Vestments PDF Print E-mail
Written by Douglas Wilson   
Saturday, 19 September 2009 16:15

When dealing with issues of clerical dress, whether inside a worship service or out, it is difficult to keep the issue limited to just one issue. For example, the issue of “wearing vestments” is one issue. The issue of obligation is another one, and the two have sometimes overlapped. In the early stages of the English Reformation, John Hooper returned to England in the middle of Edward VI’s reign, and because of his powerful pulpit ministry, he was offered the bishopric of Gloucester. He declined to accept it because he had scruples about the mandatory use of the particular vestments required by the Ordinal. For this stand, he was thrown into prison (by Cranmer, no less), and a controversy ensued.

Now one issue is the issue of the vestments themselves—may a minister wear distinctive garments in the discharge of his office? I believe that most of us would say, of course. But in Hooper’s case, the issue of vestments was all tangled up, at least as he saw it, with the issues of liberty of conscience. In that controversy, Ridley defended the use of vestments as a “thing indifferent.” But my paraphrase of Hooper’s reply would be, “if it is as indifferent as all that, then why is it mandatory?” In that particular controversy, Hooper eventually gave way, not because he changed his mind, but because the strength of the opposition to his position from fellow Protestants made him question the wisdom of dying on that particular hill, regardless of what he was wearing. He was certainly no coward or temporizer—he later gave up his life as a faithful bishop/martyr under the tyranny of Bloody Mary, a sacrifice made on more foundational issues.

Hooper was joined in his opposition to obligatory vestments by the Polish reformer John à Lasco, and he was resisted by faithful men like Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr, Nicolas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer. And in Cranmer’s mind, the issue was not really vestments vs. no vestments, but rather who was going to set the pace for reforming the churches in England. And so a third complicating issue was mixed in with the other two—suppose for a moment that we all wanted to get rid of vestments. Should this be done on an ad hoc basis by individual ministers with scruples about it, or should it be done in a coordinated and concerted way through
the established leadership? Cranmer was certainly settled on a dedicated path of concerted path of thorough-going reformation, but he did not want certain individuals running ahead. And as we apply these issues to our day, we have to remember that “running ahead” can include those who refuse to wear the vestments, like Hooper, or those who start putting them on, like an increasing number of ministers in our circles. In the early history of a group like the CREC, a certain amount of variant experimentation is inevitable, and I am not griping about that. But we should be aware of the tendency for individual pastors and individual churches, as they each do what is right in their own eyes, to create a very American hodge-podge, and not a true liturgical culture at all. So when Cranmer had Hooper thrown in chokey for refusing to wear the proper vestments at his ordination as bishop, the real issue was who was going to control the pace of reformation.

This was an early outbreak of the perennial issues surrounding what has come to be called the “regulative principle,” but which is actually a strict application of it. As à Lasco put it, “Nothing ought to be added to public worship concerning which God has given no command.” But as stated, this not only excludes the attire of a bishop, but also the fact of bishops, not to mention pianos, choirs, women taking communion, pews, pulpits, worship on Sundays, and infant baptism. Perhaps we might adjust it to say, “Nothing ought to be demanded in public worship concerning which God has given no command.” We may do certain things that God has not commanded us to do—like have a Christmas Eve service—but we would be hard pressed to justify disciplining a church member who declined to come to that service. Doing something because you have liberty of conscience to do it is one thing. Demanding that others do it is an abuse of liberty of conscience.

The questions surrounding all this are not easy ones, and thus far we have three weighty issues—the vestments question itself, the issue of obligation, and the issue of corporate decision making. To these three, I would add another—clothing is a form of communication, and is a form of communication that evangelical Christians in America are not really fluent in. When you are first learning another language, as we all know, opportunities to commit howlers are ever present. I recall a cartoon I saw once with a waiter approaching a table with a real mess on a platter. He was saying, “It’s a fried telephone book. We gave it a fancy French name, and you ordered it.”

Let me use several examples of this. Like inhabitants of Panama who think there are only two categories—snow and no snow—we tend to think that there are only the two categories of ecclesiastical dress and non-ecclesiastical dress. And like the Panamanians, we learned this binary distinction from a cursory reading of books. But for someone in this position, once he has made the decision to go with ecclesiastical dress, that’s all there is to it. Just put some of those babies on. Once you have decided to speak French, just go right ahead and do it, giving your speech that little je ne sais quoi bump. Ya know? But this is a perilous route to go. As I heard somewhere, making it is no doubt true, or at least something that ought to be true, the Eskimos have seventeen different words for snow.

