Dress-down Sundays for clergy: Is it the shape of things to come?

The Church of England voted at its General Synod meeting to allow 'dress down Sundays'. Clergy were technically supposed to wear traditional vestments at services but can now opt not to. But what's the rationale, and is it a slippery slope?

The  Archbishops of Canterbury and York in clergy dress. 

Whatever next? They'll be getting rid of bishops' mitres next.

It's funny you should say that. Rev Dr Ian Paul, an eminent member of the Archbishop's Council, suggested that very thing. They are a recent innovation in Anglicanism and convey ideas of episcopal authority that are not very Anglican. They're also off-putting to young people and generally unflattering.

So vicars can just where what they like? I always think one of those cossack things looks rather nice.

You are thinking of Russian cavalry.

Sorry, hassock.

Again, not quite right. Cassocks are long black things that go under a white surplice.

It all seems terribly complicated.

It is, far too much so to explain here. Check out Wippells, the premier supplier of clergy attire, if you want to get a flavour of the full range.

How interesting. What is a cincture?

A belt.

And a stole?

A sort of scarf.

There seems a lot to understand.

Oh, there is – the colours of robes change during the liturgical year, too. If the point about doing away with bishops' mitres is that it makes bishops more accessible, there's clearly a long way to go.

But I suppose now they're all going to be wearing jeans and trainers all this is irrelevant.

Not so fast. A lot of clergy didn't wear this kind of thing anyway, but they weren't strictly speaking allowed, whereas now they are. And they have to agree it with their congregations, too. That could work both ways, of course: a young, hipster congregation used to the whole jeans vibe might look a little askance at a vicar just back from a shopping trip to Wippells. But plenty will continue to dress up.

This may sound like a silly question, but why do they have to look different? Can't they just, you know, preach the Gospel?

It's not a silly question. Many would say distinctive clerical dress is useful when they're out and about, visiting hospital, say. But that doesn't really explain the sheer superfluity of ornament many clergy seem to enjoy.

Perhaps they just like dressing up?

I couldn't possibly comment. But the other thing to say is that worship is very often a visual experience, and clergy are at the heart of it – so what they wear adds to the total impact of what's being said and done. It's part of the drama or theatre, and genuinely helps people worship.  

So the whole scruffy t-shirt look means they're missing out on something?

You take an extreme case. The point is that whatever the minister wears says something about who they think they are and what they're doing. In some situations casual might be appropriate, in others formal. The main thing is to be aware of what you're doing and talk it through first.

Out of curiosity, what do you do?

I'm a Baptist – jacket and tie. I once took my jacket off on a particularly hot day, though I didn't enjoy it.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods