What am I going to wear? Some history and meaning of clergy vestments

No this is not a question before the big dinner party.  It’s a question some clergy can be heard asking themselves Sunday morning.  As the tectonic shift in the mainline churches continues, every aspect of what it means to be the church is on shakier foundations then before, and is questioned.  Why do we do that again?  What does it mean?

And what clergy wear – from t-shirt and jeans of the disestablishment church pastor, to the tattooed arms of the incredibly authentic and cool pastor, to the bishop’s big hat – there is an amazing range of what’s on offer.

So, here is a very quick review of the history of clergy vestments, leading to the current Reformed tradition.


Aaron to Reformations

In the Hebrew Bible, the Aaronic priesthood had special vestments, set aside and consecrated for the priestly ministry.  These are created by artists and beautiful, which included an ephod (gown) woven with gold.  God says to Moses, “Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron to give him dignity and honour. Tell all the skilled workers to whom I have given wisdom in such matters that they are to make garments for Aaron, for his consecration, so he may serve me as priest. These are the garments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod,a robe, a woven tunic, a turban and a sash.”  Exodus 28:2-4

In Jesus’ time vestments still are used in the Temple (c.f. Mark 12:38-40a., and the ‘long robes’).  I find no evidence that Jesus wears a different set of vestments himself.  Some do call him, ‘Teacher’, suggesting rabbinic dress.   And the first churches have no distinction between what their leaders and congregations wear.

By 100 AD, however, at least one leader uses some kind of vestment – Justin Martyr wears his philosopher’s gown while teaching Christianity.  (This seems, however, to be less a vestment and more a continuation of something he had always done.)

By 428 AD, distinctions in dress between church leaders and non-leaders begin to arise.  And  are discouraged.  Pope Celestine rebukes certain bishops of Gaul for wearing attire which made them conspicuous.  The Pope lays down the rule that “we [the bishops and clergy] should be distinguished from the common people [plebe] by our learning, not by our clothes; by our conduct, not by our dress; by cleanness of mind, not by the care we spend upon our person” (Mansi, “Concilia”, IV, 465).

One of these first distinctions seems to be when the ordinary dress of the population – the long tunic – is shortened.  Clergy are wearing these, the same as everyone, but as  society goes to the shorter tunic, it may be the clergy hold on to their longer ones.  And so a distinction arises.

The stole, seen theologically as maybe a Jewish prayer shawl or a type of cloth that Jesus used to clean the disciples’ feet, most likely comes from the Roman sash.  Eventually it is used by only by dignitaries, but clergy soon adopt these as a vestments too.

The long robe and the stole may be the oldest clergy vestments.  But many others are added as the Church grows.  This continues in the Western Church in great ceremony, to the point of the Reformations, when each part of the priestly and bishopric vestments have a prayer as each piece is donned (*vesting prayer, see below).  This ceremony becomes optional in 1969, and up to then is mandatory.


Reformations Onward

The Reformations in Europe in the 1500s lead to other clergy vestments.

Most famous is Andreas Karlstadt, who announces publicly that on Christmas Day 1526 he will say the Mass in the language of the people.  He appears at Mass and officiates in his simple black University lecturing gown, discarding the intricate priestly vestments.  Martin Luther is appalled and wants slower change, but three years later is in the simple black robe.  By then Karlstadt identifies fully with the people and wears regular clothes when he leads worship.

John Calvin also dons the black academic robe and instructs his ministers to do the same.  One reason is that at one point he is not ordained but is preaching, so wears his legal lawyer’s robes from his study of law.

The clergy collar, like the long robe and stole, arises from common use in society, about 350 years after the Reformations.  In the 19th c. it becomes fashionable to turn your shirt collar down but make it go high up on the neck.  People have lace and design sown into the inside of the collar for decoration.  Priests take on the custom, and eventually develop their own decoration, a stiffed white tab.

The full band appears to have developed independently, as apart of the Anglican church, first formalized by a Scottish anglican Rev. Dr. MacCleod.  It too is thought to have come from a societal trend, this time of tying a white tie around one’s neck.  The upper class clergy eventually develop their own version, a full white high neck band.


What I am going to wear?

Although the tunic/cassock, stole and collar therefore seem to have little theological import or significance in their beginning (except say for Calvin and Karlstadt’s robes of teachers), they have come to mean something – especially the collar as the identifier, the uniform, the widely accepted outward sign that this person is a Minister in the Christian church.

