Why I will continue to wear vestments

Synod has voted and canon law will now be changed to permit deacons and priests and, presumably, readers to dispense with vestments when celebrating the divine office. Vestments will no longer be required for weddings and, I think, funerals. The decision to dress less formally, though hopefully not casually, will need to be agreed by the PCC and, for weddings and funerals by close relatives.  I think it is a bit odd for the reader, deacon or, priest to ask the family ‘now how would you like me to dress,’ during the pre-funeral visits. It’s not a line of questioning I would be comfortable opening up.

I will continue to wear vestments. I will wear them not because I particularly like them, nor because I have a large wardrobe of them, but because I think, in my context, they are missional. They are missional, in part, because they conform to people’s image of what a priest or minster should look like. I strongly believe that in my context the wearing of vestments makes both me, and the church, more and not less accessible.

When I got ordained a very close friend of mine invited me to meet to chat about faith. My friend was a very lapsed catholic. At the time I remember saying to my friend Phil, for that is his name, that he could have talked to me about faith, bringing any questions he might have had, at any stage during the previous twenty years. His reply startled me ‘look,’ he said ‘when I arrange for someone to come round to fix the boiler I expect them to have a corgi certificate and wear a boiler suite.’ These  two things gave him a high degree of confidence. The interesting thing about Phil is that he is a pretty relaxed character. He is not hung up on formality (in fact when I took his dad’s funeral he dressed very casually) but he did have an expectation that I would dress ‘properly.’ My training, my dog collar, my vestments all contributed to me being more, and not less, accessible to laid-back Phil. I will continue to wear vestments for people like Phil.

I have heard comments recently to the effect that the wearing of vestments is correlated to notions of power and, authority. Or, more particularly, the misuse of power and authority. I think this is a false line of argument. Priestly excess is just as prevalent in chinos as it is chasubles.

Worn with humility vestments help tell the Christian story. The wearing of vestments should not be about self promotion but, rather, self-denial. For sure there are priests who love wearing all manner of dress, but the majority of priests who vest don’t own the stoles, chasubles and even copes they wear.

I own the basics: cassock, surplice, cassock alb, scarf and the cheapest stoles I could buy but, everything else I wear belongs not to me but to the churches in the benefice I serve. The only exception to this is a stole that was commissioned for me, as a gift, by the benefice based on the  hymn ‘All are welcome in this place.’ This stole tells the story of our aspirations. It is narrative in dress and by the way when I wear it in school the children get very excited.

So what I wear at the Eucharist, Evensong, or Matins is not about me, and my desire to self express but about honouring the people I serve. My vestments allow me to meet expectations, with dignity, at little personal cost. So why wouldn’t I wear them? I am a priest, and I want to look like a priest. I want to give people the opportunity to relate to me and talk to me in role. For these reasons I shall continue to vest.

And, by the way, when the bishop comes I do hope they will bring their mitre.

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13 thoughts on “Why I will continue to wear vestments

  1. Very well put, Andrew. I don’t have a church as my primary ministry is online, but I do cover services for colleagues, and roving on these occasions does reassure the congregations I’m presiding for that I roughly know what I’m doing at the front of a church. It also reinforces that I’m presiding on behalf of the person who is usually there.

  2. Not wearing vestments says “This is me, doing MY thing, ain’t i wonderful?”
    Whereas vestments emphasise that WE are gathered as the church, and the person at the front is leading us in worship, not presenting himself.

  3. I’ve had various requests when I’ve been a visiting presider which imply people do understand that I’m fulfilling the same function as their usual clergy person – I’ve been asked to bless things, to hear a confession and to pray with people – even though they don’t know me from Eve. I do think robing provides an indication of function which is helpful. It may be particularly helpful when a church is receiving many visiting clergy during a vacancy?

    But hey, this move is apparently popular and needed so I will have to resign myself to being a dinosaur yet again.

  4. From a Baptist perspective I find this both fascinating and slightly worrying. Explaining the faith should be every Christian’s joy and privilege; if non-believers assume they need a professional to do it, something has gone wrong somewhere!

