Dressing up. The fashion industry testifies that clothes have importance to us. They allegedly ‘make the man’! If nothing else, they communicate messages about the wearer whether they be functional or ceremonial or personal. Wearing a uniform isn’t necessarily dressing up but it can be. (Is that a mixed message?) Wearing something personal might reflect an individual’s choice or could be blind consumerism to remain fashionable (one of the herd). Overall we learn pretty quickly to read the messages of the clothes that people wear so that we notice when people ‘dress up’ – there’s something different – what is being said by what is being worn?
I remember early in my ministry in Australia there was a ‘wave’ of ‘anti-vestments’ among some of the pastors. The argument was that 1. Jesus didn’t talk about vestments; 2. There are no references in the New Testament to vestments as a requirement of the ministry; 3. Vestments are a barrier to presenting Jesus today. Consequently these guys wore ‘smart casual’ and there was, not unexpectedly, a ruckus. I had sympathy with them – we don’t want the clothes to ‘get in the way’ of people meeting Jesus and focusing in-stead on the pastor – but I didn’t agree with the ‘keep the vestments in the cupboard’ call.
The New Testament does talk about ‘white robes’ and the 37th Canon of Hippolytus (4th Century) – probably the earliest church reference to vestments – says: ‘As often as a bishop takes of the sacred mysteries, let the deacons and presbyters be gathered together, clothed in white robes, brilliant in the view of all the people; and in like manner with a reader.’ Maybe it was my theatre background but I did appreciate the power of costume on stage and I recognised the value and use of a uniform. I also wondered why my colleagues chose ‘smart casual’ as the alternative and not suits or jeans and t-shirts because what they wore was still sending a message.
These thoughts came periodically to mind as Pastor Steve and I would ‘spar’ over his liturgical wardrobe but particularly so when he offered me a cope. (He had two.) Now a cope is a mantle or cloak – open at the front – fastened with a broach or clasp – and worn over the usual vestments. They tend to be very ornate. You see them in churches – well some churches – but also as formal academic dress in universities. They’re not my ‘style’. But then Steve mentioned ‘gold’ and I’ve had an until now secret wish that if I was to ever get another stole, it would be a gold one (for Easter Sunday and Christmas Day) as I wanted to highlight it’s special status in the season.
Of course what is important isn’t what I (or the church) are silently saying with vestments but more so what people are ‘hearing’. In this situation, the clothes definitely don’t make the man (because he wants to be invisible!). I suppose this is more culture than theology, history rather than dogmat-ics. We don’t have the luxury to set the church’s fashion wardrobe because we live in the twenty first century rather than the first century. Fashions nevertheless may change and one needs to be careful that whatever the changes are, people always somehow ‘see’ Jesus who keeps coming to us to serve us through words, water, bread and wine. — GS
PS. A blessed Mothering Sunday to all mothers! I hope you don’t wear any ‘work’ clothes today!