See My Vest: Should Clergy Wear Robes?

Many things of great substance divide Christians from each other. One that is obvious on a Sunday morning, but perhaps of less consequence, is that of what the person up the front should wear (and what should we call him? Priest? Presbyter? Vicar? Must it even be a him?). I’ve been mulling over the question recently, having moved from one Anglican church that was so ‘low’ it was basically in the crypt, to another that would hold to all the key evangelical doctrines of the Reformation and the BCP, but with robed clergy. Not bells-and-smells high church, but traditional liturgy and robes.

For most British evangelicals, robes are out of fashion, and the question of bringing them back is probably rarely asked. Some may even assume that it may be wrong for clergy to wear robes. I’ve been reflecting on it as I get used to a new church and way of worshipping, and here are some arguments for and against that have come to my mind. I’m not going to land this firmly one way or the other (hard to believe: an Anglican saying two sides both have merit), but rather hope to shed some light on why other traditions might consider robes to be valuable. I’ll try to keep things brief—this won’t be remotely exhaustive—and offer a few thoughts under three headings for each. Firstly, I’ll consider the Scriptural case for and against, then we’ll consider the discussions and developments in the Tradition, and then we’ll reflect on what could be taken to be symbolised in wearing robes or not. Scripture, Tradition, and Reasons, if you like.

One more note to preface: there is obviously a spectrum in distinctive clergy wear. For Anglicans, the minimum would be a simple clerical collar in a normal suit, the maximum would be something like a cope or chasuble. There might be all sorts of reasons for an evangelical to reject some of these — the question I’m interested in is at the minimal end of this spectrum: should clergy wear anything distinctive from their congregation, or dress like one of the congregation?

The Case in Favour: Clergy Should Wear Robes During Services
There are two key places in Scripture that people will point to for the justification of wearing robes. The first is the Pentateuch, in which the highly ornate vestments of the high priest are detailed. Many of the vestments, in the Eastern tradition especially, are worn in continuity with the pattern of Old Testament worship. The second place, which is more significant in the Anglican tradition, is the book of Revelation, in which the white robes worn by clergy and others (i.e. the choir, etc.) are in keeping with the robes given the saints worshipping before the throne (as an aside, the use of incense is similarly based in Revelation, as symbolising the prayers of the saints). The worship of the church is the breaking in of Heaven to earth, and so it makes sense for this to by symbolically represented. By wearing robes, those involved directly in the liturgy draw us all in to the worship of Heaven revealed to us in Scripture. We may come to Christ as we are, but white robes communicate what we are given in Him, and as a sign of what we shall one day be.

Tradition: Specific clergy clothing was not present in the earliest days of the church, nor specifically commanded in the Scriptures of the New Testament, but developed over time. It was not, however, the clothing of clergy that particularly changed, but the clothing of the laity. The clothes worn by those officiating stayed relatively similar—if you speak in the broad terms of wearing clean white robes—but the fashions of the world around changed. The point of continuity is the clergy clothing, and the point of difference is the rest of us. Perhaps the continuity ought to be conceptual, rather than concrete—the leaders should always dress like the people around them—but either way, one is trying to keep a continuity with the tradition of what church leaders wore.

Significantly for those of us in the broadly Reformed Tradition, it is notable that most Reformers did not jettison distinctive clergy clothes altogether, they rather simplified them to give them a simpler dignity, and to get rid of liturgical wear that had taken on troubling theological significance. Swag is for Papists, class is for Anglicans, as one meme has it, though what class looks like was hard to agree one: the arguments were fierce within the Church of England about whether vestments were a thing indifferent or outright wrong. Let’s leave that now and speak broadly: along the Reformed spectrum, the Lutherans retained the most Catholic vestments out of any Prots, and the Calvinists rejected the most. Even the Calvinists had the Geneva gown, which grew from being normal academic wear (since many of the preachers were academics in their day jobs) to being deemed the appropriate clothing for preaching, symbolising the solemn duty of the preacher to speak the words of God. History repeated itself: as in the early days of the church, what started off as purely secular clothing gained a symbolic power and meaning.

