Monday, August 27, 2007

Vestments FAQ

By request, I'm posting a document I drew up for the Office of Theology and Worship 0n the use of vestments. Peruse my predilections; I hope you'll find some use for it.

Historical Introduction

In Exodus 28 God dictated the vestments to be worn by the priests of the Old Testament; and for most items, he gave their symbolic meaning. Under the radical liberty of the New Testament, however, there is no such prescription or symbolism imposed by the Divine. Almost no Christian Church tried to use the vestments of the Aaronic priesthood. Instead, the common street clothing of the Roman Empire was used - however, rubrics from the time mention that those worn by the leader of a service should be clean and were normally white.[1] The early Christians saw their gatherings around the Eucharist as festive moments and sought to dress well, as if for a party (not out of any sense of sacerdotalism). As the Roman Empire declined in political sway, the dress of the general populace became shorter and tighter fitting, reflecting the fashions of the Germanic and Gallic tribes that had once been part of the Empire. The clergy, however, retained the older forms. Perhaps it was because at one time the tax systems of the Empire had paid their salary, or it may have been a near-universal conservative impulse among the clergy. Whatever the case, the clergy gave new symbolism to the clothing which they wore. We still have writings from the late Imperial and early medieval period where a new symbolism is gradually seen in what had once been ordinary clothes shared by everyone (see below under the description of each item for specific information).

As the centuries rolled on and the power and wealth of the Church increased, so too did its prestige. Out of an almost giddy sense of liturgical openness, following the expansion into lands far from Rome, a massive influx of music, poetry, narrative, and cultural distinctives changed the look and feel of the Church. Resources were directed toward the elaborate furnishings of the Church as worshipping communities sought to give their very best to the Church. It should be remembered that initially this was an outgrowth of the desire to honor God in their worship[2] and to provide sensory stimuli that would aid in the retention of teaching and of tradition among the illiterate. However, by the late 14th century, less noble intentions became normative. Various religious movements,[3] both lay and clergy-led, had called for radical vows of poverty and demanded that financial corruption and greed be purged from the Church. Reformed adherents to what the Puritans would later call “the Regulative Principle”[4] did away with the historic liturgical vestments as having no Scriptural mandate. In their place, the early Reformers wore their street clothes. At a time when you could tell a person’s profession by what they wore, persons with academic credentials wore their gowns at almost all times. Thus, the learned ministry wore the marks of their scholastic achievements in the pulpit. This was later enshrined and became a new sort of conservative holdover long after these clothes ceased to be everyday dress.

As the Church came into America, there grew an impulse towards simplification – silk gowns are not practical in the wilderness. Furthermore, many ministers had no formal academic degree that would entitle them to the gown of previous generations. Therefore, most Protestant ministers lost the tradition of wearing anything other than the “Sunday best.” They also noticed that this was in many ways a return to the earliest Christian communities who had no regulated forms of dress. Such egalitarianism also fit well with the ethic of the emerging country. A push toward progress relegated many traditions to a position of dusty, “Old World” obsolescence.

In recent years, particularly due to the influence of the Christian ecumenical movement, there has been a trend toward rediscovering traditions laid down by previous generations. Liturgical renewal has created a new demand for symbolism that engages as many of the senses as possible. Thus resurgence in the wearing of vestments that connect us with our forbears across time and denominational tradition is being realized. Below you will find a commonly accepted symbolic meaning for each garment as well as the ancient vesting prayer traditionally employed while one dressed, where applicable. May the reader find them edifying, profitable, and of benefit for both the wearer and worshiper.

Vestment Descriptions

The Alb is a full, white, ankle length garment. It has become popular is recent years because of its cheerful white color and innovative styling. The most ancient of Christian vestments, its origins are traced to the Roman tunic, a common piece of clothing until the 5th century. After a catechumen was baptized, they often received a bright white alb as a symbol of their spiritual washing. Thus, the alb is truly the garment of the baptized; as such, it can be worn by any baptized Christian who is taking a part in leading worship. After the fall of Rome, it became a garment unique to the clergy as normal dress. The alb was still worn by anyone providing service in the liturgy until it was supplanted by the surplice and cotta. The alb is best presented in its simplest form – without lace or ornamentation – so that its beauty may flow in its drape. Likewise, its meaning is best preserved when it is kept bright white instead of the flaxen or cream colors that are coming to dominate its usage in some places. It reminds Christians of the multitude dressed in robes, who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:14)[5]. The image reminds each believer that they now stand clothed in the righteousness of Christ and proclaims the hope that someday we will stand with that white-robed multitude washed in the blood of the Lamb. This hope is expressed in the alb’s vesting prayer: “Clothe me, O Lord, and cleanse my heart, that cleansed in the blood of the Lamb I may always enjoy eternal happiness.”

