Bishop's Mitre

Let’s not let facts get in the way of our prejudices…

Ian Paul presses for the protestantisation of Anglicanism at his Psephizo site – this time urging bishops to throw away their mitres.

Without any historical justification, The Rev. Dr Paul [Ian’s title has been corrected at his request – the original read ‘Mr’] contends that the bishop’s mitre derives from the headgear of the High Priest! And this becomes part of his reasoning “why bishops in the Church of England dropped the wearing of mitres from the Reformation onwards.” It is certainly correct that lack of historical knowledge and understanding have resulted in persons with prejudices against certain practices making poor decisions.

Even if Dr Paul’s mitre-origin myth had any historical truth to it – which it doesn’t (he’s only one step away from claiming that the mitre is worn to represent the pagan fish-god Dagon) – recounting something’s genesis does not determine its current usage or meaning. Anyone with an interest in etymology, as just one example, will know that a word can change meaning significantly with time – sometimes to the opposite of its original. Christianity regularly uses metaphors and images ironically and subversively.

Dr Paul’s post then goes on to an allegorical interpretation of mitres. Once we overlay the liturgical landscape with an allegorical map we are bound to get lost in theological la-la land.

Let’s apply some allegory to Dr Paul’s own dress sense. In his post, he describes himself as wearing a suit and tie. I wonder how often he reflects about his tie allegorically as being the most widely used and the most multicultural of all phallic symbols, a contemporary replacement of the more overt codpiece. I note that Dr Paul in his post concludes with the “serious objection to the wearing of mitres” by linking mitre-wearing directly to Bishop Peter Ball’s abuse of children! I wonder if he has done the statistical analysis of abuse by tie wearers in comparison to mitre wearers.

The actual history of mitres developed from headgear used in a variety of contexts, secular and religious. It was a soft cap which by the twelfth century had a sort of dent in the middle (the ‘direction’ the dent was worn varied). What we normally see now is a development in the baroque period. I would advocate for contemporary mitres to be significantly lower and simpler.

The rest of Dr Paul’s post is so riddled with inaccuracies as to be hardly worthy of commentary. The majority of bishops in the world wear black – not his purple. Clearly, Edward King (Bishop of Lincoln 1885-1910) was NOT the first English bishop to have worn a mitre. Ordination does not just “set people apart in terms of training and supporting them to minister.”

The mitre, of course, is one of the most-recognised and most-used Christian emblems – from chess to heraldry.

All discussions such as this need to be set within the context of reflection on vesture (and being part of the great river of the church catholic). Why vest at all? Why not simply wear your tie – its length, size, shape, and where it is pointing being a focus of eucharistic presiding?

*****

That mitres conform to (read “required by”?) the the Church of England’s BCP Ornaments Rubric will be part of a future post.

H/T to Peter Carrell who alerted me to the Psephizo post and clarified that this is an expurgated version of it that we are reading. Dr Paul’s original was Trump-like in its focus on how Bishop Rachel Treweek looks and could never look good in a mitre – with the least flattering photo of her wearing one that Dr Paul could find.

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