This post is about liturgical vestments. Here’s the background. Last week I “covenanted” with my congregation, Lawrence Park Community Church, to be their pastor. I’ve actually been doing that work for three years now, but it took that long to formalize my transfer from the Christian Reformed Church to the United Church of Canada.
At the covenanting service, the Presbytery representatives—a Presbytery is a group of local churches—wore liturgical vestments—albs and stoles, both red and white.
I didn’t. I wore a suit.
It isn’t that I don’t have vestments. More precisely—I have an academic gown. It is forest green, the colour of my school, Wayne State University. It has three chevrons—stripes—on the sleeve signifying the fact that I have an earned doctorate. The stole is gold and grey, the colours of the Speech Communication department I graduated from.
In the Presbyterian tradition, in particular, preachers used to wear their academic gowns in the pulpit. The practice spread to preachers who were not academics per se. These academic “Genevan” gowns were usually black. They represented a rejection of the Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) practice of wearing a variety of liturgical vestments.
However, growing up I don’t recall ever seeing a minister wear liturgical gowns, Genevan or otherwise. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention. That changed when, in seminary, I started attending Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids. I was soon asked to do the children’s sermon each week. One Advent, the worship committee decided I should wear a simple alb with four very attractive, hand made stoles, each embroidered with a symbol that was to be that week’s children’s sermon subject. The kids—as I recall—loved the stoles, and I had one of those stoles for many years after, even though I never used it again, in worship. I outgrew the alb—laterally, that is—and never wore it after seminary.
But there were those Presbyterian representatives at my covenanting service, in red and white albs and stoles. What do I make of liturgical vestments now?
We know, from the Old Testament, that the ancient Israelites wore very elaborate liturgical vestments. The New Testament, on the other hand, doesn’t mention liturgical vestments at all.
The New Testament does mention the clothing of a few key figures, a few times. In Matthew 11, for example, Jesus says that John the Baptist, his cousin the wild-eyed prophet, did not wear soft robes like those who lived in royal palaces. Instead, we know from elsewhere that John the Baptist wore clothing made of camel’s hair, which is coarse, and was mostly used in his day as tent cloth. John the Baptist’s clothing was only a little less weird, even then, than the fact that he survived on a diet of locusts and wild honey.
Ironically, Jesus did wear reasonably soft robes even though he didn’t live in a palace either. His robe was probably made of linen, and we learn in the Gospel of John that it didn’t have any seams. Even if not Herod quality, Jesus' robe would have been expensive and valuable, perhaps on par with a Brooks Brothers business suit now. At his crucifixion the Roman guards were so impressed by it that they decided to gamble each other for the right to own it, rather than cut it up to share.
In the early church the first apostles, deacons and bishops did not wear vestments. The church was often persecuted, after all, so no one—even those in leadership positions—went out of his or her way to advertise who they were.
However, at about the time that the Emperor Constantine made Christianity an official religion of the Roman Empire, early in the fourth century, things changed. Now it was quite an honour to be a priest or a bishop. And in short order church officials started wearing clothing—both in and out of church—that advertised their work and rank. But rather than wear vestments like those described in the Old Testament, these early Christian leaders especially modelled their vestments on the secular uniforms of the day. In particular, clergy adopted the fashions—special scarves or stoles, robes, hats and colors of the Roman civil service, army, and judiciary.
However, as Roman secular fashion changed and evolved, clergy fashion lagged far behind. In fact, the basic alb, chasuble and stole worn by clergy today still harp back to the days of ancient Rome, while the rest of Italian fashion has changed quite a bit!
Now, before anyone gets the wrong idea, I don’t intend, here, to argue that clergy should or should not wear vestments. For me it’s a personal decision.
What interests me about the history of vestments is that clergy started wearing them—in imitation of the secular counterparts—in part to advertise their calling, their status, and soon, their wealth. The clergy adopted the clothing of the status quo to make the point that they had arrived. Choosing to wear vestments was, originally, a political act, an act that underlined that the church was now a power to contend with, and that its leaders were people of high status. They were members of one of the three medieval estates—the one that negotiated the relation between heaven and earth. Like the pope in Washington this week, clergy were not to be taken lightly.
I wonder if that turn, that fundamental change in orientation among clergy was all good. It hardly seems coincidental that once the church no longer was itself persecuted, it soon started persecuting Christians who did not agree with Emperor Constantine and his allies. As soon as the church was legalized by the Roman Empire, Christians decided that pacifism—their historic practice—wasn’t going to work anymore, and so Christians were no longer excommunicated when they joined Rome’s legions. In short, when Constantine legalized the church, the church turned from being a counter cultural, alternative for living the good life into an absolutely status quo institution, one that was used by the Emperor, when convenient, to quash dissent, extend Roman power, and win the hearts of the people for Roman political ends. And the adoption, by clergy, of liturgical vestments whose design mirrored the clothing of ranking Romans was perhaps the most visible sign of these changes.
Today, at least in the West, unless you are a ranking Catholic prelate, vestments are usually worn only in church. The status that Christianity had as one of Constantine’s levers of power has long dissipated. The pope may draw large crowds in America, but you can be sure that even among the Catholics most practice birth control anyway and can’t understand why women are excluded from ordination. Judging by all the many times the pope has pleaded and prayed for peace and economic fairness and the environment, he isn’t that influential in the secular realm either.
So it is hard to imagine that wearing vestments in church or on the street—as with a clerical collar, perhaps—is much of a status thing. No, whatever positive value vestments have in the present has to be connected to the way in which they communicate the gospel today.
I think back to when I was in seminary. Those stoles I wore for just a few weeks during Advent made them a talking point. After church, some of the kids would track me down for a closer look. Parents wanted to see and finger the stoles too. They were really cool. They connected with that day's worship. The arts are one of the best ways to bring fresh attention to the core message of the gospel.
On the other hand, liturgical vestments that seem to put clergy in a different class, that suggest clergy have some sort of mystic authority—liturgical vestments that are a mish mash of impenetrable symbols and special colours that are rarely, if ever used to communicate the gospel in a fresh and interesting way—such use of liturgical garments seems off-putting to me. It allies the employees of the church as institution with our current cultural suspicion of all institutions. That probably isn’t a good thing. The early church’s use of secular dress before the Constantinian revolution seems wiser to me, and more in keeping with the historic Protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers.
They say the clothes make the man—or woman. I don’t think that’s true in the case of clergy. It is, rather, a caring heart and behavior, as well as the ability to share the Christian story with a modicum of grace and conviction that make the pastor.