By James Hadley
A current opinion piece by The Rev. Dr Ian Paul recently made a little wake in the UK press after he called upon Church of England bishops to abandon the use of the mitre. In his blog post he suggested various reasons for abandoning the vestment, making some very unsustainable historical claims (like that the mitre comes from the Jewish priesthood of the Old Testament), which have been critiqued elsewhere.
The episode would have been given little notice if it were not for the fact that General Synod meeting in York this week revisited the question of liturgical vestments and Dr. Paul sits on the Archbishop’s Council.
Originally the question of what to wear in a Eucharistic service was governed by the Ornaments Rubric in the Book of Common Prayer. The rubric first appeared in the Elizabethan revision of the BCP in 1559 and was retained in the BCP revision under the 1604 revision. The rubric is basically an instruction stating that the vestments to be worn by CofE clergy shall be those in use in “the Second Year of the Reign of King Edward VI.” Depending how one reads history this could imply either catholic vestments or reformed-calvinistic practice.
Currently, Canon Law indicates that, “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” (§36.B8.3).
In short, CofE clergy are required to preside at liturgical prayer with appropriate vestments and latitude is given toward catholic practice. The years-long discussion of the modification of this rule has sought to remove the requirement for any vestments whatsoever – a trend which is believed better suited to evangelical movements, pioneering, and church planting. Canon 36 was amended by vote of General Synod on 10 July 2017 to allow clergy to lead services in street attire, though the change still requires royal assent. The proposed abolition of the mitre is a reflection of this broader context.
But what are we to make of the mitre specifically and the critique of its use? Claims that equivocate tradition with irrelevance seem to have little value. Frankly, why shouldn’t Christianity look a little odd to a modern viewer? Our tradition insists that a God-Man rose from the dead. Constant ecclesiastical searching for ‘relevance’ can be highly damaging spiritually and institutionally.
On a more substantive level two issues raised by #MitreGate seem more critical: How are we to understand episcopal ministry and the role of liturgical aesthetics in mission?
Dr. Paul suggests that bishops need not have mitres both in the name of servant-leadership and because of the abuse of power. While I appreciate the fact that the moral leadership of episcopacy in many churches has been sorely tested in the eyes of the faithful, I do not see vestments as reductive to power or moral failure. Indeed, I would suggest all vestments are wholly for distinguishing the sacramental nature of the Church. They are not juridical or personal symbols.
Almost all ecumenical agreements from the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (1888), the WCC Lima Text (1982), to ARCIC’s The Eucharist, Ministry, and Authority (1982), acknowledge the role of the Bishop as apostolic in witness to the Risen Christ, and therefore the ordering principle of unity in the Church. It is essential to note that in a Eucharistic ecclesiology the center of the Church’s life is that Eucharistic communion presided over by the bishop. This is essential and not accidental as the phrase of the ecclesiologist Henri de Lubac makes clear: Eucharistia facit ecclesiam; Ecclesia facit eucharistiam.
That the Eucharist makes the Church is based upon the patristic understanding that it is the Body of Christ that comes into being precisely through the joining of the Church in the Eucharistic action around the ministry of the bishop through whom the priesthood of Christ is at work in the Church. Likewise as emphasized in the work of Bishop Zizioulas, it is Christ the head of the Church that presides in the person of the bishop. This is a sacramental reality – not a functional, or organizational arrangement of institutional management (Eucharist, Bishop, Church. 2001. 16-17).
Dr. Paul seems to betray his theological prejudice stating that mitres are “back door Roman Catholicism” – he should include Orthodoxy, too (pace ecumenism). No, they are front door signs of sacramental reality founded upon the work of the Spirit in creation and the Incarnation. For all the historic rationales to be given regarding the evolution of the mitre it seems to me appropriate that episcopal headship be symbolically emphasized liturgically – what better than a hat?
Yet we can all agree that kitsch is kitsch – and it abounds in all churches degrading our sacramental witness at the precise moment in which culture is becoming ever more hyper-visual. It wasn’t without reason that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document Art and Environment in Catholic Worship (1978) insisted upon the necessity of true artists active in the Church. It is the case when the best of the arts are not employed in worship, replaced by do-it-yourself handicraft, worship is degraded. It does look silly, non-serious, and trite – hence visually contextualizing the faith claims we are making in worship and imputing them with the same negative qualities! Importantly, the employment of seemingly disposable ‘art’ – I can throw it out tomorrow with no loss – strikes at the tap root of sacramentalism that claims to locate something of the glory of God in human artistic creativity and creation (Sacrosanctum Concilium 8).
The junk-art that Dr. Paul rightly points to is not an excuse for abandoning vestments, the arts or human creativity; it is an argument for liturgical discernment.
The appropriate exercise of ministerial authority is a serious question – yet pretending that authority and difference do not permeate our churches and everyday lives is a wild fantasy. Let’s not rid ourselves of vestments – let’s appropriately re-empower them.
Saint Paul says we are to discern the Body of Christ lest we eat to our own condemnation (1 Cor 11:29). Certainly here there is a lesson regarding authority in the Church. I propose we return to the practice of vesting prayers using updated shared prayer texts and beautifully made vestments as reminders of the nature of the Church: from the altar server who dons the alb as a reminder of priestly baptism, to the bishop who places upon the head a mitre, not only as a sign of leadership, but also of the judgment of God they are to bear concerning the care of the sheep.
James Hadley, an oblate of Saint Benedict, teaches the theology and history of liturgical art and architecture for the Catholic University of America, as well as Culture and Faith for the Australian Catholic University in Rome.