Sunday, October 29, 2006

A Theology of Vestments?

Ordinary Time

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.

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Anonymous said...

I wonder why you would think I don't care....

Though we may differ on a few details of what you have written here, I essentially agree with you as to a) the importance of, and reason for, vestments, b) the reverence (or lack thereof) issue, and c) upon the ignorance of those who protest (having once been one myself).

So what do you think of that Potter?

Kyle said...

Haha, I suspected you wouldn't have anything to say because it's an issue that generates heated debate in a way that's disproportionate to its importance - which isn't your style at all. I, on the other hand, am quite happy to antagonize. :0)

byron smith said...

I love how you predict different people will react - trying to smoke them out of hiding.

You make some good points here. I appreciate the difference between Catholics and Donatists (I've just been reading a whole lot of Augustine), and how you point out the implicit ordination practices of almost all congregations.

We must of course, as you do nicely regarding small groups, keep asking how vestments (or their absence) function in different contexts. This is not always easy, since like all semiotic contexts, there is not a single answer.

+ Alan said...

I've been flushed out! Aaagghh!! Of course none of this is a surprise to me since we talked about this exact thing at lunch the other day. I had to think about what you didn't know about how I'd react. Probably the "clergy/laity" thing. I basically agree with about 95% of what you say here about vestments and what they symbolize.

I think I'd add what I said the other day - that I've always seen them as, in a way, "putting on Christ" for what one would be doing as a presider in the liturgy. If I put a stole on or an alb, it would be symbolic of the hiding of "me" and me being covered in Christ. This is reflected a bit in the Catholic theology of "in persona Christi" - that the Priest is acting "in the person of Christ" as a Priest especially in the Eucharist. Also, as Teacher. It's similar anyway.

The only thing I wonder about, at this point, is the absolute necessity of the Priest for the consecration of the Eucharist. I'm not trying to argue about it with anyone, just stating a thought. I think that the whole Body surrounding the Sacrament, in some way, is consecrating it - IT. So, it is the Christ among us as we gather who is consecrating the Eucharist, as He did "then" and as He always does. I guess I see the Priest as the visible and symbolic "head" in that setting, through whom Christ is most acutely lifting up the elements. This could get wordy - anyway, just throwing that out.

So, I like that you made - that there is a difference but not a division between "clergy" and "laity." I would only add that the cleric is ONE OF the people, the laos. This is often forgotten or right-out denied. That's what's dangerous, not recognizing who is and who is not an elder. Good stuff. Peace in Colorado.

Anonymous said...

I agree with both you and Alan. Haha!

The way I see it (and I am assuming you care to know since you were the one who named me :P) vestments do not erase the character of the person (priest) performing the ritual but enhances it with the "symbology" (hehe... watch Boondock Saints) of Christ among his people. The priest is not Christ but takes on his priestly role. I also agree with Alan that it is the body of believers present who contribute collectively to the blessing/consecration of the sacrament. The priest simply signifies the head of the worship in the local body (just as Christ is the head of worship for the whole church catholic)

I guess ordination is the only problem in there. I am not entirely sure how I feel on it right now... my more "baptistic" roots say it's the community of faith (visible, local, real) body that invests in the ordination of the to-be priest but at the same time what if such a community isn't held accountable to a hierarchy and heresy ensues... hmm. Well, I am thinking and praying through that right now. I am comfortable where I am at, in my own ecclesiastical setting. I'll work out the small stuff later...


Anonymous said...

I'll agree with you when you can show me in the Bible where it says to use fancy clothes. Thanks.

Actually, I don't have a problem with that at all. It seems like a nice tie between Old and New Covenant liturgies. Different contexts, different things. Good luck pinning me down next time. Just because I was raised in and attend a local, independent baptist church doesn't mean I sign up for everything they push. You definitely know that.

Anonymous said...

You can add me to the agree list. I've always appreciated the reverence and "symbology" as Noakes put it, and the other reasons that you give are enlightening as well.

I understand my friends that attend "other-than-high-church" type worship services who suggest that we all need to feel comfortable in worship; that should in turn mean dressing as we please, and this also includes the leader or pastor.

