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Friday, 23 April 2010

Scratchings about the Anglican way: robes and vestments

This is part 3 of a series of some answers I gave to questions from leaders of a free evangelical congregation in Europe who were interested bringing their people into the Anglican Church. They asked about the wearing of robes. They had seen somewhere that "the minister served in a man's suit" and wanted to know about what was required in the Anglican tradition. It is a question that arises from time to time, and not only among new Anglicans. This is part of my answer....

The matter of vestments or robes is a simple one. The norm in the Church of England is that for the public, statutory services of the Church the customary robes are worn by the clergy and readers (licensed lay ministers). The robes are intended to emphasise the office or role of the leaders in worship. They de-emphasise the personality or the personal wardrobe taste (which after all can be good or bad) of the person leading worship.

The robe of the secular business world (for men, the suit) is not necessarily the most appropriate vestment for leaders of Christian worship. It does not adequately indicate their role in the congregation, nor the nature of the authority they have. A pastor or priest is not a businessman or businesswoman! Moreover, the clergy and readers (lay ministers) who lead worship do not act for themselves, but for Christ. The robes help to take their own personality out of the picture, leaving the focus beyond them, to Christ. Similiary a police officer does not act on his or her own authority but represents the law of the country, so wears a uniform which points beyond himself or herself to that authority.

The basic value of robes in public worship is to ensure that we are focused on Christ and his worship, rather than on ourselves, our own humanity, personality and style. They are an important evangelical sign to show that we must decrease in order that Christ may increase (cf St John 3.30). Thus the basic robe used by leaders in Christian worship is a long white garment, either alb, or surplice. (The latter is a mediaeval shorter version of the alb). It derives from the ancient baptismal garment, indicating that in baptism we are have put on Christ, that we are clothed anew as part of his Body. Our Church of England service for Holy Baptism provides for the newly baptized to be clothed with a white robe and then the minister says "you have been clthed with Christ. As many as are baptized into Christ have put on Christ".

Other vestments also have a symbolic meaning. The stole, for instance, worn hanging from the neck, indicates that we take on Christ’s yoke when we become Christians.

Vestments are not central to the faith. However, the principles which lie behind the wearing of robes are important signs pointing to Gospel truth, and so are a time-honoured part of our Anglican heritage.


  1. Whether to wear robes, and what robes to wear, can say at least as much about personality as a plain black suit. Working as part of an ecumenical team of university chaplains holding Taizé services together, I take the view that it does not matter what we wear so long as we all wear the same; others say that this is repressing their freedom of choice. Today is ANZAC Day and after our church Annual Meeting I shall be conducting a short service at the Commonwealth War Graves with the Australian and New Zealand Ambassadors followed by a lunchtime reception in a crowded tropical greenhouse. To cassock or not to cassock? It's easier on Remembrance Sunday when I know what my German colleague will be wearing and there's somewhere to leave outer garments at the lunch place.

  2. As a traditionalist,i don't like pastors preaching in their daily clothes.Then why all the police officers or surgeons are expected to wear uniforms or special clothes,let them do their jobs in jeans or pijamas! I dont like this attitude of some evangelicals and evangelical attempts trying to degenerate the liturgical traditions of the church..Again, it doesn’t say that the word of God is only the Holy Bible. His word includes much more which includes the 'Holy Tradition'..

  3. Anthony Cummings3 May 2010 at 13:22

    Sometimes uniforms get updated. Our soldiers no longer go into combat resplendent in scarlet tunics, nor do police normally patrol in their number ones or surgeons operate in white coats. (Serious sidetrack into fiction - what about Bishop Octavian in last week's Dr Who, leading his armed clerics into action against evil angels whilst dressed in desert combat uniform and helmet? To me a splendid imaginative portrayal of the Church Militant). In an age where the laity no longer wear Sunday best of suits for the men and dresses and hats for the ladies, is it appropriate for the presiding minister to be wearing 4th century fashion? Maybe the answer is yes. On the other hand, if the clergy are the officers of the Church Militant, which the wording of the baptism and ordination services would seem to imply, then logically we should all wear the same uniform whilst on active service. Any suggestions what that should be, in 2010??

  4. People say sometimes that they can assume some people from their vestment. Vestments are not central to the faith. However, the principles which lie behind the wearing of robes are important sign to represent something.

  5. i don't have a problem with the specific clothing. as long as the word of god is bieng preached in a holy way i[some text missing...