how to lose friends and [tick] off people

Photo courtesy The Rev. Joseph Mathews

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.

8 thoughts on “how to lose friends and [tick] off people

  1. Do vestments, or other office dress, matter? They may be a form of invitation ; they may be a block. I suspect the Meta question is do they help proclaim the Gospel, and I suspect that answer is local, and thus all visiting clerics should consider / be sensititive to what works locally. Blessings on your wisdom and passion.

  2. As a musician, I find vestments cumbersome and it’s difficult to sing and/or play instruments while wearing them. However, there are some circumstances when CLERGY ARE CRUCIAL and it’s a relief to see someone wearing a clergical collar. Also, vestments can be worn over blue jeans. One does not have to be wearing 5:00 p.m.”attending wedding clothes” if wearing vestments. There is also something angelic looking about people when wearing vestments.
    Whatever my feelings toward this PB the vestments are colorful and being a woman maybe she’s tired of wearing the “same old thing”. They’re casual looking more than formal though. Was it supposed to have reminded us of Joseph’s coat? I guess maybe it would be nice if she had dressed a bit more formally for us AL people. But GOD knows who we are and loves us all very much whatever we wear. Did Adam and Eve wear leaves? Vestments I guess, may make more of a difference to people than they do to God. Most of them are beautiful but ill fitting. Since I’m overweight I think they’re fattening. Some vestments I don’t really like at all. Although clerical collars appear uncomfortable and are unnecessary when I know the clergy,
    there are definitely situations when one needs some way of distinguishing clergy from non-clergy. Sometimes non-clergy park in clergy parking spaces-and in an emergency that’s ok. but if clergy don’t wear collars the rest of us need some way of distinguishing clergy. I know God knows who is clergy but the rest of us cannot always look at someone and tell. Be careful who you sit next to on an airplane for instance, and then also suppose someone wants to be baptized or married before a plane crash. I don’t think clergy necessarily need to wear collars at church but in public we need some way of distinguishing clergy. People slip and fall on the grocery store floor for instance. In addition, we may not lose our temper at the check out counter if we know we may see the minister and his family at Holy Communion the next day. But Jesus also knows if we lose our temper and that’s the worst part. Now, I’m rambling away from the subject. As far as dress, I think one should wear clothes appropriate for the occasion so it would depend upon the formality or informality of the service. A minister can go fishing before church and put on vestments and be dressed appropriately so there is some convenience to vestments also. thinksaltarcallsarenecessarybeforeplanecrashesandindisastersofanyandeverysort

  3. Do military uniforms matter? Police? Firemen? Does beauty matter?

    Of course vesture matters, from the collar up through the mitre. It gives people a clue about who you are, what you’re up to, and how they should act. That’s called having manners, giving others the ability to easily identify and address you.

    On an anecdotal level, I find that when I am out with a bunch of priests and I am in my cassock and they are in their suits and collars, I tend to be the one addressed as Father, because I have made it easy on the citizen/waitress/whoever that we come across. I’ve also been asked to hear a confession in a diner, to go with someone to see their dying relative in the hospital, and I’ve blessed countless never-before-seen babies, all because of the cassock.

    So, vestments = opportunities for ministry.

  4. As I said above, I get the argument for a “clerical uniform,” which, for most of us (Father Tucker’s personal preferences aside) is a clerical collar. It is good to make Christ’s Church visible in the wider community. I’m challenged everyday that I don’t wear mine enough.

    But my argument is not about liturgical garments in public settings, but in the context of worship. What do they say? How do they further the Kingdom? Where is Christ served in our wearing expensive, flowing robes?

  5. Why, Father, is Christ not served by wearing expensive, flowing robes? I’m not sure I fully understand your questions, especially considering that those questions have been answered fully since the time of Moses. Aaron’s sons might have a few words to say about how it is we should go unto the Lord.

    From a practical point of view, in a perfect world where priests don’t wear cassock albs and their stoles hanging down straight, one can tell what kind of service they are participating in just by looking at what the priest is wearing. Vestments also please the eye and obscure the one who is wearing them (in the best possible sense).

    From a spiritual point of view, perhaps the vestments are there to serve us as priests. Do we presume to go unto the altar of God ungirded? Do we not need to say the vesting prayers before we make the Sacrifice of the Altar? Do we not need to be reminded, perhaps by being so girded, of who it is we are to God and to His people?

  6. While I understand that Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law of Moses, I’m certain he had a lot to say about those who used that law abusively; Pharisaically, one might say today.

    I’m afraid, Father, that you are the exception that proves the rule. You are a rarity among those ordained in Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. For you, and correct me if I’m wrong, vestments are an extension of Christ’s gift of the Church, along with his teachings and the sacraments. The deep tradition you carry has been lost; among the laity for certain, and, I’m afraid, mostly among the clergy as well.

    The symbols have no meaning. The emperor has no clothes. They have become hollow shells which, in my opinion, puts them right at the level of the Pharisees and their elaborate hand washing procedures and Sabbath rules. Things Jesus was very clear he came to abolish while fulfilling the Law.

  7. Thank you, Father, for considering me the exception, and I am reluctantly beginning to acknowledge the rule. That said, I have never served a parish where these symbols have lost their meaning, and I have found that in the Anglican world outside of our borders, priestly vesture still carries deep meaning.

    I wonder if the problem of vestments is just a symptom of our larger problems, the false egalitarianism, the fear our clergy have of their own responsibilities both temporal and eternal, the moving away from Christ we have seen.

  8. Pingback: Well on my way to condemnation « Draughting Theology

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