I saw an article in the English “Church Times” where the author was calling for an end to bishops’ wearing of Mitres. The main argument for not wearing a mitre is that this practice has lost its message for those outside the church: it looks funny, and does not ‘say’ anything to the unchurched.
This argument goes on about everything to do with the Church, from the wearing of clergy shirts in public, to the wearing of any vestments at all (apart from a suit or jeans) in the leading of worship. It continues in the form of holding worship in factories, with little or no Christian symbolism, to making worship look like rock concerts to baptising anything that moves with little preparation in order to demonstrate our ‘inclusivity’.
The force of the argument is this: As an evangelical organisation, the church has to accommodate itself to everything that puts a block in the way of those who are searching, but might come.
The trouble is that if that is all we do, the depths of the faith: its capacity to shape our core identity, and to enable us to think ‘in a Christian way’ are made into the ‘shallows’ of the faith.
In fact, I have heard of a Pentecostal style church which turned every form of worship into a ‘seeker friendly’ kind of worship. After a while, those who had been there for a while said to the leadership “This is a bit wishy-washy’, cant we have something more substantial? So they kept their Sunday worship as ‘seeker friendly’ but instituted another service on Wednesdays for ‘the committed’. When a person was thought ‘ready’, they were quietly invited to the Wednesday service.
So despite the fact that God’s love is a love that reaches out to everyone, there is a pathway that means that before certain kinds of worship can be really appreciated, there has to be a period of instruction and discipleship to enable the participants to both play their parts fully, actively and consciously.
The early Church knew this. They did not admit everyone to their most sacred rites, but reserved them for those who had been fully initiated. Dietrich Bonhoeffer advocated for a return to what he called the Arcane discipline (the kind of Christian initiation that the early Church had).
Not every movement that widens the gap between ‘the World’ and the Church’ is the Church’s fault. Sometimes the riches of the Church, including ritual, vestments and education must be held onto in order to keep the riches of the depths of God available.
This is not to say that a ‘reaching out’ quality in a lot of Church activity is not necessary. Of course it is. There, mitres and much else can be dispensed with for the sake of making connections with others. But the maintaining of a difference between what is available to feed those who have been properly initiated, and those who are seekers is these days more and more necessary.
Here is a story that helps to explain why I think that both the bishop’s ring, and mitre are essential symbols to keep.
A bishop was asked to preach on ‘the role of the deacon in the Eucharist’. He began by saying “I am not going to preach on this but its opposite! My topic is “What kind of Eucharists do you have when you have Deacons?” He then went on to explain the image of priest and deacon at the altar. The priest represents ‘God’s dealings with the centre of his life. The deacon represents God’s ‘going out into fringes. At the alter priest and deacon unify centre and fringe. That is what Christ does. Deacons are needed at to Eucharist to complete the picture of Christ’s presence.
Now the mitre and ring do something similar for the bishop. The mitre looks like a flame, and represents the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. The bishop is to be ‘Spirit filled’ and so be both focus of unity, and chief evangelist, and the one to ‘lead us into new things’. At Pentecost the Apostles were accused of being drunk while filled with the Spirit. Peter says, no we are not drunk (a-methos) but filled with the Spirit. The bishop’s ring (amethyst) reminds the bishop that on those occasions when they might be accused of being drunk they can say “No, see this stone? It says that rather than being drunk, I am a-methos, but in the Spirit!
The ‘tails’ on the mitre represent the Bible’s bookmarks. The bishop is to be the guardian of the apostolic faith too. No new thing can be ‘just introduced’ in the Spirit without a conversation with our ancestors in the Faith and the Scriptures.
So the bishops hat, the mitre tells us and them what kind of a person they are. They are Spirit filled people, who, in the Spirit might be often accused of being drunk. They are the chief evangelists of the diocese, putting the making of new Christians at the centre of the life of every congregation as their main game. They are the ones who, through their knowledge and training, can lead the conversation between making all things new, and being faithful to the Spirit of Jesus and the Apostles. What a Church we would have with bishops like that.
That is why we cannot do without mitres, and amethyst rings. They are not for ‘public display’ as it were, but they are essential to Church life in Christ.