Sexuality? No. Omar Khadr? They’ve never heard of him. Donald Trump? Not even close. This latest Anglican flap is about whether Anglican bishops should wear mitres on their heads.
Minor issue? I agree – which doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion on the subject!
But I’m not going to argue the case in and of itself. I’m going to state it in terms of some underlying principles which I think are important.
First, while traditions can be charming, it’s always important to keep asking ourselves whether they’re still fit for purpose. In other words, if we were starting the whole thing over again today, would we do it this way? If not, why are we still doing it?
Second, while very literalistic interpretations of scripture texts can be perilous at times, there’s an opposite danger which may be even more pernicious, when we adopt a standard interpretation that flies in the face of what the text actually says.
Jesus specifically addresses the issue of what we might call today ‘clerical pretentiousness’. Amongst the various manifestations he identifies, we find ostentatious clerical dress (Luke 20:46), and ecclesiastical titles (Matthew 23:7-12). Apparently he thought this an important enough issue to name and warn us about. That being the case, the burden of proof is surely on the side of those who would defend these things. And that proof needs to arise out of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not out of later ecclesiastical tradition (which, all too often, owes more to the power structures of Christendom than it does to the message of Jesus).
Third, and related to point two above: as a priest (God forbid that I should ever become a bishop, but if such a travesty were ever to occur, the point would be even more important) and as a relatively self-centred human sinner, I think my tendencies toward self-importance are quite healthy enough by themselves, thank you very much! They don’t need the encouragement of overly ornate robes or pretentious titles.
Fourthly, I think we have to be very careful about optics. Bosco and others have claimed that mitres are almost the most recognizable item of clerical clothing in the world. That may be so, but my response would be, recognizable for what? I suspect (I have no statistical proof, but I do talk with a lot of non-Christians) that most non-Christian people under the age of forty have absolutely no idea what a bishop is or does. I am, however, concerned that more than one person has privately admitted to me that mitres remind them most strongly of KKK hoods.
Fifthly, and following on from the last point, I was present a few weeks ago at a cathedral service with the usual ordered procession: choir first, then minor clergy, then major clergy (the bishop would have been at the end, had she/he been there). The symbolism was clear: the further back you got in the procession, and the more ornate your robes were, the more important you are. In the entire cathedral, only one person sits on a throne and wears cope and mitre. An outside observer gets the point right away: this is about the trappings of power. And if we don’t think that’s what the ministry of a bishop is about, then why not rethink the symbols we use?
Sixthly and finally, I take it as central that the most important things Christians do are not done during Sunday worship, but during the week. Jesus had very little to say about what we do in Sunday worship, who should preside, what clothes should be worn etc. etc. He evidently thought practical daily discipleship – loving your enemies, living a simple life with few possessions, being generous to the poor and so on – was far more important. It’s during the week, as we go about our daily lives, that we seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. What we do on Sunday should support this and energize it.
That being the case, what we do on Sunday should flow out of genuine gospel values, and support them, rather than working against them. It seems clear to me from the teaching of Jesus that those gospel values include simplicity of life, humility, and servanthood.
Many who wear mitres and copes on Sundays have demonstrated these values in their daily lives; I would never dare to assert otherwise. The question for me is how these articles of clothing demonstrate those values. Personally, I think they do not, which is why I think we would do better to avoid them.