#MitreGate: And the End of Vestments

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.

JH 1The mitre of the Archbishop of Canterbury,
Hubert Walter
(c. 1160 – 13 July 1205).

JH 2Bishop David Hamid (Suffragan bishop of the Diocese in Europe, Church of England).  All Saints’ Anglican Church, St. Pargoire, France.

JH 3Bishop Patrick McKinney (Roman Catholic bishop of Nottingham, UK). Ordination mitre.


JH 4Saint Pope John Paul II opens the Great Jubilee 2000.

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.


  1. Well, it’s a free country and it’s up to the Anglicans. That said, as arguments go, it’s not a terribly persuasive argument. The just-folks approach to clerical attire also can have a less than lovely enabling side, too.

  2. I could wish that the mitre – which is a 1,000 year old tradition – would slowly drop from sight, and replaced by the pallium for all bishops as the main episcopal insignia. But that is too weird and won’t happen. Alb, stole, and even chasuble, etc., are in some form are found pretty much everywhere in the first millennium. Note the most typical icons of St Nicholas, or St John Chrysostom for that matter do not have them wearing mitres. Miters in any form did not become the episcopal vestment until later.

  3. While the crozier may not strictly fit the definition of a vestment, it seems to me that it is the most meaningful symbol of a bishop. Since one strong symbol is generally more effective than a multiplicity of items that are not always clearly understood by those in attendance at a liturgy.

    Therefore, one of the things I’d advocate is the use of a single vestment as a sign of a bishop. In my mind, this would be the zucchetto, which is pretty much the same everywhere (while mitres are often so different that they do more to emphasize the individual than the office). The zucchetto is also something that is more commonly seen on the heads of bishops, so it would reinforce the connection between bishops.

  4. This controversy made me think of an event that happened in Victorian times before the mitre took off amongst Anglicans. Two prelates were invited to examine a sample of a mitre at the home of a noble. This was in the tall pointy baroque style of the times. When the steward carried it he gave the prelates the chance to examine it. Afterwards he proffered it to one and the other to try it on. With a look at each other the prelates declined and immediately left.

    So much for mitres at that point although Bishop Seabury, the first bishop of any kind in the United States, had one and evidently used it.

  5. This seems to be about more than mitres. Dr. Ian Paul was interviewed on the BBC about this together with Ruth Gledhill, an anglican writer. She was for, he against the mitre.

    But his point was that mitres are not anglican, as they were not worn by bishops between 1552 and 1937 (apparently). Bishops had them on their coats of arms, on their tombs, painted on their carriages and even surmounting their thrones, but never on their heads. It is a not unreasonable point to make.

    It’s also the case that ordinarily no vestments were worn by ministers of the C. of E. except the surplice (and for bishops the rochet and chimere) until the 19th century. The exceptions to this were in some cathedrals where until the 18th century the cope was worn for Holy Communion and at coronations (and state funerals ?) where the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dean of Westminster Abbey wore them. Those vestments still survive.

    The probability is that evangelicals want to abandon robes altogether and conduct services in ordinary dress. And since they are in the ascendancy in the C. of E., this is what will probably begin to happen.

    Ironically, this is just at the time when our bishops are donning dalmatics under their chasubles !


    1. @Alan Griffiths:
      Yes Alan, I think this is precisely the point, and why in a sense it is so damaging theologically. A mitre may not be so important, but the ecclesiology behind it is. While Canon 36 clearly states that vestments have no theological meaning associated with them in the C of E I think that is utter rubbish. Such an idea was a laditudinarian response to allow evangelicals to wear vestments without thinking they as individuals were actually in sacramental orders, or offering a Eucharistic sacrifice. I have a huge problem with the former, more than the latter, as you hint at. I suspect the point really trying to be made is how we dress *does* have ecclesial and sacramental sign value – and I disagree that bishops are only elected managers and that the church is not sacramental. That is certainly what I tried to express in my article anyway.

    2. @Alan Griffiths:
      If Dr. Paul had done a bit of research before he wrote his piece, he likely would not have made such an historically inaccurate statement. His denial of the post-Reformation (1552-1937) liturgical use of miters by Anglican bishops during religious services is easily disprovable. Some bishops wore them in processions, others had them carried on fancy cushions before them (and may have worn them when they pronounced the Absolution and Blessing/Dismissal) in the UK. And, yes, they also had them on their arms, coaches, etc.

      The first Anglican bishops in America, (the irregularly consecrated non-jurors John Talbot and Robert Welton) were both said to have worn copes and miters “in their offices” in the 1720s here. Our first “regularly consecrated” bishop (1784) Dr. Samuel Seabury, owned two miters and always wore a miter when he functioned episcopally. Dr. Thomas Claggett, the first Episcopal Bishop of Maryland, wore a miter from his consecration in 1792 until his death in 1816. Miters were also sported as emblems in American Anglican churches from at least the 1720s and 1730s.

      So, Dr. Paul’s claims are easily disproven.

      Kurt Hill
      Brooklyn, NY

      1. @Kurt Hill:

        If I may be allowed a bit of mischief, Dr. Paul’s assertions surely refer to the Church of England in England rather than to our colonies.

        All sorts of exotic liturgical goings on happened outside England in the ‘Anglican’ world. John Betjeman (‘Summoned By Bells’) wrote of ‘some colonial Bishop’s broidered cope’ at ‘High Mass’ in Pusey House, Oxford in the (?)1920’s. There’s also an effigy of another ‘colonial’ bishop in full pontificals at Walsingham.

