This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What to Wear.


The question of clerical garb came up in a Facebook exchange the other day.  This may seem pretty trivial.  But if everything the church does is supposed to be missional, what does that mean in terms of something everyone who attends a worship service sees?  What the leaders of worship are wearing will communicate a great deal about the theology, priorities, and approaches of that church.

The extremes are obvious.  A good friend of mine is a Russian Orthodox priest.  He wears full Byzantine-style vestments for all church services, and a black cassock all day during the week.  The opposite extreme is another friend who wears normal, secular business/casual attire when on the job, whether leading worship or sitting in her office.  

Some pastors wear Hawaiian shirts in worship.  Others business suits.  But I still think it is the case that most wear some kind of special garb for worship, whether it be an alb and surplice, a Geneva gown, or some other kind of cassock or robe.  Most will wear a stole of the appropriate liturgical color.  Few pastors wear a collar when not leading worship (though anecdotally this number appears to be rising).  

Here are some considerations:
  • As far as we know, Jesus himself wore the garb of a simple Palestinian peasant, which would be an ankle-length, natural colored, probably linen outer robe, often with a rope for a belt.  Under that people generally wore what we would call a long t-shirt, stretching to below the knees.  
  • At the same time, Jesus is said to have worn a “seamless” garment (John 19:23) which is a possible reference one of the robes of a priest in Exodus 28:32.  
  • Beginning in the 4th century, much of traditional Christian liturgical dress was based on the clothes worn by Roman officials.
  • Monastics and priests generally wore simple robes.
  • In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Reformed tradition abandoned Roman vestments for a simple academic gown.  In other words, they wore what they, as scholars, wore every day.
  • In the last 500 years, as secularization intensified and technology advanced, robes that might once have been worn every day became specialized ceremonial clothing.
What is going on theologically when we decide what to wear?  Do we want to blend in, or be set apart?  Why?  Surely what we wear should reflect our ecclesiology and missional theology.  We represent the Kingdom of God, which means perhaps we should look and dress differently from everyone else.  Does worship have an inherent formality to it that should be reflected in what participants and celebrants wear?  I suspect that we have to balance both tradition and contemporaneity, expressing the presence of God who is both transcendent and incarnate.  The sacrament is both sacrifice and meal; its leaders are both priests and hosts, representing Christ.  Jesus himself has a dim view of leaders who wear long robes merely for show (Mark 12:38).     

I am coming to the view that there is not necessarily one single answer to these questions.  More and more I am deciding “it depends,” and “both/and,” are more honest and responsible.  I exclude some things as always inappropriate, based on the gospel itself.  For instance, when leading worship, I avoid looking like a person of wealth and power.  I rarely wear a suit and never a tie.  The last thing I want to look like up there is a banker or a lawyer.  It has to be about integrity, authenticity, humility, beauty, and simplicity.  It has to focus attention on the Lord, not me.

My strategy relies on a rhythm and balance in worship, where the style and format shifts with the season.  Some holidays and seasons are more formal and “high church,” while others are considerably less so.  

In Advent and Lent, I will wear a Geneva gown or just a black sweater, with a blue or purple stole.  Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost are the three main festivals of the church.  I will wear a white Russian cassock and a white chasuble on those days, and the service is pretty formal.  After Easter and after Epiphany I wear the white cassock without the chasuble.  After Pentecost (a season that can last half the year) the service gets looser.  I might wear a blue Latin cassock; in the summertime I will often opt for a blue silk shirt, untucked.  None of this do I rigidly enforce; local considerations factor in, as do sacraments and other occasions for which I might want to dress up or down.  And I always use a stole.

There are other considerations: the Geneva gown was a gift from my parents when I graduated from seminary.  I was married in the blue shirt.  The white cassock, though Russian, reminds me of the Celtic monks with whom I resonate deeply; I think of them as my tradition.  The blue cassock, all my stoles, and the cross I wear nearly every Sunday were gifts; some of the stoles belonged to my father.  Thus some things have more meaning because they were given to me, or have some other connection.

This is my practice.  Others need to do what works for them.  It’s all about balance, integrity, and keeping the focus as clear as possible.  No matter what I wear, it’s going to get noticed.  I hope I can deflect at least some of that attention beyond myself to what we are all doing together in worship.
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