Would Jesus have worn a mitre? A plea for simplicity, humility and relevance.

By Peter Corney

When I was ordained in 1963/4 at St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral Melbourne there wasn’t a mitre in sight. Archbishop Frank Woods was the presiding Bishop. In fact mitre’s and copes did not appear reguarly in St Paul’s untill Bob Dann became Archbishop (1977 – 83), although Frank Woods, inspite of opposition in the Cathedral  Chapter, had worn them on occasions. This was a novelty for Melbourne because of its evangelical origins in Bishop Perry.

Melbourne followed the traditions of the reformation settlement in the Church of England as it had come to be expressed in England for over 400 years, the tradition of simplicity of vesture for the clergy and bishops.

The courtly trappings of the mediaeval church were left behind. The episcopal mitres (crowns), the richly embroidered robes of satin, the regal purple, the bejewelled accoutrements of the mediaeval royal court were seen to be inconsistent with the Gospel.

They did not sit well with Jesus of Nazareth, suffering servant and friend of the poor. They seemed incongruous with his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Nor did they fit with the message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone and not by works. There was no place here for human pride, pomp and ceremony.

Even the architecture of the Gothic church, modelled as it was on the mediaeval court with its ascending steps to the elevated throne – from knave to chancel to sanctuary and altar – and the separation of clergy from the laity which it reinforced – was modified, reflecting the reformed theology. Altars were removed and Holy Tables introduced and moved down to the chancel area where the people gathered around them to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. New churches were built with a more rectangular shape as auditory buildings for the hearing of the Word, Wren was the great designer of these (1632-1723). Central aisles, long chancels and raised sanctuaries’ were eliminated and rood screens that secluded the sanctuary abandoned. Many of the London churches built after the reformation like St. Martin in the Fields, St. James Piccadilly and All Souls Langham Place clearly reflect this change. It was only after the Gothic revival and the influence of the Oxford/Tractarian movement in the second half of the nineteenth century that many churches built from then on moved back to the pre reformed semi Gothic pattern. Centre aisles returned to give focus to the sanctuary and priestly activity. (1)

Sadly the mitres and richly embroidered robes have drifted back in to many Australian Anglican dioceses. Because they often appear in Cathedrals at significant events they usually get the photo shot in the press! This is unfortunate, the symbolism is confusing and bemusing for those both outside and inside the church. Confusing for it sits so badly with Jesus and the Gospel and bemusing because it is so arcane and irrelevant and not understood. It is seen as the trappings, the pomp and ceremony of “religion” something that has frequently been the enemy of real and vital Christian faith.

One of my favorite stories from church history concerns John Huss the Czech reformer (1372 – 1415). Huss was a gifted preacher and drew large crowds, including many students, to his church, Bethlehem Chapel, near the University of Prague. Huss, influenced by the writings of Wycliffe, called for reform in the church and set forth the Scriptures as the primary authority. He was also very critical of the corruption and extravagance of the Papal court at Rome at the time. He drove home his point in dramatic fashion with a wonderful visual aid. He had two contrasting pictures painted on the walls of the chapel; one of Jesus dressed as a simple peasant, the humble servant washing his disciples feet; the other of a haughty Pope with his triple tiered crown, dressed in all his regal splendor riding on a horse. This became the backdrop to Huss’s challenging preaching. The message was clear to the crowds and the irony was made all the more pointed by being in a chapel named after the humble birth place of the Saviour. This was not popular in Rome! Eventually Huss was arrested and burnt at the stake. But he lit a fire that continued to burn in Bohemia, influencing Luther and other reformers and also the development of the German Moravian Church and missionary movement.

The origins of the mitre

The origins of the mitre are not entirely clear but it seems that in the Western church it may have developed from a cap worn in imperial times by Roman secular officials on certain occasions. The papal tiara or triple crowned hat seems to have developed from this. In the East the mitre derives from a cap used in the imperial Byzantine court. In the later empire it developed into a closed type of crown used by the emperors. It was taken over by Eastern Orthodox bishops after the fall of Constantinople. In Armenian Orthodoxy it is said to symbolize the sovereignty of Christ. In the Western church the first mention of a bishop wearing a mitre is not found till the eleventh century, although reference to the papal tiara is found as early as the eighth century.

The fact is that up to the eighth century in the West there was no distinctive clerical dress worn in or outside the church by the clergy. They wore the ordinary street dress of the day. (2) It was very important to distinguish themselves from the pagan priests and rituals of the times. Dom Gregory Dix in his authoritative work The Shape of the Liturgy quotes Celestine 1, bishop of Rome in 425 rebuking the churches in Gaul for introducing for clergy the scarf or pallium at the Lord’s Supper. This was commonly worn in Roman society by consuls, magistrates and others as a sign of office. He chides them for their hubris in these words: “We bishops must be distinguished from the people and others by our learning not by our dress, by our life not by our robes, by purity of heart not by elegance.”(3) Here, here!

