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Let’s Get Rid Of Robes?

Eucharist on the beach

Other than who can love whom, there is nothing that gets Anglicans quite so riled up as

Should you dare to wear a cope in procession while not being an archdeacon or a dean – you will very soon be told not to dress above your station. And whether canons process before or after archdeacons will have careful protocols. If you are a canon, an archdeacon, and someone with a doctorate, then there are years of conventions behind how to carefully, correctly construct the final title in front of your name.

All this is clearly very significant to Jesus!

And so now the Church of England’s General Synod is in the process of consultation to see if its robing rules can be relaxed. The Guardian’s reporting appears confused (surprise!) It says that London vicar Christopher Hobbs claims “For holy communion there is no flexibility… Surplice and alb is required, with scarf or stole”. I presume he means surplice or alb. Both are essentially the same vesture – the surplice just being an alb that is larger so that it can go over another warm garment (cassock – essentially a long coat).

Someone else might indicate the robing rules in the Book of Common Prayer, and remind us whether those rules are still binding in Aotearoa New Zealand, otherwise the only robing rule that I’m aware of in A New Zealand Prayer Book He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa is

The presiding priest at the Eucharist should wear a cassock and surplice with stole or scarf, or an alb with the customary vestments. (page 515)

“Should”, of course, is one level below “shall”. It is notable that, clearly intentionally, there is no attempt to delineate what is “customary”.

I write the following about vesture in my book Celebrating Eucharist:

Vesture conveys messages about ministry, about presiding, and about beauty, art and hence creation. All our ministry has its source in our baptism and an alb or cassock is by no means the preserve of the ordained. If, however, a community requires laity to be vested in special liturgical vesture in order to exercise ministry as laity this may send confused theological messages. Such a community may wish to reflect whether it would be more helpful to have laity who read, lead the Prayers of the People, or administer the Sacrament, do so dressed in ordinary clothing. Those who prepare the holy table (servers) could similarly come up from the congregation, complete their task and return to their place.

Such decisions again need to take account of the community, architecture and size of the building, size of the congregation, and relative importance of the celebration. Some buildings invite processions or several people robed, others do not. Liturgy done dramatically need not become divided between “cast” and “audience.” For some the nonverbal is the essential. Someone joked about the illiterate young man whose task appeared to be little more than hold a candle at the Eucharist as he tried to “lip sync” the hymns and prayers. “That is not the lad holding the candle,” retorted the Vicar, “that is the candle holding the lad.”

The presider’s vestments can be simple yet beautiful. Stole and chasuble (like the alb) are conservative garments ordinarily worn at the time of Christ (and still worn in many parts of the world). They are not symbolic (efforts to give them symbolic value are “allegorical”). Wearing them can no longer be construed as promoting a certain “churchmanship” or theology of the Eucharist. They are more akin to a uniform. As such they are undergoing modification. The maniple is seldom seen now, many are no longer wearing the girdle, and the stole is now often worn over the chasuble.

The colours of the vestments are an example of signs which require some education to appreciate. Any symbols on vestments need to be simple, visible from a distance, and easily understood. (Do many worshippers know what IHS stands for, or XP?) Large vestments which may be required for a spacious worshiping environment, may be completely out of place in a small chapel, home group, or house communion.

A beach Eucharist

Yes, until we have an improved study, training, and formation on liturgy, we may need rules (tiresomely) about vesture. Anti-catholic prejudice, and just plain rebellion against tradition, with unproven spin about contemporary mission, also means that we seem not mature enough yet to simplify our rules.

So, normally, presiding at Eucharist, I would vest with the vast majority Christian experience – alb, chasuble, stole – that, over the centuries and across the millions around the globe, is like a Christian presider’s uniform for the Eucharist. The photo at the top appears to me to be perfectly appropriate for such a beach eucharist. In the photo below, wearing an alb would have been fine; not wearing one also seems OK. [Wearing an alb would mean he would have fulfilled NZ’s Anglican requirements] The presider dressing in the manner of those two photos in a (neo) gothic cathedral I think would be inappropriate. In the middle photograph, of a priest presiding at a Eucharist on the beach with relatives of victims of Princess of the Stars ferry, he is wearing an alb – again, to me, he has judged the level of appropriate formality well. To compare again, on the other hand, I well remember a small house group Eucharist, sitting around in sofas in Northern Australian full heat, where the priest vested in every last piece of possible vestments – I guess he was within/fulfilling “the rules” but there was such a disconnect with the context that it would have given any visitor the impression this was a send-up.

What do you think?

Open air Eucharist

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21 Responses to Let’s Get Rid Of Robes?

  1. I much prefer those in the chancel and sanctuary to be vested whether last or ordained. By lay people vesting you are not playing into clericalism, only ordained people wear funny clothes.

