It’s no longer Sunday best for the Church of England

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, wearing miter, during his enthronement as the 105th archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the world's 77 million Anglicans on March 21, 2013. Anglican clergy may now wear more casual clothing for many services. Photo courtesy Anglican Communion News Service/The Press Association

LONDON (RNS) — After centuries of wearing flowing robes, cassocks and other vestments, Anglican priests can finally dress down.

Under canon law, clergy have to wear traditional robes when holding Communion services, baptisms, weddings or funerals. But following a vote this week at a gathering in York of the General Synod, the Church of England’s ruling body, Anglican priests can now wear lay garments such as a suit instead, so long as their parochial church council agrees.

The reasons given for the change included a more informal outlook in British society as a whole, but there is particular concern about young people being alienated by ornate accoutrements. One member of the Archbishop’s Council — the archbishop of Canterbury’s cabinet — also wants the abolition of bishops’ miters.

Ian Paul, who writes the blog Psephizo wrote: “To most, and I would suggest especially the young, the sight of bishops in mitres puts them in another world. It is world of the past, a world of nostalgia, a world of deference — and mostly a world which is quite disconnected from present experience and values.

“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.”

Libby Lane, the first female bishop in the Church of England, smiles following her consecration service at York Minster in York, northern England, on Jan. 26, 2015. Photo by Phil Noble/Reuters

The issue of young people’s churchgoing is a disputed one for the Church of England, with many surveys showing a marked decline in membership of Christian churches among people below the age of 25. For some years now, the average age of a churchgoer has been over 60.

Last week, the Diocese of London launched new programs to get young people involved in the Anglican Church. Its research shows that there are fewer than 2,000 people between the ages of 11 and 18 attending services in the diocese, which has 500 churches and serves a population of 3.6 million people.

Now the diocese says it will try and attract more by bringing youth advocates to work with the clergy, recruit special youth ministers and provide them with specialist training, plant special youth-oriented congregations, and set up youth missions focused on the gospel. The aim is also, says the diocese, to find a way of “amplifying the voice of young people.”

Linda Woodhead, one of Britain’s foremost sociologists of religion, said that while fewer children are socialized into Christian faith by their parents — and even of those that are, around 40 percent reject that identity — “younger people are not identifying as ‘secular’ either.”

Archbishop Justin Welby, right, with Archbishop Eliud Wabukala during Welby’s visit to Nairobi, Kenya, in Jan. 2014. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili

“Many are open-minded about religion, and appreciative of church buildings and other aspects of Christian heritage but suspicious of institutional religion,” she said.

Woodhead said church initiatives over many decades aimed at attracting young people, mostly by way of targeted missions and youth work, have failed spectacularly.

“It’s not inconceivable that new generations could be attracted back to Christianity, but it will require radical change in the nature of the churches themselves rather than yet another recruitment drive,” she said.

Her research has showed that the churches’ attitude toward gay people is the kind of approach that deters young people from traditional institutional religion, and for them no amount of clerical dressing down will change that.

But some evidence has emerged that contradicts the notion of decline.

A national survey carried out recently by the ComRes polling organization contradicted the notion that Christianity is on the wane among young Britons. It reported that 1 in 5 people aged 11 to 18 describe themselves as active followers of Jesus. Thirteen percent said they attended church.

Stephen Bullivant, director of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, said that could be due to ethnic minorities and recent immigrants, among whom Christian belief remains stronger than in the majority white population.

He said his own analysis of government data indicates that the numbers of young people saying they have no religion at all appear to be stalling.

“You would expect it to keep going, but it hasn’t,” he said. “I wonder if everyone who is going to give up their Anglican affiliation has done so by now. We’ve seen a vast shedding of nominal Christianity, and perhaps it’s now down to its hard core.”

About the author

Catherine Pepinster


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  • Hey, why not? Relaxing the traditional standards, hiding the ornate garments and trying to appear hip to the youngsters worked so well for post-Vatican II Catholicism, didn’t it?

  • It’s amazing how far removed the hierarchy of some religions are from the examples set by Jesus and the governing apostles in the 1st century.

  • To some extent this is merely acknowledging what has already been going on for a long time in some churches. Back in the 1950s my (anglican minister/priest) father was wearing minimal religious garb and questioning even that. Mind you, he also regarded “bells and smells” as a distraction whilst accepting that others believed the theatricality enhanced their worship experience.

    In the last few years I’ve been in a couple of anglican churches where services were led by jeans clad officials, at least one of whom is accepted as a priest by the anglican church (or at least by a probably rather small but noisy sector within the CofE).

  • Well, tell us. If you want to attribute Catholic decline (maybe in the U.S., but not in the countries where they’re doing pretty good like Italy, Peru, and the Philippines) to folk mass rather than three right wing Popes one after another not counting the short-lived Papacy of John Paul I and sexual abuse scandals out the wazoo, that’s cool.

  • I was born post Vatican II. For the life of me I’ll never understand how 1970’s color vestments, folksy guitar music, and churches stripped of art and beauty was supposed to modernize anything. My experience is younger people are actually attracted to traditional liturgy, etc. They want doctrine to come out of the Middle Ages and appeal to modern life.

  • I worry that we might be way behind the curve on this. Everything I read indicates that the evangelical churches have now joined the decline (with their hi tech, praise bands, blue jean clergy) as the younger folks see that as “old.” Attendance in cathedrals is up. Why don’t we work with the strengths of liturgical worship? Help people better understand (help us!) the symbols, the sacramental value, the Prayer Book without being precious or arrogant about the rites and the vestments. Why don’t we examine and prune our vines rather than chopping the whole tree down!

  • Churches have a difficult time in helping people move out from Fowler’s stage 4 or Peck’s stage 3 of faith development. Parents and significant others are no help if they never moved out of the stage below..

  • I have not understood candy colored vestments for a long, long time. I get tradition, symbols, and etc. as they relate to faith as a small measure of comfort; like a hot bowl of soup on a cold day, but sensibly as one matures in faith such things become less important as a mark of the living church, or they should.

  • I am quite aware of what the article addressed. I however was addressing the comment by “Jeff,” not the article per se.

  • From my Roman Catholic POV, my clergy has always dressed differently. I’ve always thought that they are a special group of people chosen by Jesus to rule over His Church, and as such, have dressed in an exclusionary fashion, i.e., “we’re priests, deacons, and nuns, and you’re not.” Seems a little strange-at certain liturgical times-in a Church founded by a Man (Jesus) whose last possession was a cut up robe. Don’t get me wrong, I love my priests and nuns.

  • IMO, humans get bored wearing the same old things-and colors-everyday. Even military fatigues undergo periodical changes. “Variety is the spice of life.” Granted all that, but why the Church-liturgically-continues with ancient apparel is puzzling. The Liturgical Icon (Jesus) had nary a stitch to call His own.

  • “Forge ahead in wisdom, good taste and modesty.” That last phrase has to be delineated. One of my parish’s extraordinary ministers, a female, wears very tight pants, without a skirt, that accent her lower female parts-I notice her buttox jiggling-that makes concentrating on Jesus in Holy Communion almost impossible.