But to me, the vestments are like a visual spiritual discipline. When I see leaders in the church wear such garments, it is a constant reminder to me that I am engaging in a continuous worship with my brothers and sister in Christ, and with the Lord Himself.

Expax said...

Sign me up for the vestments. They are way to cheaper to buy, wear, and maintain the closet of suits, shoes, and ties of the Evangelicals. No wait now they have that "sporty" stuff which is even more expensive....

Oh yeah I am also hearing you Alan on the role of the priest in the celebration. I am not fully sure or certain yet either.

#Debi said...

I agree with both Alan and Antony, so I guess that means I agree with you. :^) I think that I would have been nearly as distressed as you with the young woman celebrating Eucharist at Oxford. Maybe that's because when I hear "Oxford", I assume that you must have been attending a service in a building that was built several hundred years ago, and vestments seem to suit those surroundings. I think we have talked in the past about outfitting Alan with at least a stole, and eventually the full vestments (without the pointy hat, of course). :^) I think that the "clothing" should fit the surroundings. If Alan showed up for service in his living room in vestments that looked as if he bought them at the Pope's garage sale, then I'd have a problem. But generally, I like vestments, and understand that they have a "symbology" that sets the time of worship apart from the time when we are just hanging out. Now, what the church down the street does about their pastor's wardrobe? Yeah, that I don't care about...

Peter said...

Arghh...the rags of popery!!! (tee hee).

Three guesses what I think! ;)

Nice piece by the way -- can I steal some of it if I give you due credit? You have written in a manner that can help someone not used to vestments "get it."


Anonymous said...

Did they recently do a study that says patients feel more at ease when their doctors wear the traditional white lab coat on their hospital rounds? I'll dig around for that—probably ties in with the anthropological part of your argument.

The correlation between the size of the congregation and the appropriateness of vestments is an apt observation. Gotta give that some thought. Thanks for a good post!

Kyle said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, everybody. I'm glad y'all find the piece useful.

Byron, I'm glad you enjoy my little ploy. And yes, we must always keep asking, "why do we do this thing that we do? Or why not?"

Alan, as I'm sure you know, your theology of 'the community as consecrator' fits in very well with Eastern Eucharist theology. I'm a big fan, and I think it's a lot closer to what's true than what some other folks have going on. I think you tease these ideas out in helpful ways, especially when it comes to priests being part of the laos: our baptism is our primary ordination to ministry, after all.

Zabriske, I thought you might. Our conversation about the matter informed some of my points, so I didn't quite leave you out. :0)

Mike, I'm always dying to know what you think. :0) And I think I sit around where you do on the matter of ordination.

Rob, I do indeed know that. I was guessing based on our conversations, not stereotyping you. :0)

Our "young and aspiring" Mr. Shoulta raises a good question: should "comfort" be a primary value in the worship of God's people? Cheers, man.

Ben, I like your pragmatic angle.

Debi: Amen, amen. What's appropriate right here, right now is the right way to frame the question.

Peter! Adapt it as you see fit. (I love popery, and its finery.)

Cheers, D.P. That medical study sounds familiar, and suggests something that would be even more controversial: people need police officers and doctors to wear uniforms because of the comfort it offers and authority it broadcasts - and the two are indeed connected. Now that will get some folks fired up!

JHearne said...

I think that I tend to agree. This semester, I have been focusing on reading and thinking about ecclesiology and the related issues. I want to say that I tend to agree with you on this particular issue of vestments and such. I would, however, like to see the price of vestments drop. Seriously, one of these crazy methodists down here recently had a robe purchased for him and it cost $600.00. That seems a little ridiculous to me.

Kyle, did I mention to you that part of my reason for considering this ecclesiology thing is that I might be ordained in a few months? I'll let you know more details when I know them.

Love to you and yours,

+ Alan said...

Dude, $600?? Don't even try it. Price you out a nice outfit in Catholic garb and thy mind wilst choketh out.

Just one nice monastic alb and a stole for appropriate occasions, that's it - and a rope belt. :) and... ha!

Josh Williams said...

I've barely had any experience being around vestments. But I don't think that I would mind either way.

Jared Cramer said...

As you predicted, I agree strongly with you. I think that the Catholic/Donatist distinction is key, but it is also a way of connecting to the ancient church and has begun to be a tool of unity amongst liturgical traditions as more ministers opt for a simple alb and stole.

