Clerical status or social status...

A few years ago our session received a formal request from a member of our congregation that the elders wear coats and ties when serving the Lord's Supper. We discussed the request at length and declined to honor it, not because we wanted to lower the authority of the elders or the solemnity of the meal, but because we believed this request, if implemented, would function as a statement of social status and class rather than serving to build the unity of the Body of Christ around the Table of our Lord. In other words, we were convinced suits and ties would encourage, not discourage, divisions among us (1Corinthians 11).

This is not true everywhere, I'm sure, but it is true here, and in my judgment, the dismissal of such decisions as pandering to the sins of our culture says more about the one making the accusation than those being accused.

Warning our congregation of the danger of pastors and elders wielding our authority far beyond the boundaries of Scripture, I've said that, were I to try, I believe I could make a good biblical case for painting the walls of our sanctuary black. And some would be convinced.

We all need to guard against the abuse of authority that grows out of what, in his form for the ordination and installation of ruling elders, A. A. Hodge labels "clerical tyranny."

There may be some contexts in which robes communicate more of the dignity of the office than the officer, more of humility than pride, more of reverence than class, but in my experience those places are rare. And similarly with suits and ties. For every church I've been in where suits are worn out of reverence for the Lord's Day and worship, I've been in scores where suits were only part of a much larger claim of social class and status--and went with many other similar signatures visible everywhere.

No one escapes such temptations, least of all myself. But only a fool would cultivate ignorance of them. This is the reason I often remind others (and thereby myself) that "All an Englishman's preferences are a matter of principle."



What do you mean by a "good" case for painting the sanctuary black? A remotely plausible one, good enough to fool the gullible?

Pastor Bayly:

I agree with your concerns about suits and ties, and I used to think the same about robes.

What changed my mind on the issue of robes was twofold. First, if you step into a courtroom the judge is wearing a robe. He wears the robe as a sign that he has authority from the state to act as a judge in this context. The robe leaves when the courtroom does because he doesn't have the same authority outside of the courtroom.

For elders ministering during worship, I see it as similar. They (if they choose to do so--I am certainly not advocating that this is a *necessary* practice) wear the robes as a sign that what they do is with the authority vested in them by the Church. Not just anyone can serve a sacrament, preach, or pronounce a benediction, for example. And I believe those actions are done in the corporate worship service with Christ's authority behind them and the sign of that authority in a clerical robe can be a good thing. Likewise, outside of that context, not everything a preacher says should be considered with that same authority and the lack of a robe symbolizes that his role is different in different times.

Of course I've been wrong before. :0)

Dear Jim,

Yes, your case is solid. In our discussion those arguments were made (even down to the robes of a judge), but we still came to the conclusion that status, not authority or office, would be the principal communication to the flock.

With affection in the Lord,


Well said, James. Unless someone is wearing a robe with golden inlays, I do not know how a simple robe communicates status (unlike a $500 suit and tie, which do). It communicates "office" to me.

The simplest Geneva gown can, and often does, communicate status. Just one example. I used to serve as a pastoral assistant in an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation where the pastor wore, each week, a threadbare suitcoat. Some members of the congregation were displeased with his attire--he was not slovenly, but only humble--and so they offered to pay for him to buy a new suit. He graciously declined.

A few weeks later, two robes appeared in his office with the request that those of us leading in worship wear a robe when doing so. And thus the church was raised back up to the proper status and class.

I don't object to pastors wearing robes, but only to those who deny that robes can communicate status and class, just like any other form of clothing.

Half a century ago, there was a federal judge in the Northern District of Illinois who was noted for two things (at least those are the two things which I heard about him): he had a full beard in a time when that was practically unheard of, and he did not wear a robe. Asked about the latter, he is supposed to have said, "If a man can't sit on the bench with dignity without a robe, the robe won't do it for him."

I aggre that there is a distinction between the use of robes and suits. A suit is worn in our culture to indicate secular formality, and can also carry implications of socio-economic status. Using it in a church setting doesn't separate it from that association. Clerical robes and such are solely religious garments. Nobody wears, say, an alb to the office or to a courtroom. Religious vestments are set aside entirely to mark the distinction between the sacred and the profane.

I'm not an expert on clerical duds, but I understand that for a Catholic priest, it's mandatory to wear the stole when administering a sacrament, be it Eucharist or absolution. Putting on the stole indicates that he's switching personae, and is now functioning in his presbyteral capacity. (I once saw a friend of mine buttonhole the priest before mass for a quickie confession; Father had to go get his stole before he could oblige.) I can't say what the requirements are for the other vestments, but that one piece of cloth carries a lot of canonical weight.