Symbolism: I think the greatest virtue of priests being robed is that it ought to enable them to disappear completely. Consider one of the most high-profile evangelical scandals of recent months: the fall of Carl Lentz of Hillsong NYC. Lentz, in the Hillsong mould, built a church on being cool and looking good. It was no secret that some women went to Hillsong purely because they thought he was hot and charismatic (in the non-theological sense). Clothes were a key part of the Lentz brand. You might wonder how different things might have been were he leading the worship in a cassock and surplice. Try as anyone might (and I doubt anyone is trying), it is jolly hard to look sexy in a cassock.

We express much of our personalities through our clothing. C. S. Lewis makes the striking observation in The Four Loves that we are least ourselves when naked, because we use clothes to put on and express our individuality. No doubt you make many snap judgments based on people’s clothes, about class, background, interests, sensibilities, and more. Preachers are no exceptions, and those who have been around churches long enough will even be able to take a stab at some theological positions and the general ethos of that church’s culture based purely on the preacher’s attire. Clothes communicate personality and individuality, but clerical robes are a reminder to the clergy and a symbol to the laity that the words they speak in the pulpit carry the authority of their office, not their personality. It doesn’t matter how they dress, if they are fashionable or unfashionable, they stand totally outside that temporally-bound and changeable dichotomy, speaking as ambassadors of the Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Churches that reject traditional liturgies (which, it should be noted, are a feature of catholic Christian culture, not any particular national or historical culture) and their accompanying vestments expose themselves to being totally bound to their national and temporal culture on a large scale, and whichever subculture they find an affinity with on a small scale. The become more exclusive as a result. For example, we all know that in most leafy, bourgeois suburban churches in the South East of the UK, the preacher will be wearing the unofficial but predictably uniform vestments of a blue check shirt, a navy jumper, and a pair of chinos. This may powerfully symbolise what kind of person this role is for. Class is still a powerful force in British culture, and many might be alienated by seeing the 2015 White Stuff catalogue paraded at the front every week. Here’s a way everyone can win: what if the vicar doesn’t dress like anyone in the congregation? When vested, the priest’s class and background, indeed, all that may be visually distinctive about them, is invisible. It is as a presbyter of the church that they preach the gospel and celebrate the eucharist, not as a former public school boy, not as a try-hard hipster, not as a working-class pastor, and not as any kind of rebel against the first three categories.

The Case in Against: Clergy Should Not Wear Robes During Services
Whether or not you find the Scriptural argument for vesting convincing will depend on other theological convictions. To counter the idea that clergy fashions should be following the priests of Leviticus: the point of the book of Hebrews is that the old covenant has been fulfilled in Christ, and that that priestly order has come to an end. That priesthood has been replaced by a priesthood of all believers, so either all of us should wear robes or none of us.

As for Revelation, one’s ideas on what precisely is going on on a Sunday morning will reflect how they think people ought to dress. At the very low end of the Anglican spectrum, the gathering on Sunday is just a meeting, and most of the traffic is horizontal encouragement of other believers. It is not a ‘worship service’, and so what is going on in Revelation is not particularly informative for the church’s liturgy. That may be an image of what is going on in glory above (or is it even that? is it all apocalyptically symbolic? maybe they don’t even really wear white in heaven), but while we’re on earth, let’s not even over-realise our eschatology on Sundays.

Besides, didn’t our Lord specifically warn us against vestments when he said ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts’? Surely it’s an open and shut case: long flowing robes are forbidden. Not so fast — everyone wore long flowing robes in those days, at least relative to now, and Christ never preached against the vestments of the Torah. He wasn’t rejecting Levi’s ephod for Levi’s 501s when he spoke against robes. It must surely reflect the ostentatious wearing of fine clothing, perhaps in public, for the sake of bolstering one’s status. By contrast, liturgical vestments are just that: liturgical. If priests were to wear them out of the context of the service, that would break the Lord’s command, but perhaps in the service it’s fine.