And Ben's point is key as well, I've seen way too many ministers who drop way too much money on their suits.

Anonymous said...

Coming late to the debate … (apparently I am supposed to WORK while at the office, rather than surf blogs, and am supposed to talk to my wife and kids occasionally while at home)


Right as ever.

Well, right that I will put up a fight!

Against: You called your post “A theology of Vestments”, but I felt it was more “an opinion of Vestments”. I’m with Rob the Cuban… show me the Bible! That is where theology starts.

For: I like much of where you are coming from, and concepts of reverence being appropriate to the setting. So you are comfortable without vestments in the setting of a home.

Against: Of course, Church is a home. Our home. God’s Home. We are family together John 1 v12, 2 Cor 6 v18 etc.

Against: Your concept of ‘reverence’ is a culturally conditioned one, in which reverence equates to solemnity and ceremony. In the Plymouth Brethren I was brought up that way too. It came in the form of old ladies telling me not to run around chasing my friends through the church after the service. My concept of reverence is much more family based. I believe God delights in children running through the church Matt 19v4. And when I come home from work I take off my work suit that I use to persuade clients that I am a good engineer. God is not so easily deceived! Within my family, my children (well, most of them) respect me. You might not think this when you see them playfully slap my face and call me old, bald and fat. But their reverence of me is shown in their total love for me, obedience of me, and their desire to spend social time with me. The ‘reverence’ I am experiencing in my training placement at an Anglo Catholic church seems very cold by comparison. Speaking to the people in question, I know they (well some of them) love their God passionately. But it still seems cold. I am reminded of the Wesley hymn…”Ye blind behold your saviour come, and leap ye lame for joy”. Or did he write “Ye lame stand still in rows quietly singing solemn hymns at an awkward pitch”? Surely that is more insulting to God and irreverent than dancing with joy because of what he has done? A pastor of my old church was very scathing of golf fans, for giving their players what he called ‘golf claps’ ie quiet and polite, yet somehow insulting to what was being achieved. Contrast this to the scenes of jubilation when a national soccer team brings the world cup home. This is the kind of reverence that I am more culturally attuned to, and to be honest I think it is more Biblical.

Against: Much of your concept of Vestments arises from your concept of Ordination. Yes, non-conformist churches do appoint Elders and Deacons to run the church, and you can call this ordination if you wish. But the concept that you have to be ordained to preside over the Eucharist does not appear in any version of the Bible that I have read. The Donatist / Catholic debate missed the point. I agree with the Catholics that you can’t expect the president at the Eucharist to be perfect, but I don’t find any reference in Scripture that he has to be specially appointed for the task. Our Lord’s instructions in the Gospels and Paul’s instructions in 1 Cor 11 speak only of sharing bread and wine in memory of him, not of dressing up and acting the role Jesus. So I believe the ‘distinction’ you are making between the cans and cant’s is at best unfounded. Any Christian can be filled with the spirit and preach (though it is wise for them to study hard). Any Christian can baptise a new believer. Any Christian can share bread and wine with fellow believers and remember Christ.

Against: Much of your concept of Vestments and Ordination comes from your concept of consecration of the bread and wine. I am coming at this from a very different place which I fear to describe on your blog for fear of causing offence. I have tried four times to explain what I mean, but deleted it each time. Basically I feel you are chasing the wrong thing. Best leave it there.

“I have yet to meet anyone bothered by vestments whose church uses them” Of course not – they move church! I agree that there is much uncharitable comment. But I too am guilt of that.

For me the Eucharist is a very special observance. I get emotional every time I participate, and I love the privilege of dispensing the elements to communicants. Wow! But I get the same buzz without the distraction of tripping over my cassock! I think God wants us to be real. And He wants us all to fulfil our priestly role, not just those who have been ‘done’ by the Bishop and dress up to show how unbiblically distinct they are.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... Just a quick interjection for SaintSimon: Wasn't Wesley a Church of Christ priest who wore vestments himself (a cassock and a surplice, I believe) And wasn't he also highly liturgical? I don't really know much about him myself but that is what I've understood...

Good to see some intelligent thought on both sides. It makes me glad no one is throwing about anathemas over this...