The present shield shaped cap with the two fringed lappets became widely used in the medieval church. It was reintroduced after the reformation into Anglicanism by the Oxford/Tractarian movement in the nineteenth centuary along with the recovery of other pre reformed practices. The movement fitted artistically with the romantic Gothic revival in England at the time. The Cambden society was formed to furnish and dress the mediaeval revival. In their attempt to recover a greater sense of holy worship the Tractarians also attempted to make connections between the OT temple cultus and Christian worship. Great attention was paid to the sacred garments described in Exodus 39. It was noted in verses 30-31 that the High Priest wore a kind of turban with a gold plate attached and engraved with the words “Holiness to YHWH”. Was this not a forerunner of the mitre! Later enthusiasts developed the notion that the mitre was a symbol of the flame of the Holy Spirit descending on the heads of the disciples’ at Pentecost, although there seems to be no evidence that this idea was an early one in the history of the mitre. Like many religious accoutrements the alleged meaning of the symbolism is often flexible and frequently a later invention for justification. It’s like all the different meanings given to candles in church other than the need for light before the introduction of electricity!

Interestingly in 1963 the reforming Pope Paul VI, who was elected during the now famous Vatican II after the death of John XX111, abandoned the use of the papal tiara (crown) in a dramatic ceremony during the second session of Vatican II as a sign of Christian humility. Previously Popes had been crowned with the tiara in a ceremony of regal coronation.

The arguments for the use of the mitre.

Those who have reintroduced the mitre into Anglican services usually appeal on the following grounds.

First, is the appeal to continuity with the churches traditions. The problem with this argument is – which tradition? Shall we follow those of the mediaeval church or the reformed church; the post or pre Constantinian church; the apostolic church and the church of the first eight centuries or the Gothic revival of the late nineteenth century?

Second, is the argument from symbolism. It is argued that it is a helpful visual symbol in public worship. Various meanings have been attributed over the years, the current one that is popular with the wearers is that it symbolizes the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, the bishop being a kind of representative figure for the church. Another is that it represents the sovereignty of Christ and the authority of the bishop as Christ’s representative. Of course this one emphasizes its origins as a crown, a connection not always readily or comfortably acknowledged by its wearers. The other is that it is simply a distinguishing symbol of the episcopal office.

A third argument is that these things provide theater, color and movement all things that communicate at alternative or additional levels to words. This is a valid point but it does not alter my main concern that the symbols should be appropriate to the subject and my contention is that in present practice they are generally not. Perhaps a simple wooden shepherds crook would be, although most young people today would never have seen one and in fact they were never used on Australian farms. What about an Akubra, a Driza-Bone and a stock whip?

The problem with symbolism is that it is powerful but complicated and culturally affected. Often a symbol will convey different things to different people. To many on the outside the mitre, the embroidered robes, the bejewelled silver crooks and gold crosses will convey power, prestige, wealth, royalty and assumed authority, even arrogance. While these things may be viewed as works of art the ironic and incongruous symbolism of a shepherd’s crook and a cross made from these materials seems lost on the insider aesthetes! They are certainly powerful symbols but they give the wrong message. They convey a sense of irrelevant pomp and ceremony. Whose side are we seen to be on when we wear and carry these things? To a younger generation today they are associated with a mythical past with bishops looking like Wizards from Lord of the Rings or a Harry Potter story. To others they are just faintly ridiculous and silly. They clearly create a distance between the ordinary every day person and the Christian faith that should represent Jesus the servant saviour. It should also be said that the Armani suits, silk ties and Rolex watches worn by the pastors of some prosperity gospel churches are just as inappropriate and incongruous.

While greatly influenced by its Jewish background the early church clearly separated itself from the cultus of both the Jewish and the Pagan temple and, as we have seen, for at least 700 years there was little or no distinction in dress with those conducting public worship between lay and clergy, they wore the ordinary street dress of the day. (4)

What we wear in church should reflect the one we claim to follow; it should also reflect our missiology and ecclesiology.

Would Jesus wear a Mitre today? I don’t think so. He might wear a hoody or a Collingwood beanie or even a baseball cap but a piece of mediaeval headgear that made him look like a lost cast member from a Harry Potter movie is most unlikely. As a carpenter Jesus may have cut a few mitres but he would never have worn one! Let’s get back to simplicity, humility and relevance.

(1) K. White “Shrines for Saints – how parish churches evolved” 1975 Grove Liturgical No 3 (Grove Books) pages 16 – 17, 23 – 28.
(2) Dom Gregory Dix “The Shape of the Liturgy” 1960 (A&C Black) pages 399-404

(3) Dix page 401.

(In the 16th C. professors of divinity wore elaborate head gear as  a symbol of their status. Erasmus the great reformer in ‘The Praise of Folly’ mocked their pride along with their obscure theological speculations in these words: ” Don’t be supprised when you see them at public disputations with their heads so carefully wrapped in swaths of cloth, for otherwise thay would clearly explode”. Pomposity and hats often seem to go together!)
(4) Dix page 404

Further information on the development of the mitre can be found in Dix on pages 405 -407 and “The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church” Ed. by L F Cross 1961. (Oxford Press)

  • F. W Atkins

    I believe Bishop Hamilton was the first Bishop in the Church of England to carry a croziersince the Reformation. Mitres were rare until the 20th century. Archbishop Sumner (an evangelical) was the first to wear a purple cassock. Now its rare to see a bishop not dressed like the Mikado.

  • Elisabeth

    Thank you for history and background of the mitre – I’ve always felt embarrassed by the mitre and feel that it is not appropriate. It looks ridiculous and it seems to imply that the person wearing it is lording it over the rest somehow. It seems to me to be out of place in the Anglican church and does not fit with the tenor of the prayer book or God’s Word. You’ve helped me to understand that my feelings are not so far off the mark.