Let's talk about vestments: specifically, the pretty frocks that priests and acolytes wear during the divine liturgy as it is performed by traditional congregations. Just to say, I realize that from the way I talk and write, folks often assume that I'm censing the high altar at a cathedral every weekend. While I certainly think that would be fun and poignant, I don't. I am, when it's all said and done, part of a house church. And alas, we have no liturgical dress, and won't be getting any anytime soon.
Why is special dress for the celebrant and assistants (essentially the "lead worshippers," if I might use the language of evangelicals) a good idea? I think the answer is both theological and anthropological. People engage in ritual for important observances. Particular modes of dress are part of that: it expresses reverence (or irreverence!) and makes the statement: "this is something extraordinary we're doing, and it deserves to be attended to in an extraordinary way." To simply refuse special rituals and dress for special observances is to make a particular political statement - one that I disagree with rather vehemently. When some people complain about liturgical dress, it sounds to me like, "Why should we act like the Eucharist is some kind of special observance?"
That being said, when I visited St. Aldates (Oxford) and a young woman ascended the platform in a sweater and jeans and started chatting, and by the end of the little speech she had moved into the prayer of consecration, I was shocked. It's not merely because she was wearing "civvies," or that the words she spoke were to some degree improvised and extemporaneous (I don't think there's anything wrong with those things as such), but because the way I "read" the entire action was, "I don't think this is a big deal, and you guys shouldn't think this is a big deal either." For a reason I can't quite put my finger on, it seems to me that in a larger, more "public" setting, reverence must be far more intentional than that to be really reverant.
At the same time, I never see the way hOME or VBCC attends to the Mysteries to be anything less than reverent - even though there are no vestments in sight. In the smaller setting - kind of public but actually quite intimate - full on eucharistic vestments would seem out of place. For some reason, I think that "simplicity" is reverant in a small setting, but irreverant in a larger one. Does that make sense?
As for the pastoral issue, let me explain that it's not "pretty frocks" that I'm really talking about. Priests generally wear stoles when performing priestly functions. Visualize a simple stole here, rather than a medieval carnival. I think it is at the very least pastorally useful because it makes the statement that the chief consecrator is functioning as a priest. In those moments, the celebrant isn't just my friend (let's call him) Bill, but Bill the priest. Bill's personality isn't erased (now, who would want that?), but ritual action and vestments are visual indicators of the theological reality that this man through his functioning as a priest empowers and even enables the people to present themselves to God in the Sacrifice. As chief consecrator Bill the priest has a divine authority to ask God to do what he does in that moment for the Church that has nothing to do with whether he's a nice man or if people like him. Vestments, then, are a kind of pedagogical tool to remind us that we're Catholics and not Donatists.
I guess I don't get all that hot and bothered about it (really!) because I know that someone can be both my friend and my priest, and that sometimes the most spiritually efficacious thing is that he is my priest. Some people complain that this creates a harmful division between clergy and laity. And for all of that, I'd think I'd answer that there's a difference between a clergy/laity "distinction" and a "division." It's not an Indian caste system, and if we let ourselves talk about it like it is, we only hurt ourselves. When we ordain people, we create a distinction. What we do with it, how we talk about it, how we understand it - that's the question. The distinction is there as soon as we say that one person can consecrate the bread and wine, and another can't. As soon as somebody is to any extent "in charge" or a facilitator of religious activities, that happens. Happily, it's the way of the Church to ordain people so that we can be upfront about it and learn to be healthy about it. I'm reminded of all the Baptists I've known who refuse to say they have a theology of ordination or even of ministry, but will affirm that the Holy Spirit comes upon the preacher when he enters the pulpit. Saying the distinction isn't there doesn't make it true, it just keeps us dishonest and schizophrenic in our theologies.
I have yet to meet anyone bothered by vestments whose church uses them. The people I hear protest (ahem) the loudest are in traditions and churches that do not, and would not use them. Why are those people so certain about what the practice means and what it does to people?
Update: See also Dr. Pursiful's post.