During the weeks leading up to my ordination, I purchased a Geneva gown. The moment was an exciting one: it symbolized for me a passing from one way of being, one vocation, fully into another. After such a long process of education, interviews, and requirements, I would take on the yoke of my calling symbolized by my red stole, which popped brilliantly against the black of my robe that cool January day. It's what I'd dreamt of wearing for so long, and that dream finally came true.
Months later at my installation, the church presented me with a white alb. To me, the alb is more representative of what I want to be about as a pastor: originating from the earliest days of the church, it was given to all newly baptized believers to wear as a sign of their putting on new life in Christ. Thus it symbolizes my commonality with all Christians through baptism, contrasted with the Geneva gown, which was borrowed from academia centuries ago and still carries with it the symbology of pastor-as-scholar, one set above others. Some traditions, particularly the Reformed branch that helped spread its use, greatly value that. There's good reason for it, but I still prefer my alb, though I break out the gown once a year for Maundy Thursday, more for its color than any other reason.
Very recently, I read about the origins of the Geneva gown. Back when what we'd call the Reformation was beginning, a guy named Andreas Karlstadt--a contemporary of Luther--decided that he was going to do something radical in worship. He started by translating and saying the Mass in German rather than Latin, which may have been enough. In addition, however, he decided to eschew the traditional vestments of his day and wear "regular clothes" instead. Since he was a professor at the University of Wittenberg, he wore his black academic robe. Luther was scandalized by this at first, but three years later he'd begin wearing one himself.
So, how about that? The Geneva gown, now worn by many Protestant clergy as a formal vestment, originated as a rejection of vestments.
The reasons for vestments are plenty. They signify the pastor or priest's role as worship leader, as bringer of the Word and officiant of sacrament. They say to worshippers, "this person with whom you have entrusted these tasks is fulfilling his or her calling." That was what it meant to me at my ordination. Since then, I've come to understand them in other ways. Nowadays, I see wearing vestments as becoming part of the furniture: the pulpit, lectern, communion table and whatever else has been prepared for the worship moment in ways appropriate to the season, and by donning my alb and stole I have prepared my own physical self. They're meant to call attention beyond me, as the rest of the space is meant to do as well. People aren't looking at what I'm wearing...they're looking beyond me toward the One whom we've gathered to worship.
Or so I've thought. While my own reasoning has been true in one sense, it seems not to be true in another.
In over six years of ministry where I am, I have received at least a half dozen comments about the "dress" that I wear for worship. These are made in jest, yet reveal something about the understanding (or lack thereof) and appreciation (or lack thereof) for the use of vestments in worship. We have quite a few people who are relatively new to a mainline Protestant tradition that includes the pastor wearing such things, yet these comments have not come solely from them. They've also come from people who, to the best of my knowledge, have grown up accustomed to seeing the man or woman up front in a robe and stole. Contrast this with worship moments over the years when I've worn a coat and tie instead, and people seemed to go out of their way to compliment what I was wearing.
Overall, I think that many congregations have arrived at a less formal place than decades gone by. On a typical Sunday, I can count on one hand the number of men wearing ties, let alone suits, and I don't need my entire hand (and usually one of them is me). For the most part, one will see business casual: most men wear blazers or sweaters without ties, women wear slacks or dresses that don't suggest a lot of maintenance, and in general a handful or more are in jeans. I had a discussion recently on Facebook with a few church members who affirmed the idea that God doesn't care what one wears to worship; that the more important thing is that we're there participating. Increasingly, dressing up for worship seems to be a vestige of a bygone era.
Taking all this into account, I've been conducting an experiment the past few months. One Sunday, I got up and did my usual morning routine prior to driving to the church. However, I changed two things: I put on my sneakers instead of my dress shoes, and I went without a tie. Otherwise, I did everything that I normally do when I got to the church, including pulling on my alb for worship. The next week, I wore a favorite pullover, again with sneakers. The third week, I wore a different pullover. And every week, nobody commented on my more informal attire, my lack of a tie, my silly choice of sneakers with dress pants, none of it. And this experiment, along with years of comments about this but not about that, or ribbing comments about this and positive comments about that, have led me to certain conclusions and questions.
What if my vestments have been more of an impediment to people's worship than what I wear underneath it? What if they're a distraction or puzzlement for people more than a removal of one? And is it really a matter of more education and understanding in getting people to see why such things are worn at all? I wonder what Karlstadt's original congregation thought the first time he stepped up in his academic gown, whether they were scandalized or relieved. Could you imagine at least some of them saying, "Finally, ol' Andy decided not to wear that other stuff?" Given the spirit of the day, it makes sense that somebody would have.
Honestly, my vestments get in my own way sometimes. I play guitar a couple times during our service, and pulling the instrument over my head and taking it off causes my alb to bunch up and my stole to go all wonky. It seems like I'm constantly fiddling with it, which further calls attention to the fact that I'm wearing it. As much as some of my parishioners don't understand why I wear it to begin with, the rubrics of our service sometimes cause me to question it as well.
On the other hand, you know what? I do feel more "official" in vestments in a way that I don't while leading worship in a suit. This is probably due to my upbringing as much as anything: I have been part of churches in which vestments are worn way more than not. Besides that, however, leading worship in vestments seems more right to me than not, like I am taking on the yoke of my calling more properly when I vest. It is part of the tradition that I've known, and while I'm fine with bucking tradition if it has lost its meaning, I'm not completely convinced that this tradition has. Some days I do, but not always.
The other month was our ecumenical Holy Week service led by the local ministerial association. We don't vest for it basically because our Nazarene colleague doesn't. Our Lutheran guy wears a collar and our Catholic priest does tend to wear a stole, but for the most part we're all in suits for these community services. So I put on my suit and figured I'd wear my tie with crosses printed on it. I looked myself over in the mirror, and felt kind of...I don't even know. It's like the only way people might know I'm the officiant is because of my tie. That bugged me, and helped me see the other side of my ponderings about losing the vestments.
There is definitely an argument to be made against what I felt, of course. "Why does there need to be a designated officiant? Why do you get to dress up? Why are you special? Aren't we all ministers?" These sorts of questions are what causes me to question them, and it fairly easily can slide into a questioning of the concept of ordination. I personally answer that by saying that I've been called to be a guide to other ministers, set aside to pastor a flock of people meant to go out into the world and serve as faithful disciples. Vestments may be one of the outward signs of such a calling, but maybe we've put too much stock into this one outward sign at the expense of exploring other possiblities.
So many years after a younger version of myself first received the yoke of that stole around my neck, I've been wondering whether I need that outward sign of the invisible grace that was bestowed upon me that afternoon. It's becoming increasingly clear to me that my people aren't terribly concerned about its symbolism. In fact, it may be more symbolic and meaningful if I'd just wear "regular clothes," like them.
Or maybe that's all the more reason to keep such symbols around.