I remember when the punk movement emerged in 1977; I almost remember the day (if that is possible). A Sunday lunchtime documentary presented by Janet Street Porter reported on this new phenomenon which was hitting the streets of London. Punk was anarchistic. angry and iconoclastic. The movement inspired a very different ‘look.’ Clothes were torn, metal studs, chains and staples were de rigueur as was the preference for dyed hair, mohicans and body piercings of many varieties. This look was meant to shock and disturb, it was loud and uncompromising, it was rebellious.
The new romantic movement emerged out of this maelstrom. Their uniform was a radically self-conscious iteration of the punk era, based upon a foppish 17th century vogue. Clothes, fashions, trends and styles have a way of continuing to reincarnate from age to age.
Ecclesiastical dress is no different. The Church has also experienced many changes of style through the centuries but, on the whole, it has remained dutiful to its historic roots. The robes and vestments worn in church services have been influenced by the rise and fall of empires and reforms and revivals within the church itself. What we describe as traditional garb today is predominantly the fashion of the elite in the late Roman Empire. Yet privilege is far from the meaning of ecclesiastical vestiture. A recent discussion within our own church brought to life the theological purpose of vestments and why our liturgical garb is an attempt to outwardly display a sense of discipline, conformity and selflessness – all that punk and new romanticism was not! Far from attracting attention for its own sake, the ecclesiastical uniform is the outward expression of a tradition which has experienced many changes and influences (internal and external) but has kept to its core values. So the clothes which were once worn by the secular elite have become the servants robes, set aside from the world. They speak of a holy identity and a window into the inner workings of the sacramental life.
Today the Church of England is discussing proposals to make the wearing of traditional robes optional. Canon Law at present requires deacons, priests and bishops to attire themselves in their robes of office for public worship. Some within the church are calling for a more relaxed and contemporary approach to church wear; others feel that this would lead to a lack of distinctiveness and a lessening of authority within the institution. It seems that this debate is synonymous with many other aspects of church life and the relevance of an institutional faith in the public square. Ecclesiastical dress, however, has less to do with the individual and more to do with a desire to honour God. It may look and feel anachronistic but fashions do have a habit of coming and going. Church liturgy, and all of the colourful and dramatic embellishments that goes with it, expresses something about the generosity, glory and permanence of God. Now that is what I call rebellious.