Some years ago the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut consecrated a new bishop at Yale’s Woolsey Hall in New Haven. I did not attend the ceremony but saw the gorgeous color photographs of assembled church notables in their medieval finery. I grew up in the Midwest in a “low church” Episcopal congregation, where fancy dress and ritual flourishes were pretty much kept in check. And while I appreciate grand spectacle, I can’t help wondering what it has to do with a church that claims its spiritual lineage from an itinerant preacher who made his grand entry into Jerusalem riding on an ass.
The New Testament ends with a glorious vision of Jesus seated upon a heavenly throne, which stands in stark contrast to the way he operated in life and the way he instructed his disciples to conduct themselves. He spoke approvingly of John the Baptist, who dressed in animal skins and subsisted in the wilderness on locusts and wild honey. “What did you go out in the wilderness to behold?” Jesus asked the crowds. “To see a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses.” He warned of religious authorities “who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places.” He sent his own disciples out without food or money or even a change of clothes.
How is it, then, that those who claim succession from these apostles now go about in long robes themselves? There was no indication of distinctive clergy dress in the early history of the church. Until the fourth century, Christians were a persecuted minority within the Roman Empire, and a separate priestly caste had not yet evolved. Once Christianity became a state religion under the Emperor Constantine, ecclesiastical office was regarded as a suitable occupation for Roman gentry. As respected members of society, church leaders were now expected to dress the part.
The white linen tunic worn by clergy during worship services today began as a simple adaptation of aristocratic Roman dress, as was the stole, the narrow strip of cloth worn around a priest’s neck. However, although secular styles changed with current fashion, church vestments did not, since long, flowing robes were regarded as more in keeping with the dignity of the office. As time went on, liturgical dress was made of costlier materials and was often richly embroidered. Bishops began wearing tall double-pointed hats called mitres as a distinguishing mark of their office, similar to the headdress worn by kings in ancient Persia and Assyria. They also carried a crozier – a kind of fancy shepherd’s crook -- to symbolize their role as shepherds of the flock (although it is hard to picture a shepherd parading about in full regalia).
Clerical vestments were abolished by most Protestant denominations during the Reformation. Anglicans (of whom Episcopalians are a part) briefly followed suit but have wavered ever since between Catholic and Protestant styles of worship, depending on whether high-church or low-church elements predominate. The role of ritual was still hotly debated throughout the nineteenth century, and Anglo-Catholic clergy were even jailed for liturgical practices that were regarded as overly ritualistic, including the wearing of vestments. Obviously, there has been considerable backsliding since.
So what would Jesus wear? The ritualists might argue that fancy dress is perfectly in keeping with a Savior who reigns in heaven as “king of kings.” And yet, while he lived, the only time Jesus wore a regal robe was when Roman soldiers dressed him in one to mock him. And the title “king of the Jews” was mainly invoked as an accusation against him in order to justify having him put to death. As Jesus tried to explain to Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” In this world, his only crown was a crown of thorns. In this world, one would think, those who minister in his name should take careful note of how he actually conducted his life and dress accordingly.