Anonymous said...

I feel that my previous comment was written rather harshly. I don't retract the content, but not all of the spirit was right and I apologise accordingly.

Good point Mike. I see Wesley as being one step along a pathway.

I also meant to refer to two things:

1) The Catholic Encylopedia article on the Altar. This acknowledges that "The Lord's Table" in Paul's writing would have been a wooden table in a domestic setting (probably the family's dining table) and traces how over the years this Biblical image of a family meal table was distorted into the fancy stone altars containing relics that Rome has today.

2) "The Covenant Meal" by David Matthew.

Kyle said...

Simon, you make some very good points.

First, some clarifications. I'm not offering some kind of dichotomy which places the use of Eucharistic vestments and strict formalism and Hawaiian shirts and emotional engagement on the other. None of those things are mutually exclusive, and I promise you that when I'm hanging out at the Mass with a Hawaiian shirt and sandals, I'm bowing and crossing at all the right times (and some extra spots) while even being emotionally engaged with what's going on.

The parish you're working in doesn't sound like a shining example of positive Anglo-catholicism. That's unfortunate.

And as Rob has suggested, you can't really support a "theology" of vestments from the NT, only infer some anthropological notions from the fancy carrying-on in the OT. What I think is really helpful to the discussion is that it reveals what kind of assumptions we make about how worship works both in individuals and the community as a whole.

When your kids graduate secondary school, will you attend the ceremony? What will you wear? What will it mean?

"Your concept of ‘reverence’ is a culturally conditioned one, in which reverence equates to solemnity and ceremony."

Ceremony, yes. Solemnity, no. And I do think ceremony, ritual, are universal things.

"...when I come home from work I take off my work suit that I use to persuade clients that I am a good engineer. God is not so easily deceived!"

I'm not sure if I've written anything above that would give the impression that I think ritual or fancy dress are ways of fooling anybody, least of all God. It's not trying to look pious for anybody. You go on to suggest that this isn't actually a valid form of reverence at all: "The ‘reverence’ I am experiencing in my training placement at an Anglo Catholic church seems very cold by comparison. Speaking to the people in question, I know they (well some of them) love their God passionately. But it still seems cold."

It seems to me that you're dealing with the aforementioned dichotomy which I don't think has to exist. The notion that the only real reverence is a vague "excitement" about religion would be no more supportable than if I were insisting that the only valid worship consisted in lots and lots of bowing - which I haven't.

As far as the other things - my theology of ordination really isn't so solid or developed, or even very high. Sacramental theology generally and Eucharistic theology in particular - well, definitely.

My problem with a large public celebration of the Mass in plain clothes is that those clothes seem to send the clear message that "this isn't a big deal." I'm still not sure how I could move away from that.


Jared Cramer said...

One thing that is often missed in this debate is that vestments in most churches is not an instance of "dressing up" for God. Rather, it is dressing down and into the Body of Christ. The reason everyone in the choir wears a cassock and surplice isn't because it's pretty, it's so that we all look alike, poor and rich, trendy and mismatched, we are all one before the Lord's table.

It is even more so for priestly vestments. The simple alb and stole bespeak a humility that outshines any preacher in khakis and a polo shirt. The alb calls us to our baptismal identity as it was the garment that newly baptized Christians would first put on in the early centuries of the church. It says that when the priest operates as a priest, it is his baptismal identity that is key--not his personality, not how trendy or casual he can be.

Anonymous said...

SaintSimon, I don't exactly understand exactly hwere you're going with Wesley and no-vestement theology. Just so as not to derail this convo here on Kyle's blog, email me at potatocore(@)gmail(.)com.

*Correction: I mean Church of England, not Church of Christ. My bad.

Kyle said...

Excellent points, Jared.

"I mean Church of England, not Church of Christ."

I'm confused, Mike, what's the difference?


Anonymous said...


Lets not get sidelined with Wesley, he just happens to be the author of the song i was quoting and gave the name to help peole remember the song. Nothing more.


I like your point. But I think in practice most observers don't see it that way and miss your point. They see wearers of vestments as somehow higher up the ladder so to speak.


what is comimg through is that we probably agree far more than we admit, and in the context of a discussion tend to polarise and take sides.

