Let’s Talk Vestments (Ordained Ministry Q&A 2)
Some lower church Anglicans are moving away from vestments while Anglo-Catholics have very strong feelings about particular priestly dress in the service. How have you decided what you wear on Sunday?
As I mentioned in my previous answer, clothing is one of the major ways people signal in our society. When I say “signal,” I mean that we send non-verbal messages to those around us. We tell them what our role and status are in society. An Armani suit and a Rolex watch mean one thing, while my Men’s Warehouse suit means something else. Class, ethnicity, politics, sexuality, education, and more are signaled by clothing.
When a pastor dresses for church, he or she is signaling. Signaling is not a choice. All clothing signals. Boots and Wrangler jeans say something, and so do Bad Religion skinny jeans. Suits say something, and so do Hawaiian shirts. The preacher is telling everyone “this is my preferred subculture.” But the preacher is also saying “this is the kind of person who is acceptable here.” If the preacher is a hipster, that’s the kind of people the congregation should be. If the preacher is formal, then we are formal. If the preacher is a hunter, or wealthy, or poor, or outdated, or whatever, signals are being sent.
If you doubt me, visit ten churches in your area. Tell me if the preacher and the people are not dressed similarly on Sunday morning. Ask yourself “what are they saying to me?” And remember, clothing is subculture.
Vestments kill signaling. They do this partially be de-emphasizing individuality. All of us vestment-wearing people are interchangeable. Even our body type and gender are less visible. My personal tastes, my class and upbringing, are obscured. Vestments say “I’m not important.”
Vestments kill signaling in another way, too. In some cultures, the design of your scarf might send an important signal. In our country, outside of immigrant communities or gangs, scarf design is irrelevant. It doesn’t signal, because the onlooker doesn’t take any meaning from it. In a similar way, vestments don’t signal because they are not from our culture. No one puts on vestments and goes to the mall. There aren’t, or shouldn’t be, vestments that say anything about class or politics or wealth or anything. Vestments are like words spoken in a language you don’t understand. You might think they are pretty or ugly, but there is not specific meaning to you.
When the pastor can’t signal through clothing, then all clothing is acceptable in the congregation. When all clothing is acceptable, then members of all sub-cultures are welcome. Vestments welcome everyone, precisely because they identify with no one. Your age or class or politics are not being challenged by my Sunday-morning clothing. Neither am I drawing attention to myself. My clothing is a non-issue, and therefore I am less of an issue. So Jesus increases, and I decrease.
Some might object, saying that vestments signal formality, or religions rigidity. I would ask, “to whom?” If your area of mission is permeated by vestment-wearing churches that are formal and rigid, then you may well leave your vestments in the closet. That would be a reasonable, missional choice. Vestments are not essential to the Church or the Gospel. If they were a significant stumbling block, then I would not use them. But if your area is more diverse, I think vestments are the best choice of all other possible choices. Not the perfect choice, I’m sure, but better than anything else we’ve come up with.
How about censers? You rarely use one. Why is that?
I don’t burn incense because I get so many complaints. People say they are allergic, that they can’t breathe, that it makes them sick. I love incense, and I love what it represents (the prayers of the saints). I love bringing the sense of smell into worship. However, I’m not willing to distract a significant number of the people under my pastoral care with incense. Like vestments, incense isn’t necessary to the Church or the Gospel.
There is a lot of grey space when it comes to decisions like this one. When and how does a pastor make allowances for the needs of the congregation? When are those needs rather than wants? What response will best aid both evangelism and discipleship? There are certain things that are inviolate, like Word and Sacrament. There are things that are questionable, like vestments and incense. I don’t think there should be hard rules on these things. Context, community, prayer, tradition—all of these and more must be consulted. And, sometimes, former decisions should be overturned. When in doubt, ask the bishop.
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