The Amice is a rectangular white cloth, worn as a collar with the alb. Originally designed to protect the finer, silken vestments from natural body and hair oils[6] and to ensure that the neck was unexposed (both for warmth and modesty). It is often omitted with contemporary albs because they close more tightly around the neck. Its historic use recalls the “helmet of salvation.” (Eph. 6:17) This vestment also served as the basis for the later academic hood. “O Lord, place on my head the garment of salvation to expose and reject the attack of the devil.”

Band or Tabs are worn on the style of academic black gown. The academic gown was originally used outside the church, but as a church garment was used first in England and later in Germany and among the Magisterial Reformers. Bands are the remnant of a wider ruff collar (such as was worn in the Elizabethan era). By the latter part of the 18th century they had become the provenance of all who had a university degree. Rarely seen in the US on anyone other than a minister, they remain in common use in the United Kingdom and Canada by barristers and academics. The shape, however, is somewhat different: barristers and graduates tend to wear bands that splay out at approximately an 30º angle and are approximately 6” long; ministers tend to wear bands that have a minimal, or even non-existent, angle so that the overall effect is of a set of bands that appear as a solid piece measuring 4” wide by 5” long. To some, the two tabs suggest the two tables of the Law (as in the Church of Scotland). Others think of “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Ti 2:15), law and gospel, or Word and Sacrament, but neither of these fanciful notions spring from original use. In some Scandinavian branches of the Church, it remains a rather wide ruff collar.

The Cassock is a full-length black or scarlet (for Doctors of Divinity) garment worn with a clerical collar. Like a fitted shirt above the waist and a full ankle-length skirt below the waist, the cassock comes in two styles. The Roman cassock buttons down the middle (traditionally having 33 buttons, one for each year in Christ’s life). The Sarum (more often called Anglican) cassock buttons at the right shoulder and the waist, with a special button on the chest for the anchoring of an academic hood. This garment began as a simple overcoat that was used for warmth by all classes of peoples in the Middle Ages. Its length was increased and the garment died dark black for the modesty of the clergy. The cassock is the traditional street clothing of the clergy. As such, it is not a liturgical garment in the strictest sense. It became a symbol of the public ministry of the gospel and for that reason was common clothing for preachers. In the pulpit, it is most often worn with bands (see above) under an open preaching gown (see below). In the liturgical churches, it is commonly worn underneath the alb or surplice. Thus, the contrast of the white on black serves as a vivid reminder that any righteousness the minister has is only by the imputation of Christ.

The Chasuble developed from the poncho-like cloak the Paul refers to in 2 Timothy 4:13. Originally it was a warm raincoat worn by virtually everyone until the time of the Frankish kings (c. ad 800). In the church of the High Middle Ages, the chasuble became a highly ornamented garment, made from expensive silks and embroidered in gold and silver thread. For that reason it became know as “the vestment.” The chasuble is worn over the alb during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Since it is exclusive to those ministers that are ordained to administer the sacrament, some associate it with the Roman Mass and sacerdotal privilege. More recently, liturgical churches of the Reformation have reclaimed this ancient, colorful and graceful vestment as more egalitarian than those vestments rooted in academic rank. Yoked around the neck and burdening the shoulders, the chasuble suggests Jesus’ words, “my yoke is easy and my burden light.” What a compelling invitation to Jesus’ supper when we recall that just before, he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Mt. 11:28) The prayer used as the chasuble is put on reflects this, “Lord, you said, ‘My yoke is sweet and my burden is light,’ enable me always to rely on your grace and assistance.”

The Cincture is the name given to the robe or belt used around the waists of an alb or cassock. The use of such a belt in Scripture is associated with a call to serve or be ready for action. (Ex 12:11, Lk 12:35 and 1 Pe 1:13) Bible students who recall Agabus’ use of Paul’s belt (Ac 21:11) might well be reminded of the chains of persecution (Mt 5:10,11; 10:17ff) or how Jesus was bound. (Mt 27:2) The traditional cincture vesting prayer sadly suggests a confusion of law and gospel. “Bind me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity and extinguish within me unwanted passions so that I may experience the virtue of continence and chastity.”