    I definitely disagree with intonsus – in fact in could be taken the other way. I wear “normal clothes” for ordinary services and a suit & tie for weddings and funerals (and I have never asked anyone what they want me to wear!). Vestments draw attention to the wearer: they shout that I am different from the rest of you, I am authorised to do things the rest of you aren’t (or worse: they suggest church is some weird place where you just don’t know what’s going on…). Wearing normal clothes is certainly not saying “this is me doing my thing” – if anything, it shows that we’re all the same before God…

    It’s quite amazing how we can see things so differently, and I suspect there’s some theological differences behind it as well. Hopefully we can still concentrate on worshipping the Lord whatever we’re wearing!

    • Thanks for your comments. I would like to offer two thoughts. Yes, I agree it should be every Christians joy to share their faith, but the issue is often how the legitimacy to share faith is perceived. My friend wanted to talk, and he really did, with someone who he perceived to have the legitimacy to talk. He may be wrong in his view but it was still what he wanted. I also think vestments can be missionally important. I don’t think they point to the wearer (necessarily) but beyond the wearer and back to the tradition and the Christian story. Most of the vestments I wear aren’t mine so for me they are in a very real way the antithesis of choice and self-expression (I would be very happy with uniform and no choice in many ways!). In the C of E the minister is authorized (rightly or wrongly) to do things that others aren’t and I guess other denominations don’t like this theology. When I went to church as a young adult for the first time I definitely wanted to go somewhere that conformed to my mental picture of what both a church and a vicar looked like. My picture may have been a poor picture but it was still my picture.I don’t wear casual clothes very often (I do occasionally) because for me they express too much about me and not enough about my role. I do accept its different in different contexts, however.But yes, let’s keep worshiping and leading the people in worship!

  5. They also mean that you dont have to worry about what clothes you have on underneath! I remember the first time I went to a service where there were no vestments. I looked up and there was a man in a rather shabby suit at the front and I wasn’t sure if the service had started or not.

  6. Just happened on your blog by chance. It looks great—I’m a regular from now on! I’m an Episcopal priest and monk of the Order of Julian of Norwich in Wisconsin, USA

    A quotation from my little book on liturgy: “Elements of Offering: Principles, Practices and Pointers in Anglican Liturgy” (Excuse the self-promotion.)

    Vestments

    Principle: Theologically, the use of Eucharistic vestments serves three purposes: (1) Vestments differentiate between what happens at the Altar from what happens on Main Street or in the backyard; (2) Vestments help to emphasize the antiquity of the Eucharistic celebration, since they involve using a 2000-year old out-of-date style of dress; and (3) Vestments help to indicate that the Celebrant is acting liturgically NOT just as Joe or Joan Smith, but as the designated, ordained representative priest of the Assembly.

  7. I have found in my situation if I wear my own clothes certain members of the congregation comment on what I wear, both positive and negative. Wearing of vestments takes that distraction away. So, for the majority of services I talk, I will continue to wear them.

  8. Personally I applaud Synod ( and I don’t say that very often) for moving forward with this in a positive way. I have always struggled with the relevance of vestments, whether as somebody sat in the pews, or now as an incumbent. I do understand that in certain contexts vestments are part of that worshipping community, and if not wearing them causes them distraction from worship, then that’s not helpful. Most of the people I do funerals for or Marry today have very little if any connection with church, so there is little expectation in how I’m going to look. The relationship between us is the important thing, not what I’m going to be wearing. It’s great that I and others are going to have a choice now, and I will definitely choose not. (As long as the PCC agree!) 😉

    • Thanks Martin, I think context is vital. I will continue to wear them because of the context I find myself in. However, I am considering whether to dress less formally for the all age Eucharist where our choir wear identical T shirts as opposed to vestments. I guess I still would be wearing ‘uniform,’ of some sort. The T shirts were designed by the junior choir and depict their understanding of Noah’s Ark.

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