        Such vestiarial shenanigans are hardly representative of the ‘noble simplicity’ traditionally used (until 1937) in the Provinces of Canterbury and York.


  6. Based on the principle of noble simplicity, I think we would be better off if mitres were laid aside. The putting on and taking off of mitres during Mass, especially one with lots of bishops, is a bit much. I could live with wearing a mitre on the way in and out, but lay it aside during the Mass. Surely the crozier and zucchetto are simple and beautiful enough.

    1. @Jack Feehily:
      I agree about the distracting effect of taking mitres on and off in worship and taking up and laying aside croziers.

      When at Sunday Evening Mass at Notre Dame, Paris, in the early 1980s the then Cardinal Archbishop processed in with Mitre and Crozier, these were then laid aside until he came to leave. In others words he treated his hat and stick as would any other man attending worship.

      1. @John Corbyn:
        Interesting custom, Jack. Some seventeenth and eighteenth century Anglican bishops may have worn them at the Absolution, following the Confession in the liturgy, and also at the Blessing & Dismissal at the end of the Eucharist.

        Kurt Hill
        Brooklyn, NY

  7. Interesting. In European Lutheranism, as well as Southern Cone, the miter, crozier and cope are pretty standard amongst Lutheran Bishops. For the American Lutherans, not so much. Especially in my tribe (LCMS) the trend is towards “less is more”. Street clothes are becoming more common, unfortunately.

    How is it that the presider being in street clothes makes the liturgy more inviting? I don’t get it.

    1. @Padre Dave the Lutheran:
      Interesting. Growing up near St. Louis, MO, we always heard the story of the Missouri Synod who thought they were non-liturgical. Then they found the ledger of one of their ships that had gone down in the Atlantic crossing and in the book were listed chasubles, copes, and mitres.

  8. Mitre, as well as pallium, was a privilege granted by the bishop of Rome, but pallium is of greater antiquity and has a greater significance. So i would preserve the pallium, but not the mitre. It’s not even worn during the EP so there would be no damage.

    But abandoning all vestments? I have been thinking about this.
    Being an antiquarianist, and knowing that Christians for some time didn’t have special vestments for liturgy (at some point, only quality and ornament differed) i have given this much thought. Momentarily i think that ancient clothing just… looked better than those of our day.
    Somehow it would just feel weird to me to see a presbyter or a bishop just in normal clothes (suit, tie, jeans?). Maybe that’s because in ancient times there were no trousers. Dresses and robes do look more solemn, sacred, mystical etc.

    Maybe we, as a civilization, have moved away from what would by nature be suited for divine worship so there is some kind of need of special vesture.

  9. Just a thought and a question: is this discussion about the place and appropriateness of miitres an ‘offshoot’ of the arrival of “female Bishops” among the Episcopalians/Anglicans? The high Baroque style mitres– even for men are an exaggeration which quickly can seem absurd.

    1. @Philip Sandstrom:
      The original post by Dr. Ian Paul did specifically point to women and mitres as, shall we say, problematic. Though he is a supporter of women’s ministry.

  10. Much of the new scholarship concerning pre-Oxford Movement (Tractarian/Ritualist) Anglicanism in both the UK and USA has resulted in fresh awareness and admiration of the role of the High Church tradition. (In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, much of the scholarship revolved around the impact of Puritanism and Separatism on Anglican/Episcopal history)

    Many of the Evangelical folktales propagated by people like Dr. Paul are coming under increasing scrutiny and criticism. The use of miters by Anglican/Episcopal bishops is just one example. One could also take the employment of incense—the use of which was perhaps the biggest of the bones of contention during the rise of Ritualism in the 1860s and 1870s. Incense was, in fact, utilized by some American Anglicans as an adjunct to religious rites from at least the seventeenth century, perhaps as early as 1610. Early American Anglicans even exported incense to markets in Europe! And while the custom of using incense on occasion apparently went out of fashion for a period around 1800 in both Old World and New World Anglicanism, American Episcopalians pioneered the re-introduction of this ancient usage in the 1820s, long before the British Ritualists did so.

    Kurt Hill
    Brooklyn, NY

  11. The Mass and other liturgical events are SPECIAL events that connect us to the here and now, connect us to those who came before, and move us closer to heaven. Vestments assist towards these ends. They also add pomp and dignity to services. Totally odd that those in favor of ditching liturgical vestments in the name of dumbed down, touchy-feely interaction with the laity (the latter apparently being too “stupid” in their minds to appreciate vestments) would be the first to dress up for a secular event if their favorite politician or pop star was going to be present. Christ on the altar deserves as much. What next? Tear down cathedrals and church buildings because they speak of the past and “scare” people? Pass a bottle of wine around instead of a chalice? Refer to God with the PC pronoun, “Ze” so as not to offend men, women, the transgendered, and the gender-fluid? Absolutely NUTS.

    1. I have some sympathy with your sentiments, as well as those of James Hadley.

      But your tone is off-putting and makes your position less appealing to me. I’d like to see more respect for the fellow Christians you disagree with. Better theology would also help your case – “pomp” is a problematic term and it’s critiqued in official church documents. “Christ on the altar” is not the fullness of Catholic teaching on the Real Presence – see SC 7.

      You making your case less convincing by both your tone and your limited theological starting points.


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