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  • Revd Daniel Kirk

Scarf or Stole

I can only say that from my knowledge of the Bench of Bishops, which is considerable, I think it is inconceivable that any of the Bishops would press an ordination candidate, contrary to his conscience, to wear a stole at his ordination.’ Archbishop Michael Ramsey in the House of Lords, July 1964

This week I was surprised on hearing of the tension faced and indeed pressure bought to bear on evangelical candidates who in conscience couldn’t wear a stole on their ordination days. Coming from an overseas evangelical Anglican province where all wore scarves on formal occasions (albeit it with green crosses on in a Mapuche design, which a friend kindly said looked like ‘lots of chemist’s signs joined together’!), this was rather a surprise.

So it was with interest I picked up this twenty five page booklet by Andrew Atherstone which carefully elucidates the background of this tension, not just between wearing stoles or scarves, but the desire of some bishops to enforce uniformity on ecclesiastical uniform on ordination days. The booklet starts with the Ramsey quote above which shows that the debate goes back at least as far as the penultimate time England beat Germany in a major football tournament. Atherstone has done impressive primary research in the Lambeth Palace Archives and Hansard reports of debates in Parliament, to look at the episcopal agreement that was reached on this subject in the post-war decades.

Indeed he first goes back to the root of the division on this subject of differing attitudes to ecclesiastical dress which he admits might seem a trivial subject in the grand scheme of things when there are far more pressing concerns within and without the Church of England today. During the Reformation most of the ‘complex medieval clerical dress [which had] evolved from Roman antiquity’ were abolished which included stoles. Much to the disgust of some leading puritans surplices, scarves and academic hoods were kept. They were kept because of their link to academic dress which showed theological learning seen as important for the preparation of preachers to open up and teach the Word of God faithfully.

In fact the medieval dress that was banned was also made illegal and so stoles were stolen and vanished out of sight in the English Church for the next three centuries. It was the Oxford movement with its attempted recovery of Catholic traditions that bought the stole back into play. No only did the tractarians challenge reformation Anglican theology but they also tried to re-establish forgotten architectural and haberdashery practices within the church. By the mid-twentieth century the garter was truly on the other stocking and uniformity of stole wearing was expected on ordination days. This even when some evangelical candidates struggled with their consciences about wearing garments which pointed to a Catholic priestly tradition to which they didn’t belong to or believe in.

Atherstone gives several examples of clergy pressurised in the 50s and even bullied into defying their consciences, turning one of the most important days of their clerical ministry into a distressing experience. One example was Bishop Kirk of Oxford (hopefully no relation to this reviewer) who refused to ordain non-stole wearers. However their ordination was allowed under a suffragan Bishop.

Not so with Bishop Wand of London who actually expelled two ordinands from his diocese when they failed to comply. Eventually archbishop Fisher issued a formal statement on episcopal ordinations which stated: ‘for the future in no Diocese of the Church of England will an ordinand… be denied Ordination on the sole ground that he finds himself conscientiously unable to wear a white stole’ (16). These concerns were raised in both Houses when the Clerical Vestments Measure of 1964 became law legalising (!!) pre-reformation vestments, which led to ABC Ramsey’s quote above.

That this had been forgotten by some current bishops led Atherstone to finish his work appealing to our episcopal leaders to grant freedom to ordinands not to wear stoles at their ordination services. He does this arguing from three key principals: those related to ‘conscience, power and comprehension’. Here I would like further exploration of the possible consequences of his phrase: ‘Both theologically and pastorally, the consciences of ordinands and clergy should be respected at all times’ (23). Might this not open the door for unbiblical practices at other times when individual’s consciences might trump biblical commands? However, this fascinating, well researched work should be recommended (compulsory?!) reading for all bishops, training incumbents and new clergy.


Revd Daniel Kirk is Vicar of St Michael's Gidea Park



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