Vesture and burial: Draft Amending Canon No. 36

A (small) insight into the CofE’s legislative process

In our August post Legal developments – July General Synod we noted that the July Synod had given First Consideration to a number of items of draft legislation including, inter alia:

  • Draft Amending Canon No. 36, (Of the vesture of ordained and authorized ministers during the time of divine service, Of the burial of the dead). This will amend Canon B 8 (Of the vesture of ordained and authorized ministers during the time of divine service), following the Revd Chris Hobbs’s private member’s motion to make current forms of vesture non-mandatory, and Canon B 38 (Of the burial of the dead) to allow use of the normal burial service for those who have committed suicide and the unbaptised.

The next stage in the legislative process is the Revision Committee Stage, when it will be considered clause-by-clause, together with any proposals for its amendment. On 14 September, the CofE published the following comments which had been made to the Revision Committee:


The publication of communications such as these provides an insight into one aspect of the development of legislation in the Church of England, and illustrates the range of churchmanship and the practical issues that need to be taken into consideration in the further development of this draft Canon.

The very Anglican term “seemly” in paragraph 6 attracted a number of comments, viz.

“6. Where a minister adopts a form of dress other than vesture of a form specified in this Canon, the form of dress so adopted must be seemly and must not be such as to be indicative of a departure from the doctrines now contained in the formularies of the Church of England.”

Andrew Nunn observed, “[t]he term ‘seemly’ is impossible to define and will be impossible to defend. It is entirely subjective and that is of course the intention”, adding “what is seemly in large middle class evangelical congregations may not be seemly in working class churches”; this has strong echoes of the comments made by Thesiger LJ in Sturges v Bridgman, (1879) 11 ChD 863, who stated that “what would be a nuisance in Belgrave Square would not necessarily be so in Bermondsey”.

However, the one aspect which featured strongly in most of the comments was the necessity to separate the issues on vesture from those on the burial of suicides. The Ven. Dr Jane Steen commented:

“[t]he pastoral consequences of the two are of very different degrees of seriousness. Further, and more importantly, although the Church of England attaches no doctrinal significance to currently permitted vesture (Canon B8 1), it has attached considerable significance to the burial of those who have taken their own lives while of sound mind. It seems inappropriate to try to combine two matters of such different weight. Concerning that part of Amending Canon B36 which deals with vesture, I submit that, when this is redrafted as a separate amending canon, thought should be given to the use of the words currently found in Canon C27 to describe what would be acceptable dress”.

Other noted the controversial nature of the “vesture” component in comparison to the burial of suicides “which commands the overwhelming support of Synod”. As a former Clerk of Bills, Frank observed “[t]he Canon may be OK in GS terms but something like that would never be allowed in the Commons: a bill with two such disparate purposes – if it ever got past the Clerks in the first place – would almost certainly be divided into two bills by order of the Speaker”. Indeed.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Vesture and burial: Draft Amending Canon No. 36" in Law & Religion UK, 16 September 2016,

5 thoughts on “Vesture and burial: Draft Amending Canon No. 36

  1. The need to separate the two components of the Amending Canon was raised by several speakers during the debate at General Synod in July. In his summing up at the end of the debate, the Bishop of St Albans, the Chair of the Steering Committee, said this.

    “There was a general comment to start with asking about why these two Canons are being brought together. That has been the normal practice when we have had more than one Canon because you need to have a Revision Committee and a Steering Committee and indeed, if you separate them out, you have to have different Royal Letters Patent, which cost a considerable amount of money, but is not impossible. We cannot do that today. What you can do is write to the Revision Committee to ask them to consider it. We have heard what has been said and I am sure that will be taken into account, without pre-empting what the decision would be.”

    [I am quoting from the official Report of Proceedings.]

    So it seems that convenience and saving money are what matters.

    • Thank you Peter for those insights on the discussions at General Synod. The issue of convenience and cost was raised in some of the comments to the Revision Committee, but I was sceptical as to whether these were real concerns. Clearly there was much more substance to these than I first thought, but given the number of comments recommending the separation of the two issues, it will be interesting to see which direction the Revision Committee takes.

  2. I certainly agree that the two issues should be uncoupled.

    On vesture, it’s interesting to compare Andrew Nunn’s comprehensive comments with those of Clive Scowen, who takes a ‘congregationalist’ line that where non-vesture is parish policy – or even incumbent’s whim – those who attend baptisms, weddings and funerals should only be entitled to request traditional vesture under strict conditions, and not at all at primary services. (I know a church – non-Anglican – where the minister demands an extra fee for wearing robes.) Thesiger LJ’s famous comment (predating the Jubilee line) is of course the reverse of Andrew’s point, that traditional working-class communities expect a higher rather than a lower dress code on such occasions (even if their own outfits are sometimes ‘unseemly’), but he makes a good theological case for honouring this.

    However, I don’t think non-vesture at ordinations is likely – is it?

    • Thanks for your comments Michael. The various responses to the Committee were quite enlightening, but to comment on different aspects of churchmanship is probably beyond our remit. Yes, I agree that Thesiger’s comment is the reverse of Andrew’s point – and incidentally, although this is the quote that is generally referred to in tort, a very similar comment was made seventeen years earlier; Pollock J in In Bamford v Turnley, (1862) 3 B&S, stated: “that may be a nuisance in Grosvenor Square which would be none in Smithfield Market, that may be a nuisance at midday which would not be done at midnight, that may be a nuisance which is permanent which would be no nuisance if temporary or occasional”.

  3. Pingback: Law and religion round-up – 18th September | Law & Religion UK

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