    • Thanks, Yr. Yes, I think that in a church buildings which have a chance and sanctuary, as I said in my post, vesting is appropriate. Such a model of church architecture is not universal, of course. I have written a lot on this site about church architecture, and I affirm contemporary designs that, in the worship space, do not distinguish nave, chancel, sanctuary. It is in such a context that lay people vesting or the presider not vesting becomes a new discussion. I am not sure how your “only ordained people wear funny clothes” is an argument supporting your “lay people vesting you are not playing into clericalism” – it seems to be the exact opposite conclusion follows. Blessings.

  2. I lived in Dallas in the 80s going to seminary. I returned on vacation in the late 90s. The friend with whom I stayed was a lay minister of worship, he served communion to congregants by intinction wearing cassock and surplice. A Saturday that I was there he had a mandatory lay minister inservice class. During the class, the man in charge of the lay ministry of worship program, was explaining the various vestments and why the Sr Pastor wore an alb, stole & chasuble during services, but the other clergy only wore an alb and stole. He said that “the Sr Pastor, representing Jesus to the congregation, was vested in the robes of a Christian High Priest!” I tried extremely hard to stifle a laugh and ended up choking and had a fit of coughing. All the while my friend was kicking me under the table.

    • Yes, Br David, I’m with you. One problem of such allegorising of signs and symbols is that then those who reject traditional vesting use such falsities as a “rationale” for not wearing, for example, a chasuble. I wrote about this a couple of years ago: Collaring clergy

      Blessings.

  3. Do many worshippers know what IHS stands for, or XP?

    XP means “my operating system is out of date and unsupportable” – which sums up the Anglican Church rather nicely.

  4. While there may be no formal theology of vestments, there certainly is a personal theology for me. When I put on an alb (I am a lay minister), I remind myself that the role I am about to perform is not about me. I literally cover up my day clothes and become like everyone else around the altar that day. It reminds me that what I do I do for Christ in service of those in the congregation and that I am not in any way, shape or form there to be noticed. If that makes sense?

  5. For what its worth, I have no idea what an alb or a chasuble is. I know a stole, because I’m from a lower church tradition. So it strikes me that its all sort of a secret handshake thing — fine for those who know it, I guess, but a little silly to everyone else. If you aren’t in on the story, you just see a bunch of people standing around dressed in tablecloths, and infer they must be important.

    I think we should listen to our theological words, and look at our worship, and think about what it signifies to anybody who isn’t in on all the secrets. Is the point to comfort some with the “familiar,” –those with some sense and attachment to tradition? Nice as that is, it sure is offputting to everybody else. As soon as I hear people in church debate whether they can sing a hallelujah in Lent, or wear this rather than that, I just want to roll my eyes. Sure seems a long way from anything that matters.

    • Thanks for your very important comment, Chris. I don’t know how regular a reader you are here (this being your first comment), but you are underlining a very significant discussion that undergirds a lot on this site: is Christianity merely a slight variation on contemporary culture, or is Christianity in significant dialogue with contemporary culture? How high is the “threshold” between “world” and “church” (or “kingdom”)? You are advocating for a very low threshold. I wonder, then, why bother? If church offers nothing different – why bother?

      As to your contention that “it sure is offputting to everybody else” – no one has yet provided any real evidence (as I indicate in the post) that this is so. Certainly it is easy to verify that your “everybody” is false. My experience in places such as Taizé is that your contention is based on prejudice rather than research.

      Click about that alb – and every brother at Taizé wears one at worship.

      Blessings.

  6. The other Mark said it very well. I am an Episcopal layman in charge of providing instruction for lay servers in the Eucharist. When I detect great nervousness, I will say that very thing – “It isn’t about you.”

    The role that vestments provide, as Mark suggested, is an important one. All the same, I endeavor to keep any sense of audience and performer to a minimum by using non-vested lay persons prominently, and by piercing the nave/chancel boundary. (However, it should be noted that my desire to take a Sawzall to the altar rail has not met with approval from the rector.)

  7. As has been pointed out in other discussions, the Anglican Communion is made up of autonomous churches. In order to understand this CofE conversation, we need to understand the CofE…
    Specifically, the 1662BCP and Canon B8 (which I hope you will forgive if I reproduce below my comment).
    It goes without saying that 1662 only mentions the use of a Surplice, without description, meaning or purpose.
    Thus traditions which have formed tend to be local rather than theological (I accept the Oxford movement had profound theological reasons for the recovery of “Roman” attire).
    In the CofE there have pretty much always been a variety of clerical-wear and Canon B8 allows for this, affirming the local nature of the tradition by instructing priests not to change the tradition without the say-so of the PCC (Vestry).
    Having served as a priest in a number of churches and traditions, I have always kept to this Canon: I have word preaching gown, cassock/surplice/scarf, Cassock-Alb & Stole, Suit and tie, Suit and Clerical Collar, Alb, Maniples, Copes, Cotta etc etc etc.
    In all reality, it is the faithfulness of the parish, expressed through worship in an appropriate way (including garb) which really matters. “Lex orandi, lex credendi” is our core, not what we wear (though we value our local traditions as honest to who we are before God).

