Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

I’m Done with the Cassock-Alb – From the Daily Office – May 22, 2014

From Gospel according to Matthew:

Why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. * * * Do not worry, saying . . . “What will we wear?”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 6:28-29,31 (NRSV) – May 22, 2014)

Priest Vesting for Mass“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” This aphorism has been variously attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo, to Menno Simons the spiritual father of the Mennonites and the Amish, to Richard Baxter of the Moravians, and various others.

To the best of my knowledge, it has never been attributed to an Anglican or an Episcopalian. And with good reason! Witness a current dust-up over the cassock-alb.

Yesterday, a colleague and fellow ecclesiastical blogger posted a humorous but serious entry entitled Cassock Albs Are Destroying the Church. Cassock-albs are a modern bit of liturgical vesture which combine the virtues of two medieval garments (the cassock and the alb) and permit the abandonment of a third (the amice), which is rendered unnecessary. They have become ubiquitous since their introduction several decades ago; nearly every church supply company offers one or more versions of the garment. They are what I wear and what our altar servers and liturgical assistants wear, as well.

My colleague’s opinion piece argues that the cassock-alb symbolizes sloppiness, laziness, haste, and lack of care in preparation for worship; calling it “the strip mall of vestments,” he decried the cassock-alb as “an innovation for the sake of comfort that too much resembles other short-cuts we might take in our spiritual and devotional life.” His Facebook notice of this essay resulted in a slurry of posts either agreeing with him (most did since he seems to be followed mostly by a high church Anglo-Catholic crowd many of whom cherish many things about the ritual of an earlier era in the church) or arguing the merits of the cassock-alb (not many modernists, however).

I considered writing a humorous point-by-point rebuttal, but decided not to for a variety of reasons including lack of time and my conviction that debating things like vestments is one of the shortcomings of our tradition. As I have often said, we Anglicans and Episcopalians get our knickers in a twist over really very silly things; there was a time when members of this church excommunicated each other because one or the other either put candles on the altar or didn’t. (In the 1800s, at least one bishop-elect — James DeKoven — failed to receive sufficient canonical consents because of his support of candles and other elements of catholic ritual in the celebration of Holy Communion.)

In the past four decades we have fought about the rather more serious issues of prayer book revision, ordination of women, and the full inclusion of homosexual and transgendered persons, but we have also wrangled over such ridiculous issues as which direction clergy should face while leading worship, whether communicants should stand or kneel, and what position a person’s hands should be in while at prayer. It occurred to me that if anything is “destroying the church,” it is our inability to agree to disagree, to treat as irrelevant and unworthy of debate those minor things on which we differ and concentrate on those matters central to the faith on which we agree. So, I decided not to write in the cassock-alb’s defense.

Indeed, even though I posted a comment or two on my colleague’s Facebook entry, I simultaneously thought what that string of remarks about the merits or demerits of a bit of priestly vesture would look like to a non-church member. If I were a non-Christian (or even a non-Episcopalian) happening upon that conversation (and I’m sure each of the participants has non-Christian friends who might have taken a look at it; I know I do), I would have shaken my head in disbelief at the pettiness of it. If this is what Episcopalians consider important enough to argue about vehemently, I would want nothing to do with those people! So I determined to add nothing further to the evidence that Episcopalians fail to allow liberty in non-essentials and certainly do not practice charity in all things (especially not in regard to vestments and ritual).

Then I came upon today’s Daily Office gospel lesson and I am encouraged to say at least one more thing about the cassock-alb debate. In this lesson from Matthew, Jesus tells his followers, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” (Mt 6:25) Jesus goes on to assure his hearers that God will provide. I’m not convinced, however, that Jesus is referring simply to concern about food and clothing, in general. Certainly, I don’t believe that he is telling them to do nothing about taking care of their own health and well-being; on several occasions he advised his disciples to attend to preparations, to be alert, to take care of that which God has entrusted to them, so this is not a man to instruct people to abandon common sense self-care! What I think he is referring to are the ritual concerns about food and clothing in the Law of Moses, rituals that had become overly important in the teachings of the Pharisees, for example.

Most non-Jewish people are aware of kosher restrictions on diet which derive from the Torah: not to eat pork or shellfish, not to eat red meat with dairy, and so forth. Many may not be aware that there are ritual rules regarding clothing, as well. For example, “You shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together.” (Dt 22:11) Some of these rules came to be applied specifically to ritual clothing, the tallit (prayer shawl), for example: “Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner.” (Num 15:38)

I believe it is overweening concern for these ritual niceties of food and clothing that Jesus is criticizing in his admonition not to worry about what one will eat or what one will wear. Sometime later, Jesus did so explicitly, condemning the scribes and Pharisees because “they do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” (Mt 23:5) Cassocks, albs, amices, surplices, and cassock-albs are the tallits, the phylactories, and the fringes of our tradition. Our concerns about them are very much the same as the Pharisees’ concerns, and I suspect that Jesus is just about as impressed with our vestment debates as he was with theirs.

So I’m done with the cassock-alb. I’m still going to wear them and provide them for my liturgical staff and volunteers; I believe they are a perfectly acceptable modern alternative to medieval garments that are no longer convenient, meaningful, or necessary. But I’m done debating about it, and about whether and when to wear eucharistic vestments versus choir garb, whether and when to kneel, whether and when to raise one’s hands, whether and when to use candles, and all the rest of that.

It is not the cassock-alb that is destroying the church! It is public disagreement over vesture and other equally silly things that is doing so. Let’s stop it, shall we?

(By the way, the aphorism about unity, liberty, and charity most likely was first penned by Rupertus Meldenius, a 17th Century Lutheran, during the Thirty Years War.)

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

3 Comments

  1. Fr. George

    Nicely put indeed!
    Though, as you know, I do enjoy my share of pointless ecclesiastical jousting, it remains important to have such discussions off to the side and out of earshot of those who see it as petty.
    There’s a big difference between shop talk and building for ourselves a reputation of irrelevancy.

  2. Linda Schwartz

    Very well put. Summers in South Africa cause me to question the wearing of vestments that are so clearly not suited to our climate. I have robed countless times in cassock and surplice, alb and chasuble, and even chalb and three-point stole, and been unbelievably hot and wondered if there would be merit in designing vestments to suit the climate. Of course this would br a very radical suggestion as so many in the church over here love these garments inherited from the north.

  3. eric

    Good idea, Linda! I often think the same thing in our hot and humid Ohio summers. These vestments simply are not practical.

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