I validate Joel's understanding vis-a-vis the Roman Catholic priest. It is also correct for an Anglican priest and for a Lutheran priest and the Orthodox priest. It's part of Western catholic (note the small "c") tradition of vestment for clergy, and it has its analogues in the East Church as well. The notion that the presbyter is to be clad in utterly proletarian garb says more about the proletarian culture which gives rise to the notion than anything else.

That tradition varies in details over the centuries, partly due to fashion, partly due to the exigencies of ministry. But there are constants to it, especially the significance of the garb or elements of garb, and these constants include:

Office: clergy wear vestments to mark them as Christ's officers in administering the affairs of His church.

Rank: the laity (yes, they too have vestments!), deacons, priests/presbyters, bishops/overseers -- all these have distinctive garb relating to their various levels of responsibility in the Church. The stole is probably the most elementary garb of rank. It is a version of the yoke, and is worn differently by a deacon than a priest.

As to the "ornateness" of the vestments, may I remind everyone that God made clear that his officers were to be vested "for beauty and for glory" (Ex. 28;2,40). On the other hand, the stark blackness of vestments in many contexts is always a sign of abnegation.

Tim, I understand the rationale you and your leaders employed for your decision; and certainly no one is going to endorse "clerical tyranny." I must say I am a tad puzzled, if the Scripture -- ascribing the words immediately to God -- tells us a rationale for vestments which is dismissed for reasons arising far more from the egalitarian spirit of the age than anything else. Did no one feel this incongruity?

Fr. Mouser, I didn't know the stole symbolized a yoke. That's kind of interesting, because we tend to think of vestments more as a mark of honor rather than of great labor. So the stole is a burden to be borne rather than a means of showing off, as it were.


I make no claims to erudition on the history of the symbolism in the various vestments and accessories thereto. I have read many of the books (Roman, Anglican, Lutheran) which do make such a claim, and I find they are all saying the same things. My guess, therefore, is that the significations I reported are probably sustainable by anyone who wants to dig really deep into the history.

Why should not a yoke be both an honor and a signal of one under labor? After all, one of the first qualifications of an elder is that he recognize the office as a good thing and, so, desire it. Why would it not be honorable and an honor to be designated as one under the yoke of Christ?

As to features of vestments which have ancient significations of a burden, or humility, includes the copious use of the color black (as I mentioned before). Add to this a Eucharistic vestment accessory which has fallen out of use except for rare parishes (and rarer bishops) who insist on them -- the maniple. Its precursor is the waiter's towel, which he wore on his wrist or fore-arm, to mop up spills and such in the course of his service to guests at table.

Paul Bosch, a Lutheran writer on liturgy, says this about the maniple:

"The maniple (manus = Latin for "hand") is a white towel or napkin carried over the wrist of presider and servers at Holy Communion, at Baptisms, at various services requiring the use of oil, and at Maundy Thursday's foot washing, for example. It is a sign of their servanthood, recalling the white napkin of the head waiter in a dining room.

"As in the dining room, the maniple in Christian worship serves a utilitarian purpose: Worship leaders may use it to clean soiled fingers, or, at a baptism, to dry wet ones. The maniple is one of the most ancient vestments in Christian worship, and in antiquity it was a simple white cloth, draped over the wrist. The medieval maniple lost its functional purpose altogether and degenerated into a purely decorative -- and useless -- appendage: an elaborate flap of brocade or tapestry, in the color of the season, often fringed, dangling from the wrist.

"But the use of a maniple by clergy and laypeople who serve bread and cup at Holy Communion, or the water at baptism, or the oil at anointing, represents yet another of my lonely, one might say idiosyncratic, crusades. That is to say: I pray earnestly for the day when all ministers who exercise a servant ministry in worship, in handling the "stuff" of our world, will wear (and use!) a simple white cotton maniple, as sign of their servanthood -- even in informal settings where they might wear no other 'vestments.' "

As to the clerical collar, common to Roman clerics but also used by Anglicans, Lutherans, and fewer (but not rare) numbers of Protestants (see one on a Presbyterian minister in a recent photo Tim posted), its precursor is the slave collar worn by slaves in the Roman era in which the Church was born. A distinctive collar was worn by slaves as they moved about in Roman society. Paul picked up the imagery of the institution by calling himself the doulos of Christ. The clerical collar is one of the most ancient satorial marks of a vocational presbyter or priest.

Of course, like any other good thing, the use of vestments in various times and places have acquired meanings and significations alien or even hostile to their original signification. One can do two things about this:

1. Abandon what is good, because someone has spoiled it. The Zwinglian and Anabaptist streams of the Reformation did this with a vengeance. It would seem that amputation was the most common technique they used for reforming the Church.

2. Maintain what is good and teach, teach, teach, as well as model the significations of the vestments. This is what the English Reformation did at the time that many Continental Reformers were amputing things right and left. This is one pastoral reason I am very happy with the English Reformation.

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