Clerical Dress

The English vestment controversy seems to have been a long time ago. Being neither expressly commanded nor forbidden by Scripture, vestments are what we call adiaphora. To Presbyterians who hold to the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), then, vestments are perhaps not allowable; to Anglicans, vestments fall within the range of things that the Church has the right to regulate for decency and order: ‘Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, Ceremonies or Rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying’ (Thirty-Nine Articles, xxxiv). Such traditions and ceremonies ‘have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word’.

Window in the Apse of St Ignatius Church, Chestnut Hill, MA. Photograph by John P. Workman, Jr.

Adiaphora do not, however, come down to individual discretion – even plural individual discretions that happen to agree – concerning what’s expedient, much less what’s too old or too ‘weird’ for our individual tastes and sensibilities. Rather, though sometimes in the individual freedom of a Christian (to be married or not to be married?), they’re just as often things we can argue about for a time before coming to some kind of normative decision collectively. Things that are contrary to God’s word, even if not expressly forbidden, must be avoided; other things can be changed, with reference to our various obligations to neighbours, civil authorities and antiquity, to be most useful and biblically edifying for the churches of God.

It were well that clerics’ liturgical dress shunned ostentation, concealing fashion preferences and drawing attention instead to the wearer’s office, not his person. For this reason, and because vestments encourage reverence (especially to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper), I think distinctive clerical dress superior to suit and tie for an ordained minister, though on the other hand I appreciate the robust beards sported by many Anglican divines of bygone days.

Choir dress

This is the presbyter’s choir habit, consisting of cassock (long dark coat), surplice (white linen overgarment), academic hood and tippet (black scarf), worn for public prayer by those not serving as celebrants for the Eucharist:

Anglican priest in choir habit. Photo taken by Gareth Hughes, 2005.

The dress is rather simple but dignified, as befits a minister to lead public prayer and to preach God’s word. The clerical collar on the cassock shows that the man is ordained. The surplice, you’ll notice, has no ostentatious lace (in keeping with worship that’s both austere and highly formalized in its joy); being clean and white, it seems to better express the joy of the gospel than the sombre Geneva gown. Presbyterian James Jordan writes against the whole dark colour thing:

The Calvinistic churches are little more than extensions of the academy. The black robe is the robe of the scholar, not the angelic white robe of a worship leader. The heart of the meeting is the long lecture-sermon. Candles? No! Colored paraments on table and pulpit? No! Flowers? Maybe. The darkest part of the room is the center where the dark wood table and the dark wood massive pulpit and the black-robed preacher are. It’s like looking into hell itself.

As the Lutherans say, the minister ought to wear something belonging to the saints in heaven, not to the scholastics. The Kingdom of God is like a feast, not a lecture: save the weeping and gnashing of teeth for those who excluded themselves by their unbelief.

Eucharistic vestments

For celebrating the Eucharist the presbyter may put on a chasuble on top, connoting solemnity and festal abundance, coloured to reflect the season of the Church year:

Chasuble in Renaissance style, called borromaea because the model was used by St Charles Borromaeus.

The Ritual of 1685 for the (Lutheran) Church of Denmark and Norway stipulates for the chasuble:

It must especially be observed that the priest having charge of the service must not wear the chasuble when he leaves the altar to perform any service: Preaching, baptism or otherwise. He shall put off the chasuble and leave it by the altar. If the service at the altar is to be continued later, he shall again put it on; but the surplice (alb) shall be worn during the entire service from beginning to end. (52)

On Lord’s Days without a Eucharist, then, he doesn’t put the chasuble back on after the sermon, which shows that the service is incomplete without the distribution of the Lord’s body and blood. (And let the chasuble be rather simple than shield-shaped and weighed down with heavy ornamentation.) Here’s a chasuble on a real person:

Last Supper. Photograph by Mike_tn on Flickr.

During the English Reformation the fear was that such vestments as the chasuble would contribute to sacerdotalism. The chasuble in particular was banned in the Church of England in 1552 (‘Andrewes and English Catholics’ Response to Cranmer’s Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552’, 8). Perhaps, however, careful Reformed wording in liturgy and in preaching now suffices to guard the people against such false doctrines, as the Romish doctrines have long been banished from the Protestant churches – for the opposite view, see J. C. Ryle on ‘distinctive vestments’.

I contend that chasubles are by now ready to be used again, especially as the Lutherans are able to use them without sacerdotal issues, but I have no strong desire to push hard for restoring them to normal use. If variance as to their use doesn’t create rancour between those who use them and those who don’t – such rancour being one of Ryle’s concerns because of the transubstantiationism that for some underlies the use of a chasuble, especially among Anglo-Catholics – then I’m with Luther in supporting the freedom to differ in practices, even though the mechanics of worship are anything but window-dressing for abstract theology.

There should be no question that decency and order are no occasion for anyone to prance about in fanciness or, as apparently was the custom in Baroque-era Portugal, to walk about in high-heeled shoes to give the impression of height: YHWH’s holy liturgy is not a spectacle for an audience to watch but a gracious audience with the King of kings. If the chasuble be used, then, let it be as an aid to the congregation’s participation, not as an ornament to the wearer.

A few other outfits

For a wedding, especially when there’s no Eucharist, a surplice and a stole, with a cassock underneath:

Priest vested as for a wedding in surplice and stole.

The stole would be mostly to identify the ordained officiant, I think. The white surplice does seem very becoming for such an occasion as a wedding.

Outside church services a presbyter might wear ‘clericals’ (clergymen’s street clothes) like this:

English Catholic street clericals: the ‘Medieval Biretta’ called a Catercap, the Gown, Sarum Cassock, Tippet (Scarf).

For is there a time when the minister of the Lord is off-duty? If not, clericals seem fitting for the office to which YHWH has called him. Preach the word; be instant [i.e. ready] in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine.


3 responses to “Clerical Dress

  1. Pingback: Not for Liturgy, though Edifying | Cogito, Credo, Petam

  2. Charles Barnett, on the Anglican Rose blog, has done several posts criticizing RPW and defending the right of the church to make decisions concerning adiaphora; that even though they may be “things indifferent,” we have a duty to obey the church’s directives for the sake of good order.


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