Friday, June 27, 2014

Why Vestments and Clergy Collars Exist

My article from this week's newspapers answers a question about vestments and clergy apparel:

Q:  As I visit churches, I notice that some clergy wear robes varying kinds, and others do not wear robes.  I’ve also noticed some pastors who wear a special uniform when visiting or teaching while others dress in casual or business attire.  Can you explain these differences and the reasons behind them? 

Pastoral garments are a tradition that has evolved and regressed with great frequency throughout Church history.  For example, the Lutheran tradition has seen at least 3 separate varieties of pastoral robes come and go over the course of the past 100 years. 

Some would suggest that the tradition of Christian pastors wearing special clothing when conducting the liturgy dates as far back as St. Paul who asked Timothy to bring a particular cloak with him when he comes to visit him in 2 Timothy 4:13.  Beyond this, the tradition of religious clothing has Biblical precedent as far back as the priestly robes employed by the priests who served in the Tabernacle after the Exodus. 

Building on these precedents, the particulars of liturgical apparel often begins with churches and clergy holding on to traditions even after the surrounding culture has passed them by.  The most obvious example of this is the Clerical Collar that is a familiar mark of pastors in many traditions, particularly Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopal, that traditionally includes a black shirt topped with a white banded collar or a white box in front of the Adam’s Apple. 

This garment began with the black clothing worn by all educated professionals in the Middle Ages.  The white collar or tab began as an undershirt appearing through the opening of the collar or above its top.  As the culture left behind this style, it was retained by the clergy and later given a theologically-significant meaning that the pastor himself is a sinner (represented by the black garment) but speaks the holy Word of God to the people (represented by the white portion being located at his voice box).  Today it serves primarily as a uniform by which pastors can be identified, much like a chef has his hat and jacket or a doctor has scrubs. 

Likewise, the robes seen while conducting the service find their stylistic particulars in older usage.  The black robe, sometimes called a Geneva Gown, worn by preachers of some denominations finds its roots in the academic clothing of the Middle Ages, and parallels can still be seen in the Academic Apparel worn by faculty at college ceremonies or the gowns worn the graduates at a High School Commencement.  Often those who wear such robes emphasize the pastor’s role as a teacher, professional, or expert in their theology. 

The purpose of the white robe worn by pastors of more liturgically-oriented denominations has to do with the belief that the pastor stands as the representative of Jesus Himself while he conducts the ceremonies of the liturgy – speaking Christ’s Words of forgiveness, delivering Christ’s washing in Baptism, and distributing His Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper.  Thus the pastor’s sinful humanity is hidden beneath a white robe, just as Christ is portrayed in Revelation as wearing a white robe, to emphasize that he does not act of His own authority, but instead represents Christ. 

While this white robe has its origins in a far ancient era, even its particulars are derived partially from ancient fashions that others had left behind.  This is seen as styles which range from a stiff black robe covered by a loose white gown to a wrapped white robe tied with a rope around the waist have their origins in such places as providing warmth to a priest in an unheated sanctuary during a Scandinavian winter to a Roman tunic from the first century. 

While these varying forms of clergy apparel often have mundane origins, their continued use bears the intention that they teach something to those who observe their use.  So investigation reveals that what appears on the surface to be mere style or tradition is actually infused with a great deal of theology and communicates to us something about what that church or that pastor believes. 

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