The Geneva gown is a V-neck academic gown. Historically black, it has in recent times been used in a variety of colors, and with other adornments. It bears the name of the University of Geneva, from which Calvin adapted it for clerical use. Even to this day, its predominant use is outside the church, worn by graduates, magistrates and judges. It signifies an academically trained person and especially one performing a public function. The Geneva gown has historically been preferred in the non-liturgical protestant churches that use gowns. Historically, the gown was worn open, over a cassock and bands and, in the English-speaking churches, the hood of the preacher’s degree. The sleeves were open, wide and bell-shaped. However, as the cassock ceased to be worn under the gown, the bell sleeve had a cuff inserted to simulate the cassock sleeves underneath. It was traditionally worn with a wide scarf of silk (see Tippet below) that was later changed to velvet and sown directly onto the front of the gown. When someone has a doctoral degree, Americans show the academic rank by adding three doctoral chevrons to the sleeve. In other times and places, it has been considered most appropriate to wear the academic gown of the officiant – whether that be a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate. However, the Geneva gown (upon which the American doctoral gown is based) has a long pedigree within the Reformed tradition and emphasizes the learned preaching of the Word (the doctoral, or teaching, function of the minister). While all vestments cover up the person wearing them the Geneva gown seems to draw the worshipers attention to a void, while vestments with liturgical significance, when properly understood, focus attention on the good news which is the reason and content of our joint worship.

The Maniple is a small stole worn across the left wrist. It is worn only when the chasuble is worn during the Eucharist. Probably because it was an impractical nuisance, it fell out of usage except for Roman Catholics after the Reformation. Originally, like the linen napkin a waiter wears across his arm, the maniple was used by Roman officials as they served. It became a symbol worn by an official when serving on duty. The maniple declares: “This person is here to serve you.” While a symbol of the minister’s public calling to serve, the maniple reminds all believers that true freedom is found only in a life of serving the Lord, not sin and its appetite. “May I fittingly wear the maniple of freedom, O Lord, so that I may always take satisfaction in my calling.”

The Stole is a silk or cloth band of the color of the liturgical season, worn around the neck and hanging down at the front. Originally it was a neck scarf used to wipe the face and chase away insects. Its practical function gave way to its symbolic indication that the wearer is functioning in his called office. It became thin (normally 2-3” wide) and was worn crossed across the chest for those ordained to the presbyterate and for deacons, from the left shoulder to the right hip. The stole was always worn under the chasuble. A recent trend is for a broader stole (often called a preaching or overlay stole) that is approximately 5” wide – which has virtually brought an end to the practice of crossing the stole across the chest. It often has symbols embroidered or appliquéd onto the front at breast-level and is worn over top of the chasuble (or, in the chasuble’s absence, just the alb or surplice). The pastor’s calling is to counter the effects of sin by proclaiming the mysteries of Christ. The stole’s vesting prayer reflects this symbolism. “Give me again, O Lord, the stole of immortality which I lost in the transgression of my first parents, and though I am unworthy to come to Thy sacred mystery, grant that I may rejoice in the same everlastingly.”

The Surplice is a full long, flowing white garb with full sleeves worn over a cassock. A Scandinavian innovation, it allowed pastors serving in cold churches to wear extra-heavy, fur-lined cassocks, which wouldn’t fit under an alb. The surplice serves as an alb, and by the time of the Reformation it replaced the alb for non-communion services. Most consider its symbolism to be the same as that of an alb; however, many have taken note of an alternate symbolism. A white garment worn over a black cassock, it can be thought of as symbolic of Christ’s righteousness covering our sin, or Christ’s glory driving out darkness. The surplice is worn with a stole if ordained, an academic hood if entitled (though never together with a stole), but the surplice is never worn under a chasuble.

The Tippet, or Preaching Scarf, is worn over a preaching gown or surplice. This remnant of the academic and monastic hood developed into a garment that was used to denote a special office – normally that of chaplain to a member of the gentry. However, it also had associations with academic institutions and was always worn by those who had been granted the Doctor of Divinity degree. It is part of the official “choir dress” (what is worn at a non-sacramental service) of the churches in the Anglican Communion. The tippet is also commonly worn in very traditional Presbyterian Churches (“traditional” in a manner that is consistent with usage prior to the turn of the 20th century). At its best, it is a 36” wide scarf of silk which is cut to a length that falls approximately 4” above the hem of the academic gown. Some demand that silk be reserved for those who have a doctorate, however major clerical outfitters only seem to sell one sort so the point is often moot. The tippet is folded and gathered at the nape of the neck, often under a cord designed for the purpose (still seen on finer academic and preaching gowns today). There is little done to curb the fullness of the garment apart from that gathering, allowing it to fall in graceful folds down the front of the gown. Though it is often seen with embroidered crosses or the seal of the seminary from which one graduated, it was not originally appareled in any way. For ease of handling, many tippets now come with pleats sown in permanently for ease of donning. It should also be noted that the velvet panels down the front of the Geneva gown are derived from this vestment. It is first and foremost a sign of the learned exposition of the Word and the authority of the minister to exercise pastoral leadership – but it does not carry the connotation of sacramental authority which is so heavily invested in the stole.