When my kids graduate, culture dictates that I might dig out my work suit again, not wishing to be the only one in an open necked shirt. I take your point, if you will take mine that this is culturally conditioned.

I am all in favour of Vestments and rituals if they GENUINELY help the worshippers and are used because the people WANT them. They don't help me to worship. Inasmuch as people are upset that I seem to say they should not use them, I get upset of people say I should and am irreverent if I don't. Its not my language to use them. And my observation is that many people are put off christianity by vestments and the things that go with them. (No doubt you can quote equally offputting cases of excess by evangelicals.)

Paul says that we should not despise one another for holding or not holding some days as more holy than others. I think the same principal applies here.

The other points about ordination and sacramentalism are more important, and although party divisions tend to fall along the same lines on these issues they can be separate from the issue of vestments and are not really the subject of this post.

I am too wordy, aren't I?

Markus Watson said...

Kyle, I just discovered your blog tonight for the first time and I'm really impressed! Great post!

At the risk of intruding into what almost seems like a group of pals having their own conversation, I thought I'd throw in my two cents.

I'm a Presbyterian pastor, so I come from a tradition that has historically used vestments. So my first response is to your comment that “I have yet to meet anyone bothered by vestments whose church uses them." Well, now you've met one (virtually speaking!).

I've stopped wearing my robe or even a stole for several reasons. Initially, I stopped because I noticed that it made me less approachable, especially for the youth in our church. But this is not the real reason.

This second reason is primarily why I've stopped wearing vestments, and it has to do with my theology of the Body of Christ. In my understanding of the Body of Christ, there are no parts that are more important than any others. Some may be more visible than others, but they are not more important. I believe that far too much significance is put on pastors and their role in the Body. The pastor is only one part of the Body, and certainly not more important than anyone else. Vestments, I believe, tend to make people see the pastor as more important than the rest of the Body.

I recently preached a sermon on this topic and to make my point I sat in a pew and preached the second half of my sermon from there. My point was to help people understand that I am not the head of the church, Christ is. I am a member of the Body doing what God has called me to do just as they are members of the Body with a calling from God that is no less important than my calling.

Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking post. This is something that's been on my mind a lot lately.

Kyle said...

Simon, to be utterly transparent, my point would be this: the cry of "cultural conditioning" does not damn any position. Any reverence is culturally conditioned. Would you wear a Hawaiian shirt to your son's graduation when every other father is in a suit, and tell him its not disrespectful because it's only "cultural conditioning" that would make him think this?

Do you really think anybody in England who would be a Christian isn't a Christian because priests wear fancy dress?

Do you have a test to determine whether a practice like the use of Eucharistic vestments generally contributes to the piety of a congregation? I certainly understand your resentment of the implication that your congregation's lack of vestments is impious, but at the same time your counter-argument seems to be that the use of them in the other congregation you serve is impious.

Are you trying to have it both ways, here?

Hola, Markus!

Welcome to the blog.

I think you make a good point here; it sounds to me like in your case the use of such clothing accentuated an existing problem with the culture surrounding teaching and leadership in your church. As Alan has suggested about other matters of traditional practice, sometimes the best way to deal with something like that is to cut it out for a generation.

Anyway, good point.

Something interesting occurs to me: I think some of us assume that something like a stole really means something in and of itself rather than being contingent upon the culture and theology already prevalent in a congregation. I think to an considerable extent, the way such symbols and practices are going to be "read" is contingent upon the teaching authority sitting down with folks (or standing up, I suppose, if you're into pulpits and things) and saying, "Okay, this is what this thing means." It seems strange to me how little people want to do that.

Jared Cramer said...

I think what is coming out is regardless of your own tradition's practice, what you wear when leading worship will say something. Thus, it would behoove the church to intentionally articulate its beliefs and to engage in serious theological reflection with the community regarding why we do what we do and wear what we wear.

Anonymous said...

My whole "show me from the bible thing" was tongue-in-cheek and a joke. I think simon missed it. But hey, that happens over the internet. If we did solely what was in the scriptures in church, we'd have to ditch a lot of what we have now.

Kyle said...

Ditto, Jared. Whatever one wears is going to have some ideological investment.

I got you, Rob.

Anonymous said...
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