Christopher Trundle on the joys of Anglican choir dress

‘At the Holy Communion the presiding minister shall wear either a surplice or alb with scarf or stole. When a stole is worn other customary vestments may be added. The epistoler and gospeller may wear surplice or alb to which other customary vestments may be added. At Morning and Evening Prayer on Sundays the minister shall normally wear a surplice or alb with scarf or stole’

(from Canon B8 of the Canons of the Church of England)

For most people, one of the most readily identifiable images of the Church of England is the clergyman in surplice, scarf and hood. Now I must admit that I write this as someone who almost never wears Anglican choir dress (‘Shame!’), but it is nonetheless part of our Anglican heritage and is something of which I am sure most are quite fond (albeit secretly).

The surplice today comes in many shapes and sizes, and, indeed, the shorter ‘cotta’ we are more used to in catholic circles is properly called a surplice itself. It has its origins in a long loose-fitting vestment which replaced the alb, and had become the usual vesture for clergy at services other than the Mass by the twelfth century. While it would get steadily shorter in the Roman Church, the longer ‘old English’ surplice is more akin to that of the middle ages.


In the Church of England today there are many different views on what clergy, servers and singers ought to wear during divine service, from cottas to cassock albs and sometimes no clerical attire whatsoever. It is hard for us to imagine today, however, how controversial even something as innocuous as the surplice has been at many points in our history.

The name of John Hooper is not one which resounds through Anglican history – perhaps for the best – but his refusal to wear the surplice and rochet for his consecration as Bishop of Gloucester in 1550 meant that he was simply not consecrated until he agreed that he would dress as the Ordinal required. Similarly, in 1566 Archbishop Parker insisted on the wearing of the linen surplice in church and the cope in collegiate and cathedral churches; thirty-six clergy in the Diocese of London who refused to do so were removed from their parishes.


Objection to even the most basic of vestments was not reserved to the tumultuous period of the sixteenth century, though. In Exeter as late as 1844 rioting broke out as a result of the Bishop’s direction that clergy should wear the surplice rather than the gown to preach. Thomas Hood wrote these words at the time, which tells us something of the inordinate amount of interest shown in the wearing of something so simple:

A‘ very pretty public stir
Is making down at Exeter,
About the surplice fashion;
And many bitter words and rude
Are interchanged about the feud.
And much unchristian passion.
For me, I neither know nor care,
Whether a parson ought to wear
A black dress, or a white one…’

The surplice was not quite the innocent thing we think of today, nor did it convey hints of ‘low church’. To the more extreme reformers it was, in fact, clearly identifiable with the catholic faith they rebelled against, and in more recent years it smacked of Tractarianism.

It is, of course, unsurprising (and entirely laudable) that clergy of the catholic tradition today choose to model their dress on that of the contemporary Western Church. It is worth remembering, though, the battles which were fought in the past to secure things we take for granted – or even spurn – today. ND