Sometimes, confusion can arise over exactly what the law requires. In November 2002, General Synod debated, but failed, to pass a motion seeking change in the present rules on the robing of clergy in services. As far as vesture is concerned, the matter is covered by Canon B8:
"Of the vesture of ordained and authorised ministers during the divine service
- The Church of England does not attach any particular doctrinal significance to the diversities of vesture permitted by this Canon, and the vesture worn by the minister in accordance with the provision of the Canon is not to be understood as implying any doctrines other than those contained in the formularies of the Church of England.
- Notwithstanding the provisions of this Canon, no minister shall change the form of vesture in use in the church or chapel in which he officiates, unless he has ascertained by consultation with the Parochial Church Council (PCC), that such changes will be acceptable; provided always that in the case of disagreement, the minister shall refer the matter to the Bishop of the Diocese, whose direction shall be obeyed.
- At the Holy Communion, the presiding minister shall wear either a surplice or alb with scarf or stole. When a stole is worn, other customary vestments may be added. The epistoler and gospeller (if any) may wear surplice or alb to which other customary vestments may be added.
- At Morning and Evening Prayer on Sundays, the minister shall normally wear a surplice or alb with scarf or stole.
- At the Occasional Offices, the minister shall wear a surplice or alb with scarf or stole."
The Canon applies to services of Holy Communion and Morning and Evening Prayer conducted in a church or chapel in the parish or for all occasioanl offices, that is, weddings and funerals, and this Canon must also be presumed to apply to any baptism service not forming part of a service of Holy Communion.
At Holy Communion, the Canon requiring robes applies to the presiding minister and to all services of Holy Communion held in the church or chapel.
At Morning and Evening Prayer, the minister is normally required to robe for services conducted in church on Sundays and Major Festivals, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It does not apply to the midweek saying of the daily offices.
With regard to house communions, celebrations in residential establishments, youth weekends and all such events outside the church or chapel, clergy should make their own judgements as to what is pastorally appropriate.
In relation to other services in the parish church or chapel, the minister and PCC are free to agree what is appropriate. This would include Family Services, Services of the Word, youth events, Taizé style worship and so on. All acts of worship conducted under the authority of the Bishop and the Church of England should be consonant with the doctrine, teaching and discipline of the church.
The following are considered to be signs of good practice in making decisions.
- Clergy should avoid unilateral decisions. The Canons are clear that the custom of the Church, provided it is lawful, should be followed by the minister and only changed by agreement with the PCC. It is important that the PCC is able to express its own mind. The Bishop is arbiter in cases of dispute. It is not right for clergy to introduce change in vesture unilaterally, whether introducing additional vesture or abolishing it.
- The Bishop appreciates clergy who bring their concerns to him and share their practice with him. It helps in discerning what is happening in the church. As we all know, the pattern of robing has changed over the centuries and will continue to do so. It has also been a source of division and controversy and we need to exercise care not to stir up unnecessary conflicts diverting our attention away from the mission priorities of the Kingdom in our time.
- It is important to remember, whatever our personal view, that we are the servants of the people - ministers of the Gospel. In these diverse times, we need to keep a careful balance in our practice. On careful reading, the Canons are not overbearing: they do permit variety.