Sunday, October 31, 2010

What To Wear?

A seminary classmate of mine served as a “student assistant” in a Philadelphia church where the minister wore striped trousers and a morning coat, common attire for many Protestant clergy back then. The minister generously presented his student with a pair of the pants expecting that he would continue the custom. (He did not.)

Most of us in those days wore the traditional black robe à la the Puritans, called the “Geneva gown,” with or without collar and Geneva tabs, probably with academic hood displaying one’s credentials. And that’s the way it was for a number of years.

Black was the color of choice for sixteenth century Reformed clergy in reaction to the elaborate color and décor of the vestments donned by the Roman Catholics and their kin. Such a splash of design and hue was considered a blinding distraction from the central emphases of worship, namely the proclamation of the Word and administration of the Lord’s Supper…

…until finally Protestants began to catch on that color in dress was not necessarily a distraction, but might help focus the worshippers’ attention on what is taking place. Then we started taking peeks at the garb of our peers down the street and borrowed fashion ideas for our own use. Now, among Protestants, the black pulpit robe is probably somewhat of a rarity.

The black robes in olden times were designated “pulpit gowns,” and were the appropriate costume for a preacher, preaching being most of what he did when leading worship. Only occasionally would he be presiding at the Sacrament of Communion, when the appropriate color would be white. (Worship leaders then were all men, so “he” is accurate.)

Now, for many Protestants, white is the color of choice. One reason is likely that the Ecumenical Movement and joint worship opportunities showed everyone how much more celebrative white is than black. And, after all, worship is supposed to be a celebration.

A woman in the church I served came to me one Sunday after the service and offered to buy me a white alb from the local religious supply store. “That black thing,” she grumped, “is so funereal!” And she was the local funeral director! So I agreed, and from then on I’ve slipped into a bright white vestment whenever I lead worship.

Another reason white is appealing is that we’re beginning to realize that Reformed worship means Word and Sacrament, and that the sacramental garb is always appropriate because it is also appropriate to have the Eucharist every week.

Now I wear a while robe (alb) with a stole representing the yoke of Christ and showing the color of the season of the church year. I don’t bother with the robe cincture—it has a monastic look that seems out-of-place to me—although some of my colleagues do. I also wear a stylized crucifix as well.

It may seem that we’re all making it up as we go along, and in a way that’s true. Yet we are more intentional about what we wear, trying to communicate symbolically about worship and our leadership role.

It’s interesting to see the diversity in dress among worship leaders. It’s a good thing too, as long as we are being careful in our apparel to be liturgically and theologically informative, and not just strutting like peacocks (or peahens) on Sunday morning. Then the Puritans would be right to drape us all in black again.

What is worn by you or your pastor when leading worship? What is communicated to the worshippers by what the presider/leader wears?

1 comment:

  1. Among clergy I know who wear vestments, I see a great variety. Some wear albs, others wear a black (or even dark blue) academic gown. I prefer an alb, because I lean toward a choice that is liturgical rather than academic.

    I've noticed another trend- and not just among megachurch clergy- which is not to wear a robe or stole of any kind. I think they intend to convey a sense of the priesthood of all believers. While I respect that choice, it doesn't work for me. I believe firmly in the priesthood of all believers. I think in worship, those who are leading are being set apart for the task of leading. This includes choir members, acolytes and also lay leaders (maybe they ought to wear an alb too).


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