Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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How to have a feminist wedding in church

The feminist threshold

Laura Bates, the founder of Everyday Sexism Project, is getting married: congrats! She has written in the Guardian about how to have a feminist wedding. Basically, it is an example of the personal being political. Laura Bates writes about her personal choices, which she has every right to make, but many feminists would lament that she did not go far enough in demonstrating her feminist credentials. A close feminist friend showed me the article and described it as retrogressive and non-radical. I feel somewhat more forgiving, as the article is much more one woman’s very personal choices and wrestling with deeply ingrained sexism of this traditional rite of passage.

I have been celebrating weddings as a priest of the Church of England for the last fifteen years, in Darlington, West Wiltshire, London and Oxford. I’m a man priest and a feminist (not too common a combination, sorry!) and I believe that it is easily possible to have a feminist wedding in church. The Church of England will not be offering same-sex marriages any time soon, but will probably get round to it in time for your gay children to enjoy the grace of this sacramental union.

Here is my how-to guide to feminist weddings in the Church of England.

Know the difference between folk tradition and liturgy

When most people think of church weddings they think of white dresses, bridesmaids, bouquet, giving away and all that kind of stuff. Absolutely none of this is required in a wedding in the Church of England. Even Laura Bates agonized about having to say she would ‘obey’ her husband, only to find her local rector tell her that the requirement to promise obedience was long gone (actually for a few decades longer than her rector told her).

Here is the key thing: there are things that the church legally requires for weddings, and then there is a lot of folk tradition and unrealistic expectations that is heaped on top of it, like burying an expertly baked cake under a gallon of squirty cream!

Liturgy is the words and actions used in church services (and a whole lot deeper than that too). The Church of England’s most recent set of liturgies was published in the year 2000, and is called Common Worship. You can find the wedding liturgy from Common Worship on-line (you can also download a complete PDF with all the marriage texts). Anything that is not specified in that is optional. So no white dresses, bouquet, bridesmaids, obeying or giving away, unless, of course, you want it.

Put down the wedding books — that are just about keeping the charade going — and read the wedding liturgy. The church has designed it to be gender equal by default!

There is also a financial advantage to knowing this: the church’s fees for weddings are set nationally and are not really all that steep. The huge expense of church weddings lies with all the expected but non-mandatory trappings. The central act of joining hands before the altar comes with a price tag of a few hundred pounds paid to your local church.

Cutting back on the folk traditions surrounding and suffocating weddings with patriarchal symbolism is an exercise in managing expectation. If you are a feminist, yet, like Laura Bates, feel that you cannot marry without some of the traditional trappings, then that’s really OK. It is tough to go against the expectations of a society, your family, and even your own emotions. Just make your feminism clear in other ways, and demonstrate that no patriarchal symbolism is intended. Continue reading

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Liturgy bits: a spotter’s guide to Anglican dress-up

Old picture of the author wearing Anglican choir habit.

Old picture of the author wearing Anglican choir habit.

This is a somewhat lighthearted look at what Anglican clergy wear in church. It is particularly for those who want a field guide to spotting Church of England clergy, but may work elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, albeit the C of E is far broader (in a few dimensions) than most other Anglican churches. Here are the five rough categories of Anglican dress-up

  • Reformed tradition — this is the form of vesture that was eventually created for the Church of England after the Reformation: cassock (double-breasted of course), surplice, hood and scarf are the main ingredients. This tradition remains strong amongst conservative evangelicals and old low-church traditionalists. Its centuries as the official vesture of clergy make this the top trump of Anglican style: never wrong for any liturgical occasion, in spite of what the invite might say. If you’re really lucky, an adherent to this style might preach in gown and bands. Wigs, unfortunately, are now uncommon.
  • Liberal tradition — this takes its cue from Vatican II and 20th-century moves to liberalise and simplify vesture: cassock-alb and stole are the main ingredients (the bare minimum to satisfy canon law). This is the vesture of the lead character in Rev, and is now the norm in middle-of-the-road Anglicanism. The cassock-alb is like the liturgical equivalent of Ugg Boots. While it is possible for the cassock-alb to be simple, unfussy, it is far too easy for things to go pear-shaped — an oatmeal polyester pear. Stoles and scarves (whatever the difference might be!) make use of nice, often personalised, embroidery. Whenever two or more clerics of this persuasion meet there will inevitably be a colour clash, often enough to turn sensitive Anglo-Catholics low church.
  • Abolitionist tradition — the reformed and liberal traditions did not go far enough for some for whom even a clerical collar is dressing up: no vestments is the idea. This tradition is most popular among charismatic evangelicals. Even here there is a spectrum of fashion: those who wear a suit because they mean business, and those who wear jeans because they want to be down with the kids. Of course, not wearing vestments is as much as a statement as wearing them, and draws attention to and even clericalizes what is worn instead (as the blue suit and tie has become in some protestant churches). Celebrating main Sunday services regularly in this manner is a flagrant breach of canon law, but the bishop will try not to notice.
  • Sarum tradition — the liturgical ‘archaeology’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, led Percy Dearmer, among others, to seek and revive a distinctively English pre-Reformation vesture, particularly from the Sarum liturgy books. The point was to look Catholic without looking Roman: a way of being high church without the wholesale adoption of Roman fashions. The thoroughgoing version of this tradition is all but extinct: there are very few who use one of the reinvented Sarum liturgical colour schemes (brick red, blue, yellow?) or consider resurrecting the almuce (fur is not an ethical look). Yet its mixture of dignified, simple catholic vestments at mass (mostly now from the Roman tradition than any real attempt to recreate Sarum norms) alongside the seriously Anglican surplice and scarf at offices (the reformed style) meets some refined expectations, and it has become the standard Anglican compromise in many of the big establishment churches, like cathedrals, major churches and Oxbridge chapels. Anything too Roman is rejected: lace, birettas, skullcaps and cottas. Anything too liberal is likewise rejected: cassock-albs, polyester, communion without a chasuble.
  • Roman tradition — perhaps because the Roman Church sets out its rules on vesture with such detail it is attractive to Anglo-Catholics: cassocks, albs, chasubles and cottas are the order here. In many ways, the late 19th and 20th centuries have seen much of this tradition become mainstream in the church: particularly noticeable is the use of Roman liturgical colours. One might say that the liberal and Sarum traditions above are simply Roman style repackaged for Anglican sensibilities. Lace and birettas are the mark of serious adherents to this persuasion, and surplice and scarf are out. There are some of this tradition who are more into the Vatican-II style (liberal style but with separate cassocks and albs, plus chasubles), where others are positively Tridentine (pass the maniple, Father!).