At the beginning of the first Community Lenten service last year (2006), as the ecumenical cadre of ministers, having donned their black Geneva gowns, made their way toward the sanctuary, one of the minister-participants said glibly, “Look out! Here comes the Supreme Court!” referencing our liturgical vestments. Everyone laughed. Then everyone forgot about it. Except for me.
The image that was burned into my imagination on that night was this: What we wear along this journey of faith and life, especially in worship, matters. As a result, I began an in-depth historical study into liturgical vestments (clothing for ministers) and decided after many months of prayer, counsel, and deliberation with other ministers in our presbytery and beyond, with our Session’s Worship Ministry, and with Wes, that it was time to make a change that more appropriately represented the theological and historical tradition we represent.
What follows is a brief summary of that study.
Presbyterians believe firmly that all Christians are given gifts for ministry, and that some are called to exercise certain functions relative to those gifts in the life of the church and its congregations. Some are given gifts to preach, some to teach, some to visit, some to serve, and so on. Some are gifted for the office of deacon, some the office of elder, and some the office of the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. However, it is the function of the office that distinguishes us, not our calling, giftedness, or otherwise. We are all ministers, and some of us practice that ministry inside the life of a local congregation. Those who do (i.e., Ministers, etc.) are not more special than any other child of God. We are all special due to the beautiful truth that God has created, cared for, and called all of us into the ministry of Jesus Christ. The journey of life becomes the process of discerning how to use our gifts for him.
For so long, many (though not all) Presbyterian ministers have sought to honor the gravity and honor of Christian ministry via their worship vestments by adopting the Calvinist tradition of wearing the long, black, academic gown called the Geneva Gown for the University of Geneva, where Calvin got the idea. It was thought that the black robe hid distracting clothing brands and lent a reverence to the occasion for worship. At a time when you could determine a person’s profession by what they wore, ministers, academicians, and judges, in their flowing, simple black gowns, became less subversive and quite visible, instead. “There go the learned ones,” some on the streets would say. Such a reputation was anything but what Calvin and other reformers had in mind.
Which begged the question, “What did the early church’s pastors wear to indicate their commonality with all the baptized, not just the educated ones?” Biblical/Historical Overview
Exodus 28 relates the story of God giving Moses detailed instructions about the vestments to be worn by the priests, often with explanation of their meaning.
While Exodus is rich with detailed liturgical instructions for priests, the New Testament has no such worship specifications. Vestments (clerical or ministerial clothing) of Old Testament priesthood were not utilized in early Christian worship. Instead, the common street clothing of the Roman Empire was used - however, rubrics from the time mention that those worn by the leader of a service should be clean and were normally white. (The most primitive vesture of the Christian liturgical year is in the white vestments of Easter.)
The early Christians saw their gatherings around the Eucharist as festive moments and sought to dress well, as if for a party. As the Roman Empire declined, the dress of the general populace became shorter and tighter fitting, reflecting the fashions of the Germanic and Gallic tribes that had once been part of the Empire.
The clergy, however, retained the older forms of looser garb, and eventually attached new symbolism to the clothing they wore. Writings from the late Imperial and early medieval periods show the emergence of a new clerical symbolism is in what had once been ordinary clothes.
As the power and wealth of the Church increased, so did its prestige. As the Church expanded into lands far beyond Rome, a massive influx of music, poetry, narrative, and cultural distinctives reshaped the Church. Resources were directed toward the elaborate furnishings as worshipping communities sought to give their very best to the Church. This was an outgrowth of the desire to honor God in their worship and to provide sensory stimuli that would aid in the retention of teaching and of tradition among the illiterate.
However, by the late 15th century, artistic excess flourished in many Church quarters. In response, various religious movements, both lay and clergy-led, called for radical vows of poverty and demanded that artistic corruption and financial greed be purged from the Church.
Reformed adherents to what the Puritans would later call "the Regulative Principle" (see Book of Confessions 6.103 and The Regulative Principle in Worship by C. Matthew McMahon) did away with the liturgical vestments as having no Scriptural mandate. In their place, the early Reformers wore their street clothes. At a time when you could tell a person's profession by what they wore, persons with academic credentials wore their gowns at almost all times. Thus, the learned ministry wore the marks of their scholastic achievements in the pulpit. This was later enshrined and became a new sort of conservative holdover long after these clothes ceased to be everyday dress.
As the Church came into America, there grew an impulse towards simplification - silk gowns are not practical in the wilderness.
Furthermore, many ministers had no formal academic degree that would entitle them to the gown of previous generations. Therefore, most Protestant ministers lost the tradition of wearing anything other than their "Sunday best." They also noticed that this was in many ways a return to the earliest Christian communities who had no regulated forms of dress. Such egalitarianism also fit well with the ethic of the emerging country.
In recent years, particularly due to the influence of the Christian ecumenical movement, there has been a trend toward reincorporating ancient church traditions.
Liturgical renewal has created a new demand for symbolism that engages as many of the senses as possible. This has brought a resurgence of the use of liturgical vestments that had once been common among our forebears.
The Alb is a full, white, ankle length garment. It has become popular is recent years because of its cheerful white color and flowing style. The most ancient of Christian vestments, its origins are traced to the Roman tunic, a common piece of clothing until the 5th century. After a catechumen was baptized, they often received a bright white alb as a symbol of their spiritual washing. Thus, the alb is truly the garment of the baptized; as such, it can be worn by any baptized Christian who is taking a part in leading worship. After the fall of Rome, it became a garment unique to the clergy as normal dress. The word "alb" means "white" in Latin, and it reminds Christians of the multitude dressed in robes, who "have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." (Rev. 7:14). (All Scriptural citations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise specified.) The image reminds believers that they now stand clothed in the righteousness of Christ and proclaims the hope that someday we will stand with that white-robed multitude washed in the blood of the Lamb. This hope is expressed in the alb's vesting prayer: "Clothe me, O Lord, and cleanse my heart, that cleansed in the blood of the Lamb I may always enjoy eternal happiness."
