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Monday, 11 November, 2002, 12:19 GMT
Dress-down Sundays
Jeremy Clarkson and Vicar of Dibley
To take Jeremy's lead or not ... surely no question?
The General Synod will debate a motion to allow clergy to dispense with their robes and go casual. But will we really be able to relate better to the church if vicars wear jeans and T-shirts?

Just as the suit is making a triumphant comeback to the workplace, relegating jeans and cargo pants once more to the weekend, the Church of England is considering dress-down Sundays.

A T-shirt-clad Rev Chris Sterry prepares to deliver his
A T-shirt-clad vicar takes the pulpit
Currently, vicars must wear cassocks and surplices to celebrate communion in Anglican churches. But members of the Southwell diocese in Nottinghamshire want the clergy to be given permission to dress as their parishioners do.

Already some churches breach church laws and the ministers conduct services in a clerical shirt and suit.

It is hoped that the move - to be debated at the General Synod this week - could help to dispel the image of the Church as out-of-date and irrelevant.

Mary Spillane, an image consultant who runs Image Works, says it will do just the opposite.

"Once again the C of E is quite out of step. Ten years ago dressing down was cool but for the past three years it's just not what is cool. Nothing is sadder than the middle-aged Jeremy Clarkson figure trying to look young and hip."

Falling attendance

Dressing down is the latest idea aimed at attracting worshippers - especially young people - in these increasingly secular times.

Rowan Williams in all his finery
Filling the pews will be quite a task for the new Archbishop of Canterbury
For the Church of England faces a near-halving in attendance over the next two decades, according to a study released last month.

By 2030, it is predicted that the number of adult parishioners will fall from 800,000 to 500,000. And for every 100 children in churches in 1930, there could be just four in 2030.

While some church figures - including the Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Rev Graham Cray, who has said he would consider wearing jeans for some services - have backed the idea, traditionalists are aghast.

And with good reason, says Ms Spillane.

Fashion harridans Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine of the BBC's What Not to Wear
"A member of the clergy needs to command authority and respect and you just don't get that with jeans and T-shirt. Everyone has noticed that even at the height of the dressing down phenomenon in the late 90s, jeans were always out."

This is because jeans need to look scruffy and lived-in - washed and ironed jeans look wrong. "Today there are whole ranges of fabrics that can match denim for comfort and ease but look better: twills, moleskins and cords."

She would prefer to see the clergy learn how to dress casual but smart: trousers, nice shirt and a sports jacket.

Seasonal colours

Not only does traditional garb mark a vicar out from the flock, the vestments serve a ceremonial purpose.

Yvonne Bell, who designs ceremonial robes for the church, says the church calendar is divided into different seasons and these are represented by the colours worn by ministers.

What vicars wear
white or gold at Christmas and Easter
purple for Advent or Lent
red for Pentecost
green for low season
"There is a great deal of symbolism in these colours and symbolism is important because it helps people to have something visual to work their way through," she says.

"If you are standing behind the altar as the Eucharist, then you are standing there as Christ. It would be difficult to imagine Christ in jeans and T-shirt."

Should an open-neck future come to pass, an important badge of faith could be lost, Ms Bell says.

"The dog collar is an important piece of a minister's wardrobe because it says to the world: 'I'm a Christian and proud to be one'. It's making a big statement about your faith and it draws people in."

Which is precisely the aim of the Church of England.

See also:

19 Jun 02 | England
16 Nov 01 | England
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