This is why I think most of us should be careful of our tendency to be very provincial, unlettered, and very American in such things. Almost all of us would flunk a test that focused on the uses and meanings of orphreys, chasubles, rochets, cassocks, albs, or cassock albs for that matter, and stoles (I know I would), and I really don't think anybody should start putting anything on until he knows the full history of what it is. Otherwise he will find himself celebrating the Lord's Supper in his ecclesiastical skivvies, and there will be no end of merriment when some of his European brethren come to visit. But if when he knows what it is, and where it came from, it is possible that he might not want to put it on.

So if you have begun to preach in a robe, do you wear a stole or not? And if you wear a stole, did you do that because that is what Murphy Robes sent you in their catalog? Did you know that in the Church of England, one of the things that could distinguish an evangelical candidate for ordination is his desire to be ordained in a preaching scarf, and not in a stole? And note also that a preaching scarf grants the arguments in favor of distinctive clerical attire—yes, if UPS men and football players wear uniforms, why can’t we? But what this mentality frequently neglects is recognition of the fact that uniforms don’t just distinguish football players from non-football players. They also distinguish the various teams from one another—in fact, that is their principal function. In our circles, we sometimes speak as though the only function of clerical dress is to distinguish clergymen from non-clergymen. But there are differences between Lutherans and Anglicans, and Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics, and United Methodists and Presbyterians. And in many settings, there are distinctions of dress between evangelicals and non-evangelicals. I am not persuaded we know enough about it yet. We don’t know enough French to be ordering from the menu with any degree of confident flamboyance.

We should be comfortable with confessional diversity within the Reformed world (obviously), and the same would go for liturgical diversity within that same world. But we ought not try to draw the boundaries on the map in two different ways (confessional and liturgical) because we will wind up with two different kinds of conflicting boundaries. If we would exclude an Anglo/Catholic confession, as I believe we should, then we ought also exclude Anglo/Catholic rites—because rites are powerful enough to draw the more appropriate confession after them. We cannot have it both ways—saying that rites (including clerical dress) are powerful agents of change as we argue for them, but, as we answer objections, say that it is no big deal, just a matter of cloth.

Ritual is powerful, and will shape the religious sensibilities of future generations in ways that they will never have thought through. That is the way it is supposed to work. But surely somebody needs to have thought it through? And on something like the dress of ministers and so forth, shouldn't the church as a corporate body be the entity that is responsible to think it through? I believe our liturgical practices are at least as important as our confessions of faith, but we have alterations in the confession surrounded by barbed wire and land mines, while foundational alterations in the liturgy can be made on an ad lib basis. That is not really wise. Ritual is powerful, and different rituals in our midst will eventually result in different cultures. This includes the ritual dress we adopt. For example, a culture resulting from liturgical Anglicanism is quite different from a culture resulting from a liturgical Presbyterian or Reformed form of worship, and so whatever we do we should do on purpose, and not in some haphazard way. Those who are like-minded now should try to do it all together. Why should we labor to be very much like our third cousins twice removed, who probably won't know or care about what we are doing anyway, when doing so will put strains on our relations with our brothers and sisters who don't feel like going that direction?

Now I do not write this as one who has any kind of phobia about wearing distinctive When I have been the visiting preacher at a church where the pastor ordinarily preaches in a robe, I have been happy to do so, and have had that policy for going on thirty years now. I wore a choir robe as a kid, and I wear an academic robe at NSA on a weekly basis. Occasionally, at the request of the bride and groom, I will wear a robe when I officiate at a wedding. When a friend of mine—a soul mate of John Hooper’s—gives me some good natured grief about it, I just tell him that I enjoy dressing up like John Knox from time to time. On top of all that, we have to keep in mind that someone could argue that what I usually preach in—jacket and tie—is the uniform of an insurance salesman. Is that what we want to say? Certainly, I would say, just so long as we are talking about fire insurance.

So let me acknowledge that I am persuaded by the arguments. I have no problem with ministers discharging their office while robed, and I also have no problem with ministers who wear a collar in public—as long as, of course, they aren't driving around like crazy giving other motorists the bird. I do find myself in sympathy with the theological arguments in favor of distinctive clerical dress—you can find a good example of them in Jeff Meyers' The Lord’s Service. In addition, I find a great deal that is attractive in "collar stories." In the circles I move around in, maybe a third to a half of the ministers wear a collar, and the opportunities that this creates for ministry with strangers is really extraordinary. A short while ago, my wife and I were at a conference and the minister of the church hosting the conference was picking us up at the hotel. He wears a collar, and when he came into the hotel, a little boy chased him down and earnestly asked him if it was necessary to go to church in order to go to heaven. This is such a striking feature of collar-wearing that I am astonished that Campus Crusade doesn't require all staff to collar up. My father is quite a gifted evangelist—the kind who loads up on tracts before an airplane flight, including some in Urdu, and so he happens to sit next to a native speaker of Urdu. It scares me to think what would happen if he started wearing a collar.