Practices Within Reformed Churches

Are you surprised by the wealth of God’s Word illustrated by these garments? Suddenly they are more than strange, but beautiful clothes. They are vivid reminders of truth and potential stimulants to gospel meditation. Obviously they were created by hearts moved by the message of reconciliation in Christ. However, as they became an end to themselves instead of a means to an end, their usefulness as symbols of the extension of Christ’s continuing ministry within and to the Church were obscured. Against such abuses, the Reformers vehemently protested the use of any “sacerdotal” vestment. Yet, with the abeyance of the 16th century need to differentiate churches as either Protestant or Roman Catholic (as though those were the only viable categories) and with the increase of ecumenical activities, it seems right to re-evaluate the usefulness of ecclesiastical vesture within the modern setting. They were edifying and profitable to Christians in the past and can be to Christians in the present and in the future, so long as they convey a meaning that is not tied to mere ornament.

First, it should be noted that the magisterial Reformers set out to completely do away with any “Romish innovations” and adopted the street-clothes of their day. As noted above, at that time graduates of academic institutions dressed in a distinctive manner (which, incidentally, is largely based on monastic forms of dress). This eventually became a new form of traditional vesture that was preserved in the pulpit long after it had been abandoned in the streets.

The churches of Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, and non-conformists (i.e., non-Anglicans) in England preserve this antiquated form of ecclesial-academic street dress most faithfully. There, the normal vesting of the minister is: full-length cassock (normally of the Sarum design), cincture (either a belt or wide strip of cloth that matches the cassock), bands and clerical collar, open gown (academic or Geneva), and (if appropriate) academic hood. The hood is worn on top of the bands. On top of the hood is often worn a scarf or tippet. If the preacher is particularly magisterial, he or she might wear a cap of some sort while not in pulpit (normally a John Knox cap or other piece of academic headgear).

One might wear the time-honored garb of the magisterial Reformation. The ubiquitous modern Geneva gown (and the “preaching gown” variations of it) is an updated version of those garments. One could certainly stretch back further in time and reclaim the cassock, gown, and bands that predominated the pulpit of Presbyterians from the 16th through the early 20th centuries. It provides for an element of sobriety and seriousness which can sometimes be inappropriately lacking in the pulpit. The caution is to recognize the legitimate human need for variety and color and provide alternative avenues for this need to be met when not done from the vesture of the minister.

Second, one might choose to wear the ancient vestments of the Church. In most Presbyterian Churches, this will not be something achieved in one week – or even one year. The strong antipathy of the Reformer’s anti-papal rhetoric still colors much of Presbyterian thought concerning church ornamentation. The renewed use of banners was largely responsible for the appearance of stoles worn over the Geneva gown. In Australia, Canada, and England – where Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians are largely governed by one ecclesiastical body (the United Church) – there has been a movement toward a uniform dress of alb and stole (with cincture optional). This has been done as a way of fostering ecumenical recognition of the clergy. The alb, being the garment of all of the baptized from ancient times, is a sign of solidarity with those who have been inducted into the common ministry of reconciliation in all times and in all places. The alb is also appropriate for any baptized church member who has a role in leading public worship (praying, assisting in the sacraments, presiding at ordinations and installations, etc.) and seems especially appropriate for officers of the Church. The stole, in like manner because of ancient use, is a sign of solidarity with all of those who have been set apart to labor in the ministry of Word and Sacrament to the Church in all times and in all places. Whether the chasuble and maniple are still too closely tied to a non-Reformed view of the sacraments is still unclear.

Thirdly, some churches that come from the magisterial reformation have chosen to abandon any type of vesture that may distinguish the pastor from any other person in the congregation. Rankled at the slightest hint of any clericalism, and affirming the verity of the priesthood of all believers, these Christians respond in a faithful manner that attempts to remove that which divides. However, we have seen that even in the adoption of street dress, certain decorum has always restricted flamboyance and immodesty.

[1] Thus you will notice the most primitive vesture of the Christian liturgical year is in the white vestments of Easter.

[2] cf. the overflowing generosity of the Israelites in Exodus 35:20-29 & 36:2-7.

[3] e.g., Waldensians, Franciscans, and the heretical Cathari and Albigenses.