Tradition: As already stated, in the earliest days of the Church, there were no special clothes worn by elders. The vestments that now exist developed out of the ordinary clothes of civilian life. As late as the 6th Century, many churches made no distinction in dress between clergy and laity. The expectation was simply that the clergy wear their best clothes, and they ought to be scrupulously clean. Scruffiness was deemed unfitting for the earthly leader of the people of God, but there was no need for a totally distinct wardrobe. Changes came in gradually, and with some overlap between vested and non-vested: as early as the 4th Century, Eastern bishops started to wear a distinctive item of clothing, the omophorion, which known as the pallium in the West, and adopted about a hundred years later.

Fascinating stuff, I know, and it only gets more interesting, but you’ll have to do more research yourself. The point is this: in the earliest days of the church, there were no special clothes for clergy. You may consider the 4th Century early enough to be a venerable tradition, you may call that a recent innovation. Most of the more ornate vestments are even later: it between the 9th and 12th Centuries that most of the vestments you would see in a Catholic mass came into common use, and they were generally vested with (pun intended) their mystical significance after they were already in use, rather than before. The sartorial tail was wagging the doctrinal dog in the Medieval Church. It gets worse: the developments were also influenced by the fact that many bishops had enormous secular, princely power, which they felt ought to be reflected in their clothes, just as a prince might display his power in fashion as well. So, in the Church’s 2000 year history, this is a relatively late development, that is somewhat muddied by political ambition, and then retroactively theologised. So much for semper eadem.

Symbolism: I was once in a discussion group for people considering ordination into the Church of England, and the group leader asked ‘If an alien came and joined your church, would it be obvious who was in charge?’ For everyone except old Johnny Low-Church here, the answer was a resounding yes: the clergyman’s dress was so distinctive that any newcomer would know they’re the special one. The motive behind the clergy dressing like the laity is that we are all equal in Christ. There is now no priestly class, so why should some in the congregation wear clothes that make them look distinctive, and, in the minds of many, higher and holier? Plain-clothes pastors remind us of our common life in Christ.

They also remind us that there is a stunning diversity in the church catholic, and that, while there is indeed a common Christian culture that we all share, it does find some different expressions in different places. The Spirit makes his home in many different types of people, and sanctifies the differences instead of obliterating them. As Aquinas taught us: grace perfects nature rather than undoing it. Clergy wearing the clothes of their culture could be seen as a trapping, but could be seen as legitimate expression. Hallelujah: the Lord’s arm is strong enough to save the Afghan in his shalwar kameez, the Zulu in his isinene, and the Briton in his trousers. And they can all wear them to preach. Plain-clothes clergy communicates that we may come as we are.

As I said earlier, there’s a spectrum here. The parish vicar who wears a dog collar is not communicating the same thing as Catholic Bishop in chasuble and mitre. I land on the lower end of the spectrum here: anything that communicates a sacerdotal priesthood seems like a bad theological move to me. In the earliest days of the Church, it seemed that there was not a huge distinction, but the idea of a ‘Sunday Best’ did already exist: some reverence was expected from the clergy and laity.

I might humbly suggest, however, that, for the symbolic reasons outlined in the arguments for, some distinction in dress could be useful, especially in the modern West. The notion of ‘representation’* is important for many, and the desire for a diversity of cultures to be seen at the front of church can end up missing this point: God, not humanity, is represented in the pulpit. I don’t need my class or nationality represented (and re-presented) to me, but Christ; I don’t need to hear from my race, I need to hear from my Creator. In this context of politicised identity markers, traditional clerical garb could be neat a way out, an escape route to let us keep Christianity weird on our own terms.

But hey, Luther was right, it’s a matter for private judgment. And we’ll all have this in common: what all leaders wear communicates something theological and sociological, whether they want it to or not. We should be careful what we’re saying, and careful to make sure people are getting the right message.

And kudos to anyone who got the Simpsons reference in the title.

*I’m not dismissing ‘representation’ as a whole, and am working on a fuller treatment of representation and identity, particularly trying to consider how they relate to Christology, at the moment. Hopefully I can finish it by the end of March.

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