The Amice is a rectangular white cloth, worn as a collar with the alb. Originally designed to protect the finer, silken vestments from natural body and hair oils (which could be quite substantial - in the medieval period, bathing was thought to expose one to disease. It was also seen as immodest. Perhaps this is why incense was so common in the churches!) and to ensure that the neck was unexposed (both for warmth and modesty). It is often omitted with contemporary albs because they close more tightly around the neck. This vestment served as the basis for the later academic hood. When putting on the amice, the priest says, "O Lord, place on my head the garment of salvation to expose and reject the attack of the devil."
Bands or Tabs are worn on the collar of a gown. The academic gown was originally used outside the church, but as a church garment was used first in England and later in Germany and among the Magisterial Reformers. Rarely seen in the US on anyone other than a minister, they remain in common use in the United Kingdom and Canada by barristers and academics. Typically, bands splay out at approximately a 30º angle and are approximately 6" long.
The Cassock is a full-length black or scarlet (for Doctors of Divinity) gown worn with a clerical collar. This garment began as a simple overcoat that was used for warmth by all classes of peoples in the Middle Ages. Its length was increased and the garment died dark black for the modesty of the clergy. The cassock is the traditional street clothing of the clergy. As such, it is not a liturgical garment in the strictest sense. It became a symbol of the public ministry of the gospel and for that reason became a common preaching garment. In the pulpit, it is most often worn with bands under an open preaching gown. It is sometimes worn underneath an alb or surplice.
The Chasuble is a poncho-like cloak. Originally it was a warm raincoat worn by virtually everyone until the time of the Frankish kings (c. ad 800). In the church of the High Middle Ages, the chasuble became a highly ornamented garment, made from expensive silks and embroidered in gold and silver thread. For that reason it became know as "the vestment," and was worn over the alb during the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Since it is exclusive to those ministers that are ordained to administer the sacrament, some associate it with the Roman Mass and sacerdotal privilege. More recently, some churches of the Reformation have reclaimed this ancient, colorful and graceful vestment as more liturgically appropriate than vestments rooted in academic rank. The prayer used as the chasuble is put on links it to the yoke of Christ: "Lord, you said, 'My yoke is sweet and my burden is light,' enable me always to rely on your grace and assistance."
The Cincture is the name given to the robe or belt used around the waists of an alb or cassock. The traditional cincture vesting prayer sadly suggests a confusion of law and gospel. "Bind me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity and extinguish within me unwanted passions so that I may experience the virtue of continence and chastity."
The Geneva gown is a V-neck academic gown. Historically black, it has in recent times been used in a variety of colors. It bears the name of the University of Geneva, from which Calvin adapted it for clerical use. Even to this day, its predominant use is outside the church, worn by graduates, magistrates and judges. It signifies an academically trained person and especially one performing a public function. The Geneva gown has historically been preferred in the non-liturgical protestant churches that use gowns. The sleeves were open, wide and bell-shaped. When someone has a doctoral degree, Americans show the academic rank by adding three doctoral chevrons to the sleeve. The Geneva gown (upon which the American doctoral gown is based) has a long pedigree within the Reformed tradition and emphasizes the learned preaching of the Word.
The Stole is a silk or cloth band of the color of the liturgical season, worn around the neck and hanging down at the front. Originally it was a neck scarf used to wipe the face and chase away insects. Its practical function gave way to its symbolic indication that the wearer is functioning in vocational office. It is sometimes regarded as a symbol of the yoke of Christ.
Practices Within Reformed Churches
The Reformers generally protested against ornamentation in the church, something reflected in their rejection of liturgical vestments in favor of simple academic gowns, which focus on the ministers' learning rather than on religious function. The wearing of academic bands also became the rule in many churches. Many Reformed pastors still follow these patterns. The most well-used vestment among PCUSA clergy is still the simple black Geneva gown, though some prefer that type of gown in brighter colors. Along with the connection to a learned clergy, the dark academic gown connotes a sense of sobriety and gravity in the ministry.
In recent decades, increasing numbers of Reformed ministers have begun to wear the liturgical colors of the Church seasons, whether over a Geneva gown or an alb. This parallels a remarkable increase in the number of churches that observe in closer detail the liturgical year and its festivals.
Meanwhile, others have chosen the alb, in order to emphasize pastoral identity with all the baptized, and in order to promote a spirit of celebration in the service of Word and Sacrament. The alb, being the garment of all of baptized from ancient times, is a sign of solidarity with those who have been inducted into the common ministry of reconciliation in all times and in all places. The alb is also appropriate for any baptized church member who has a role in leading public worship (praying, assisting in the sacraments, presiding at ordinations and installations, etc.). The stole, in like manner because of ancient use, is a sign of solidarity with all of those who have been set apart to labor in the ministry of Word and Sacrament to the Church in all times and in all places.
Still others of our churches have followed more closely the Anabaptists by abandoning any type of vesture that may distinguish the pastor from any other person in the congregation. Resistant to the slightest hint of any clericalism, and affirming the priesthood of all believers, these Christians attempt to embody in dress the equality of all the baptized.
The Presbyterian Church (USA)
As with many other liturgical questions, in the PC(USA) the choice of vestments is a matter left up to individual pastors to decide. Many will consult with their session in determining their choices of vestments. A discussion of why a pastor chooses a particular style of vestment can be of real value in raising a congregation's awareness of why we do what we do in the worship service each Lord's Day.