In deciding what to wear as clergy, both the history and the current meaning, matter.   The church gives meaning to things over the ages that at don’t first have or find meaning their in Scripture.  

And so pastors are faced with choices.

C. S. Lewis said, “The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the worshiper’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper place of ritual.”

Vestments are often considered adiaphom, things, in different in the reformed tradition.  But when choosing what to wear remember that vestments do something in the community of faith – you’re recognized as there as one with a particular vocation, new comers can see you, there’s a measure of authority with the vestments.  They can add a measure of liturgical drama, can be a connection to the ancient and can point to worship as something different and other.

Colleen Caroll writes in The New Faithful about young adults, new ministers and priests going into the ministry.  And they’re in full liturgical dress!

Finally remember that whatever you wear, Paul’s direction to the early churches matters more than anything you wear – Clothe yourself with love.  Colossians 3:12-17



*Vesting Prayer


Vesting Prayers in Latin and English

Dominus, pars hereditatis meae et calicis mei, tu es qui restitues hereditatem meam.

O Lord, the portion of my inheritance and my chalice, You are He who will restore my inheritance.


Praecinge me, Domine, cingulo puritatis, et exstingue in lumbis meis humorem libidinis; ut maneat in me virtus continentia et castitatis.

Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and quench in my heart the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me.

Washing Hands

Da, Domine, virtutem manibus meis ad abstergendum omnem maculam ut sine pollutione mentis et corporis valeam tibi servire.

Give strength to my hands, Lord, to wipe away all stain, so that I may be able to serve Thee in purity of mind and body. Amice
Impone, Domine, capiti meo galeam salutis, ad expugnandos diabolicos incursus.
Lord, set the helmet of salvation on my head to fend off all the assaults of the devil.


Dealba me, Domine, et munda cor meum; ut, in sanguine Agni dealbatus, gaudiis perfruare sempiternis.

Make me white, O Lord, and cleanse my heart; that being made white in the Blood of the Lamb I may deserve an eternal reward.


Praecinge me, Domine, cingulo puritatis, et exstingue in lumbis meis humorem libidinis; ut maneat in me virtus continentia et castitatis.

Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and quench in my heart the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me.


Merear, Domine, portare manipulum fletus et doloris; ut cum exsultatione recipiam mercedem laboris.

May I deserve, O Lord, to bear the maniple of weeping and sorrow in order that I may joyfully reap the reward of my labors.


Redde mihi, Domine, stolam immortalitatis, quam perdidi in praevaricatione primi parentis: et, quamvis indignus accedo ad tuum sacrum mysterium, merear tamen gaudium sempiternum.

Lord, restore the stole of immortality, which I lost through the collusion of our first parents, and, unworthy as I am to approach Thy sacred mysteries, may I yet gain eternal joy.

Dalmatic (Deacons and Bishops)

Lord, endow me with the garment of salvation, the vestment of joy, and with the dalmatic of justice ever encompass me.


Domine, qui dixisti: Iugum meam suave est et onus meum leve: fac, ut istud portare sic valeam, quod consequar tuam gratiam. Amen.

O Lord, who has said, ‘My yoke is sweet and My burden light,’ grant that I may so carry it as to merit Thy grace.

Pope Francis Notes

I am fascinated on many levels with Pope (Francis). How he is approaching theology, politics and tradition in the context of the Roman Catholic branch of the church.

These are collected points, which I will add to as they arise.

1    Here is a great presentation by James Howell on Pope Francis’ life and work so far.

2   Pope takes mini-bus with other Cardinals after his election, instead of chauffeured Vatican car.

3   Pope refuses to personally judge in a liturgical setting people who are gay.

4   Pope says women will never be Roman Catholic priests.

5   On 500th Anniversary of the Reformations, the Pope travels to Lutheran Sweden, “recognising error and seeking forgiveness”.  That is a very, very large step, given the RC tradition still officially sees churches in the Reformed and Orthodox branches as in imperfect relationship with, and not part of, the true church.  (However, if baptized, they are seen as Christians.)  So this move toward each other, in the RC and Lutheran churches is a 500 year shift.