Because of these sympathies, and because I am frequently in circumstances where a bunch of my friends are suited up for the game, I need to address these questions about my reasons for refraining. As I state these concerns, it is important to note that I really am speaking in generalizations, and am making no claims at all about any particular minister. As I think about it, a number of counter-examples to my concerns spring to my mind. At the same time, I think there are some things we still have to work through. The four concerns raised above are on the list, but there is one more big issue for me.

When you adopt clerical dress, you are adopting the temptations that come with it. This is not an argument against doing it—not at all—but it is an argument against those who don't think the temptations are possible or likely. As I am fond of saying, when you enroll in a math class, the first thing you will encounter are all the math problems. The person who says that all such classes should be avoided on these grounds—"have you thought about the problems?"—has an obvious shortsighted approach to life. But there is another kind of person who is even more shortsighted—the one who enrolls in the class in the sure and certain conviction that math problems are impossible. Rather, trust the person who enrolls in the class, acknowledging that it is going to be a tough class.

So what could be tough about distinctive ministerial dress? There are a couple reasons, at least that I have space enough to deal with here. First, Jesus talked about a certain kind of religious fellow, the ecclesiastical glory-hound.

“Beware of the scribes, which desire to walk in long robes, and love greetings in the markets, and the highest seats in the synagogues, and the chief rooms at feasts; which devour widows' houses, and for a shew make long prayers: the same shall receive greater damnation” (Luke 20:46-47).

Anyone who believes that this type of personality has disappeared from the Church is the same kind of person who would believe that nobody ever gets a problem wrong in math class. And when Jesus hits the “long robes,” He was hitting a long attitude, not the robes themselves. He was wearing a robe when He said this. The kind of man who loves being called the Rev. Whosit is the same kind of man who used to love being called Rabbi Whosit, and who loves to go to awards banquets, and the opportunity to fill any church up with his sonorous invocations of the Almighty. Now I am fully aware that this kind of personality exists in low church settings too—Brother Whosit insists upon addressed by no title at all, in much the same way that a high muckety-muck in the Politburo enjoyed being a comrade. But the fact that other people are tempted by the same problem in other settings is not an argument for letting down the guard.

It is a universal human tendency to be really aware of the problems you just escaped from, and not really aware of the temptations you are about to lurch into. But the temptations ahead are always the ones that get you. I would be a lot more comfortable with the resurgence of clerical dress if the ones doing it were the ones vigorously raising the objections and possible pitfalls. This would mean, for example, that when one of our number overshoots—say he now jangles when he walks, like a circus horse, and his pectoral cross is heavy enough to give his chiropractor unique alignment challenges, he should be fielding hot, pointed questions from his collared friends, and not just from Aunt Milly the Baptist. This is not an impossibility—we should take a page from the playbook of Bishop Jewel, who consented to wear episcopal dress for the sake of the gospel while he retained to the right to speak about aspects of it as "fooleries" or "ridiculous trifles."

Or as John Milton once noted, when he reflected upon a particular kind of ecclesiastical parade:

“They would request us to indure still the russling of their Silken Cassocks, and that we would burst our mid-riffes rather then laugh to see them under Sayl in all their Lawn, and Sarcenet, their shrouds, and tackle, with a geometricall rhomboides upon their heads.”

In short, there is a species of clerical dress that is to sane clerical dress what drunkenness in the gutter is to celebratory wine at sabbath dinner. The fact that both involve alcohol is a compelling argument to your Aunt Milly to lay off both, which of course, followeth no way. But we should be just as concerned with the fellow who collapses them into one just like Aunt Milly—in order to approve of both. But anyone who does not find this kind of ecclesiastical showboating to be risible must have a heart of stone, and probably ought to stay away from the question entirely.

My second concern at this level is one where misunderstanding is likely and probable. But before getting to the bottom line, let me acknowledge that counter-examples crowd into my mind also. That said, my concern is effeminacy—not the fact of clerical dress, but what that dress in our culture happens to be, and what the connotations of that dress have taken centuries to become.

