Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Removing the Distraction of Personality – From the Daily Office – June 14, 2013

From the Book of Jesus Ben Sirach:

He exalted Aaron, a holy man like Moses
who was his brother, of the tribe of Levi.
He made an everlasting covenant with him,
and gave him the priesthood of the people.
He blessed him with stateliness,
and put a glorious robe on him.
He clothed him in perfect splendour,
and strengthened him with the symbols of authority,
the linen undergarments, the long robe, and the ephod.
And he encircled him with pomegranates,
with many golden bells all round,
to send forth a sound as he walked,
to make their ringing heard in the temple
as a reminder to his people;
with the sacred vestment, of gold and violet
and purple, the work of an embroiderer;
with the oracle of judgement, Urim and Thummim;
with twisted crimson, the work of an artisan;
with precious stones engraved like seals,
in a setting of gold, the work of a jeweller,
to commemorate in engraved letters
each of the tribes of Israel;
with a gold crown upon his turban,
inscribed like a seal with ‘Holiness’,
a distinction to be prized, the work of an expert,
a delight to the eyes, richly adorned.
Before him such beautiful things did not exist.
No outsider ever put them on,
but only his sons
and his descendants in perpetuity.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ecclesiasticus 45:6-13 (NRSV) – June 14, 2013.)

Jewish High Priest in His Ceremonial VestmentsWow!

And some people think an alb, stole, and chasuble are “fancy!”

There are a lot of essays out there on the history, origin, function, and purposes of vestments. Every writer has a slightly different take on the matter.

Here’s what I think: vestments obscure the minister. In a sense, vestments “democratize” the priesthood. Vestments symbolize the office of the priest, minister, or elder. No matter what the denominational tradition – whether they are the richly decorated, colorful vestments of the Orthodox or Catholic traditions, or the simple black Geneva gown of the Reformed tradition – the ceremonial garb obscures the personality of the individual wearing them. Personal differences among and between clergy can be a distraction, and there should be no distractions in worship. The focus should be God, not the presider.

Suppose we didn’t wear vestments (and there are traditions in which the preachers and worship leaders do not). And suppose one worship leader is dressed in a very stylish, well-tailored, custom-made, $3,000 Brooks Brothers suit. Suppose another is dressed in a $150 off-the-rack, polyester suit. Another, in t-shirt and jeans. Each participant in worship will react differently to these three clergy, based solely on their appearance. This difference in reaction may rational or non-rational; it may be volitional or non-volitional. But it will be there.

Now, suppose we have these same three leaders. But over their street clothes all are wearing an alb, a stole, and a chasuble. One cannot see any difference in their attire. That distinction between the clergy is erased.

Whatever the other reasons may be that we wear vestments, I think this obscuring of differences amongst the clergy is the most important. Vestments, fancy or plain, remove the distraction of personality.

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

2 Comments

  1. Tom Rightmyer

    Maybe we should all go back to the black gown that was the common clerical garb in the 18th century – or the “white alb plain” of the 1549 Prayer Book – or the simple white surplice. I prefer the simple and tasteful vestments that copy the medieval. But have you looked at Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori in the miter that looks like a tea cozy?

  2. eric

    Tom – I’ve seen many bishops in many silly mitres, so she’s not alone. (I can’t say that I know which of her mitres you are describing, however.)

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