On Saturday afternoon I was perusing my google homepage and saw under the al.com headlines “Bishop Kee Sloan installed as head of Episcopal Diocese of Alabama (with slideshow)” Admittedly, I was excited to see a local Alabama headline that referenced The Episcopal Church at all, and one might say I was thrilled that it had nothing to do with property lawsuits and arguments of human sexuality. I clicked the link to read the article about a Bishop that I admire because he says things like, “There is no limit to what good people can do with hope and courage by God’s strength.”
I also clicked on the slideshow, which was a mistake. There are some lovely pictures of a grand event in Birmingham, but as a snarky and often irrevent member of the clergy, I was taken aback by the vestments worn by the Presiding Bishop. I posted it on facebook asking, somewhat tongue in cheek, “What liturgical season is this appropriate for?”
Things didn’t end well. Several friends took the bait, and ran… and ran… and ran. Some of the comments were probably in poor taste. Some of them were controversial. Some of them were defensive. Some were poignant. Some were wise.
I don’t watch my friend list, so I have no idea if I actually lost friends over the whole thing, but I did receive at least one angry email about the whole thing. I’ll go ahead and say this, no matter if the Presiding Bishop’s vestments were handmade, a gift, ancient, or beloved, they were, to my eye, garish. In response to the whole thing I wrote,
” To be clear, it doesn’t matter in the least, which is, on some level, the most troubling part about the whole thing. The story makes no reference to the origins of her vestments because nobody cares, which leads me into a rant about vestments that I’ll save for another day. I make no judgments about the PB as a person or a leader with this, I find her to be delightful and wise, but when these pictures are the only images people see of The Episcopal Church, in my opinion, it does us no favors, regardless of the beautiful story of their creation because, again, nobody cares.”
Well, today is that “another day.” I think the time has come for the use of vestments to come to an end. I say this feeling somewhat confirmed by an article in the Catholic Encyclopedia that notes the use of vestments didn’t become common until about the fourth century and priestly vestments weren’t formally distinct until the sixth. My argument is simply this, at one time, in feudal Europe, vestments served the purpose of keeping the Church on par with (or above the level of) the various royals running around at the time, but today they serve no other purpose but to a) set clergy apart and b) keep post-Nicene traditions alive.
And, for the record, I’m not arguing that The Episcopal Church take on the more Protestant “pulpit gown” instead. I’d bet 100 monopoly dollars that if you take three models to the streets of Foley, Nashville, New York, Arlington, VA, Dallas, and San Francisco and dressed one in a black pulpit robe with three stripes on each arm, one in cassock, suplice, tippet and academic hood, and one in cassock-alb, stole, cope, mitre and crosier, less than 75% of passers by would know what any one of the ensembles meant. Less than 90%, by my guess, would know what two of them stood for.
The reason the Presiding Bishop’s vestments bother me so much is because they don’t matter, and because they don’t matter they do a disservice to the people who carefully crafted them, the woman who wears them, the office she holds, and the Church she represents. And, I would argue, so do the vestments I wear every Sunday, no matter how “tasteful” they may be.
Clerical collars, I get. I guess. They are, on some level, the uniform of the office, like that of a referee, but even then, they are a long-since, post-Biblical addition to the office of priest. The Church of the 21st century is very much a church in isolation. Very few people would argue that Christendom still exists. We have long let go the dream on the Constantinian Church. Let’s let go of her vestments too and return to the dress of our founding, the dress of the people, as we share in the ministry of the Priesthood of All Believers. Or, don’t we really believe in that?
You’ll argue against me, I hope, as this is neither an academic look at vestments, but let’s discuss this, like adults. Maybe in this is a chance for us to draught some new understandings.