Dress is language, and just like words, the articles we wear have both denotation and connotation. As I said above, I am persuaded by the arguments about denotation. But in public speech we have to be aware of, and concerned for, the connotations also. If I were to fall into conversation with a stranger in an airport while waiting on a plane, and he asked me what I do, I would not reply that I am “a bishop.” I would avoid that word entirely because of the connotations. I could defend it easily in an argument over denotation—episkopos and presbyteros in the New Testament are used interchangeably, Q.E.D., and Bob's yer uncle. But the connotations would still overwhelm and sink the whole thing, and I probably would not have the time to explain the point I was trying to make.

The denotation of the collar is plain enough. This is a man set apart for ministry, and vocationally called to the service of God and the Church. That is why the collar generates so many comments or questions, and that is a good thing. But there is a backdrop set of assumptions, connotations, that are part of the mix also, and any man who wants to function as a biblical minister has to swim upstream in a wide, flowing river of certain cultural assumptions about ministers and ministry. And we have to recognize that those assumptions line up with the popular identification of clergymen as the third sex. Since there is no "third sex" for real, this translates into a weird kind of effeminacy. Those who wear collars, or who robe up, should be more concerned with the projection of masculinity than some of them appear to be. Yes, the denotation says you are a minister of God. But what do the connotations say about what kind of man of God you are?

Here is where counter-examples come to mind. I know a former Marine who wears a collar, and the effect is not a problem at all. Many of the men I know who wear collars do so in a way that is quite masculine. They remind me of the occasional clergyman in Wodehouse who boxed or rowed while at Oxford, and who discharges his clerical duties with a beefy enthusiasm. But the reason the image in Wodehouse is funny is because it is an unexpected twist on the popular reputation of clergyman, a reputation that is largely deserved, a reputation we have to take into account.

There are obvious exceptions, and real ministers really do need to be tough, but still the reputation of ministerial milquetoastery is not really all that unfair. Generations of “the nicest young man in the church” have been urged by the church ladies to consider the ministry, and because it was a vocation which (by common consent) involved no bleeding knuckles, and lots of being nice to people, the church has come over time to consider the best candidate for future ministry to be “that sweet boy.”

We are all aware of the type—from real life and from literature. The literary portrayals are sometimes overstated and are unfair for that reason, but they still resonate with us, and they work for a reason. That reason is that the caricatures answer to something that almost all of us have seen in real life. From the psalm-singer David in Cooper's stories, to the Rev. Mr. Kinosling in the Penrod stories, to Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, we ministers should take the opportunity to see ourselves as the world sees us. We ought to mediate on it more than we want to do. When the work of fighting Injuns warms up, “the parson” is almost always underfoot and useless. And when he isn’t, everybody is surprised.

So here is the deal. When a man puts on a collar, he needs to know that a certain masculine gravity is necessary to keep that collar from pulling him (by association and connotation) in a direction he doesn't really want to go. If he has that gravity, and is aware of the long connotations associated with clericalism (and familiar to the resultant anti-clericalism), I think that wearing a robe while preaching, or wearing a collar, could be entirely a good thing. Cool. Do it. But unless we have this conversation generally, others are going to imitate him without much thought, and some of those who imitate him are going to be mousy little men already standing chest deep in the pond of effeminacy. And when they put on the collar, it will just plain pull them under. They already exhibit the tendencies that created the caricature in the first place—they are the nice boy who went to seminary under orders from all the church ladies—and then they adopt a uniform that has a lot of these standing connotations for the surrounding world to tag him with. I was watching a very nice “reverend” being interviewed on television the other night, and he was so gentle and did everything but pat the viewers on the back of the hand. It was obvious, and his collar made it screamingly obvious.

Now I know that some readers of all this will have been blessed with no experience of what I am talking about at all, and it will seem to them that I am therefore talking nonsense. I am glad for them. They grew up with a gruff and collared Lutheran pastor who was a Navy Seal before seminary, a man who kept a spitoon in the vestry, and so the natural conclusion they might draw is that Wilson is being hyper-sensitive here. So sensitive, in fact, that we suspect a little effeminacy, do we not?

The showboating problem mentioned above is one that is more likely to be recognized and dealt with, for no other reason than that the opponents of clerical dress are likely to have brought up all the relevant passages, and the point has at least been discussed. But our problem with centuries of an effeminate ministry is not yet widely recognized within the Church, and yet it is a deeply-rooted problem in the West. I have a very high view of the ministerial calling, and believe it to be a scriptural view, but I also believe that a certain kind of clericalism was largely responsible for the rise of a virulent anti-clericalism. Before we return to the forms adopted the first time, shouldn’t we discuss what went wrong?

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 November 2009 09:54