6  Pope signs joint agreement with Orthodox Church, which brings them closer together but does not address theological and ecclesiological differences that led to the Great Schism of 1054.  Still, wow.



Book Review: The History of Theological Education

history ofThank to Richard Topping for pointing out this book.  I have always loved Justo L. Gonzalez since reading his two volume The Story of Christianity in seminary; an institution Gonzalez argues in The History of Theological Education has only existed for the training of pastors and clergy since the Reformations and the Council of Trent (1545).  In fact,  for most of the Christian movement leaders in the church have been trained by other leaders in the church,  or later, schools in churches and monasteries.  This was initially through the very robust sometime two year courses (catechesis) in the early churches, then later it was through taking on a mentor, and reading books on theology, and the Scriptures themselves.  For a time, to become bishop you would write out your Christian theology, send it to neighbouring bishops, who would then agree to your appointment or not.  I appreciate that Gonzalez is able to show how theological education is deeply integrated into the life of local churches and relationships with other teachers.

This looser, more apprenticeship and self-learning model, which started as education for every Christian in the church, developed for hundreds of years, into more organized cathedral and monastery schools, where learning was more collective, but such learning was still not specifically ‘to become’ a pastor, but for the love of the knowledge of God, and to draw closer to Christ.

Gonzalez’s makes clear how this approach differs to the current seven year University education it takes to be ordained in many mainline churches, including the PCC, today.  Beyond the beginning of formal seminaries in 1545, our current system, Gonzalez points out, has its roots in Fredriech Schleiermacher era and the beginning of the University of Berlin in 1810.  This is where theology  began to slip into the category of other professional degrees such as law and medicine.  The concept became that to be a minister in the church one must take many courses, gain many credits, and know a lot. (1)  He notes how this led to sermons and a pastoral approach that focused heavily explanation and academic reasoning and less on what a text might mean for a person’s daily life.

Gonzalez offers many implications for theological education today.  He first acknowledges that theological education in our time is in crisis.  Many institutions are struggling financially and with either enrolment or post M.Div. congregational placement, or both.  (Former Bishop William Willimon points out the Vancouver School of Theology as a rare school that is currently bucking this trend.)

One implication I find fascinating, and which Gonzalez highlights, is a branching off in theological education away the very formal Berlin multi-year University model, which remains needful and very valuable, towards one that allows more flexibility for those with recognized gifts and callings for ministry to practice in a local congregation.  This is something that I recently commented on under, Training Pastors (#4), in Putting GA 140’s wisdom in Place.  Gonzalez notes such programs in the United Methodist Church called, Course of Study; in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, T.E.E.M. – Theological Education for Emerging Ministries; in the Episcopal Church, the Reading of Orders.

One example Gonzalez doesn’t mention is the returning trend of local churches having their own theological schools, like Holy Trinity Brompton School of Theology, London, England.

It is a thin book (155 pages), and its scope remains fairly focused on the history of theological education in Europe and Mediterranean basin, but as the Christian movement has grown throughout history, especially in the two centuries in Asia, Africa and South America, I would have found helpful Gonazelez comments on how education in those parts of the church have also developed.

Finally, Gonzalez argues for a resurgence in theological education for all, not only to train ‘professional’ pastors, on the basis that our current time in the church is most similar to the first centuries, in that many people today have about as much exposure to Christian teaching than those first hearing about Christianity then.

So any opportunity in the context of the local church, which was near the centre of theological education for 1500 years, to teach strongly and helpfully on what Christianity is about, is a good one.


(1)  A contrast to the first call to the apostle’s – Come, follow me! – and Peter’s own educational background, which as a fisherman in Israel would have been minimal to nil but very much focused on the impact of a rather passionate connection to Jesus himself.


Traditioned Innovation

Thank you Richard Topping, for sharing this.  Try new things.  Experiment.  And rapidly scale what works. Summarized in poem by Mary Oliver:

I did think, let’s go about this slowly.
This is important. This should take
some really deep thought. We should take
small thoughtful steps.

But, bless us, we didn’t.



Post-Anxiety Church

Article by the President of Princeton Theological Seminary on all the talk about the future of the mainline church.  Forget that he says.  The church is simply called to sacrifice itself to its mission.  No rational reason for survival of the church over 2,000 except that Jesus lives and uses it to bring God’s kingdom.  http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-01/post-anxiety-church