    B 8 Of the vesture of ordained and authorized ministers during the time of divine service

    1. The Church of England does not attach any particular doctrinal significance to the diversities of vesture permitted by this Canon, and the vesture worn by the minister in accordance with the provision of this Canon is not to be understood as implying any doctrines other than those now contained in the formularies of the Church of England.

    2. Notwithstanding the provisions of this Canon no minister shall change the form of vesture in use in the church or chapel in which he officiates unless he has ascertained by consultation with the parochial church council that such changes will be acceptable: Provided always that in case of disagreement the minister shall refer the matter to the bishop of the diocese, whose direction shall be obeyed.

    3. At the Holy Communion the presiding minister shall wear either a surplice or alb with scarf or stole. When a stole is worn other customary vestments may be added. The epistoler and gospeller (if any) may wear surplice or alb to which other customary vestments may be added.

    4. At Morning and Evening Prayer on Sundays the minister shall normally wear a surplice or alb with scarf or stole.

    5. At the Occasional Offices the minister shall wear a surplice or alb with scarf or stole.

    • Thanks so much for this, Ant. That canon appears to be carefully thought through and balanced. It is notable how significant the authority of the laity is. I can see that a literalist/fundamentalist reading of this leads to needing to carry vestments with you in your backpack if you intend to celebrate Eucharist with a group hiking up a mountain. As an aside, it is also notable in my NZ context, how we do not have such a systematic canon law – thing here grow like topsy – whatever is of interest to those in leadership gets the focus and energy of the church and may result in new legislation. As to your “it goes without saying” about BCP 1662 – I hope you might complete your resource on this thread by adding what the BCP actually does say in another comment. Blessings.

      • Brilliant Bosco! I love the idea of a back pack with the full range of possible vestments 🙂 I wonder how dear Archbishop Cranmer would cope with such things as “outside Lord’s Supper” haha!
        Anyway, re BCP vestmentations, I will admit to being a tad cheeky. It is somewhat disputed, but the only reference to such things is in the ordering of Morning and Evening Prayer. It can be found here: https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-worship/worship/book-of-common-prayer/the-order-for-morning-and-evening-prayer.aspx

        • Disputed, Ant?! Surely not?! Not in Anglicanism, surely?! [I can only think of one thing that is energetically disputed amongst Anglicans and I allude to that at the start of my post]. As for your BCP quote, that is perfectly clear: “such Ornaments of the Church, and of the Ministers thereof at all times of their Ministration, shall be retained, and be in use, as were in this Church of England by the Authority of Parliament, in the Second Year of the Reign of King Edward the Sixth.” Anyone with an ounce of history knows that is alb, stole, chasuble. Blessings….. 😉

  8. I was told very firmly (by a priest who was the Diocesan Ministry Educator) that it was vesting in vestments and NEVER robing in robes.

    • I just checked the dictionary, Dorothy, and I know you will be surprised 😉 to see that a “vestment” is a “robe worn by the clergy or choristers during services”, and it is the archaic word for “especially a ceremonial or official robe”. Blessings.

  9. I did not have the time to react in due time. But I hope my comment is still welcome after these months.

    From a historical point of view, the alb was every man’s “shirt”, the stole protected the neck instead of a collar (and this is why the stole is either crossed on the chest or bounden), and the chasuble was generally the last garnment. But so far by Tertullian’s time, some clergy began wearing only white, and that was an outrage. But finally the clericalising of the vestments won.

    However, not only did St Paul wear (as non-clerical vestment) a chasuble (II Tim. 4:13), but the Jesus’ garment, which was seamless could have been nothing but a chasuble: a four-squared fabric, with a hole in the middle. This is why, accross all the regions, Christian priests and bishops wear chasubles or copes (and the Orientals’ cope is also connected to Jesus’ seamless garment). And this flows from the fact that the priests and bishops preside in persona Christi.

    A stole without a chasuble is proper for non-Eucharistic services, where the “in persona Christi” aspect of the presiding is less evident. On the contrary, traditionally, nothing is to be worn on the chasuble, not even pectoral crosses, to prevent undermining the iconic role of the priest. If the bishop wears a pallium, that emphasizes his pastoral role par excellence, which is also iconic (I Peter 2:25).

    Wearing a stole on a chasuble betrays the understanting of the vestments, by the wearer, to be a matter of fanciness, and comes from a confusion (“I got an icon at home, and the guy from the icon wears a white stole on a chasuble”) with pallium.

    If I were a priest presiding the Mass on the beach, I would simply wear a wooden cross on a t-shirt, with shorts and sandals, and I would set the groupe in half-circle, with myself at one extremity of the half-circle. If one is fussy enough to wear an alb on the beach, there is certainly no reason to omit the chasuble. All the pictures of this article show priests that are kind of producing themselves in front of the crowd.

    It is interesting that none of those CofE guys that are trying to get rid of the vestments has ever required the recovery of the Eastwards position of the altar. They are maybe feeling too “not themselves” in the vestments, as the vestments are shadowing their personality.

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