[4] See Book of Confessions 6.103 and The Regulative Principle in Worship: A brief article.
by C. Matthew McMahon available at

[5] All Scriptural citations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise specified.

[6] Which could be quite substantial – in the medieval period, bathing was thought to expose one to disease. It was also seen an immodest. Perhaps this is why incense was so common in the churches!


Aric Clark said...

Quite an article Chris. Thanks for this.

Daniel Newman said...

Thank you very much for this helpful and comprehensive glossary of ecclesiastical vesture and its significance.

May I ask what your sources are for this?

Chris said...

My main sources were:
General - New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship by W/JKP, Davies ed.

Anglican - The Parson's Handbook by Percy Dearmer.

Catholic - The Catholic Encyclopaedia, online edition.

Lutheran - Eggerts of Hamburg and some internet resources I can't seem to call to mind (as well as their worship books).

I also made extensive use of the knowledgeable people EcclVest (of which I've been part for six years) and their counterparts at Academic Dress. I also contacted colleagues in the liturgical renewal networks and counterparts to our Office of Theology and Worship. The folks from the Uniting Church in Australia and the Church of Scotland were particularly helpful.

Later, I discovered a Unitarian who had his own site of the same sort. At least he go to Hell looking damn sharp!

Anonymous said...

I wear a clerical collar shirt (usually Protestant gray) under the Geneva gown.

I tell people that I don't wear a suit into the pulpit because I'm not a businessman!

Here's my guideline--Do I look more like a banker, a GAP ad. or a minister?

(And those womanly dresses the RC's wear? Ghastly...)

Chris said...


Before you get upset at the "dresses" the Romans wear, consider whether or not you look like a traffic court judge!

As for the popery, women normally look better in either cassock/surpplice or alb/chasuble than they do in the more masculine gown.

Hmm...maybe that's why our forbears wouldn't ordain women....

(P.S. Brian, I ain't tryin' to pick a fight over women's ordination. I have my own thoughts about that, as well as a sizable dose of submission to the PC-USA's constitutional standards.)

Frair John said...

You need to make a distinction between the Casock-Alb created by Lamy and called an "Alb" now and the actual vestment. In the 70's (when all bad liturgical stuff starts) Almy created a combination of the the Alb (Which should be pulled on over the head) with the Cassoc's closure system. The Almice was absorbed into the colar.

Chris said...

Friar John,

There is plenty to lament in the previous centuries in terms of liturgy, but the 1970s certainly gave more than it's fair share of sartorial sins.

There is simply nothing more lovely than an appareled amice sneaking out from the neck of a gothic chasuble. (I'm less crazy over apparels on the alb, as it looks strange unless fully vested.)

I don't have a big problem with the cassock alb, which can be done well. It has been done poorly, though. And I can't stand to see a collar peeking out from under an alb whose neck is too open. They have inexpensive dickies that can be worn under them to present a nice, clean white appearance. I'm also not terribly happy with how the traditional alb looks when it is uncovered (i.e., no chasuble). Even with English smocking at the top, I don't like it.

However, that is truly adiaphorous. Thus, de gustibus re vestimentibus non disputandum est!

Frair John said...

I tend to be a Cassoc and Surplice with either Hood and Tippet of stole kinda guy myself for some reson. It may be that I tend to dislike the sloppy way Albs have come to be worn.

As for the Alb w/out anything else, I'd have to agree. I much prefer the Cope to just "naked" albs.

Chris said...

The cope is grossly underused. It's also been largely abandoned to pontificalia, when in fact it can be worn by anyone in Holy Orders. It is also equally appropriate over a cassock and surplice.

For those of us with a Calvinist bent, it's a fine way to add some color without relying on the chasuble (which would simply be "too popish"). It's also a great addition to a funeral procession (either in purple for non-churched or in white for those having a more sure hope of resurrection). But now I'm getting persnickety.

My own preference: cassock, surplice, bands, hood, tippet for preaching; cassock-alb, rope cincture, stole, cope for mid-day Eucharist (replace cope with chasuble for more solemn occasions, such as the Lord's Day service).

If you really want to be considered odd: Sarum cassock, wide band cincture (pleated silk, no falls), gown (Cantabrigian MA, if you please), silk tippet (folded - no sewn pleats), and Canterbury Cap for everyday wear.

Frair John said...

Dear Sir, none of that sounds odd to me at all.
When I served as Verger last at my Parish I wore my Masters gown (American) over a simple servers cassoc.
I do have to wear my Oblate Habbit a good deal, but I've found that using a blue lay tippet when I'm preaching in it, helps make the moment more formal.

Chris said...

Of what order are you an oblate?