon law, ordained ministers must wear either a surplice or a robe, with a scarf or a stole, at Holy Communion.
The dress code also applies to marriages and funerals and normally to morning and evening prayers on Sundays.
Proposing the changes to the law, Andrew David, on behalf of the Southwell Diocesan Synod, said the impetus for change had come from Holy Trinity Church in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, which was a growing and dynamic parish.
He said the church wanted a more liberal interpretation of the wearing of vestments for certain services. He was supported by Peter LeRoy, of Corston, near Bath, who said: "The medium is the message. For some people, vestments or robes can speak of a tradition-bound church in a time warp."
But the Bishop of Winchester, the Right Rev Michael Scott-Joynt, said that relaxing the rules on dress would be a sign of a "loss of nerve" and a "capitulation" to the spirit of the times. "I think the motion is both divisive and unnecessary," he said. Ann Clarke, of Weston-super-Mare, said that formal dress provided people with an atmosphere of prayerfulness and reverence.
The decision even to debate the relaxation was criticised by Canon Patience Purchas, of Hitchin, in Hertfordshire. "The world is trembling on the brink of war, helicopters are circling London because of the real threat of terrorist attacks and parts of the world are suffering famine and the General Synod of the Church of England is discussing what clergy should wear when they are leading divine worship," she said.
The Church of England vestments date back to late Roman antiquity – the surplice is an enlargement of the late Roman tunic for convenient use over warm undergarments in colder climates.
The House of Bishops voted 24 against the move to seven in favour; the House of Clergy voted 118 against to 69 in favour and the House of Laity voted 92 against with 98 in favour.
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