To Dress the Part

The photograph would raise few eyebrows today: a gathering of bishops in full regalia at the consecration of an Episcopal bishop coadjutor* in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. And yet the picture, taken at the turn of the last century, created a sensation within the normally staid ranks of the Episcopal Church — and not just because the group included several high-ranking observers from the Russian Orthodox and Polish National churches. No, the problem was not so much who was there but what they wore: the tall double-pointed hats called mitres and ornate ceremonial robes known as copes that were typically worn by Roman Catholic prelates. Although the image was in black and white, there is little doubt the bishops’ attire was as colorful as it was resplendent. This bunch would not have looked out of place in a Mummers parade. Small wonder that the photo quickly earned the sobriquet, “The Fond du Lac Circus.”

The photograph is believed to have been the first in which bishops of a nominally Protestant denomination appeared decked out as if for a Roman Catholic convocation. Reaction was swift among the dominant low-church elements of the Episcopal Church, which regarded the display of high-church finery as “ritual anarchy” and an unacceptable restoration of “popery.” The presiding bishop fumed that the vestments worn by the bishops at the Fond du Lac consecration had “no authority of use in the church.”

Looked at from the vantage point of the 21st century, when Episcopal bishops routinely strut their stuff on ceremonial occasions, it may be hard to understand what all the fuss was about. However, the Fond du Lac controversy was the culmination of a half-century of tugging and pulling between Protestant and Anglo-Catholic factions within the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church was a part. The Protestant Reformation itself had been fought in part over the place that ritual and fancy vestments played in worship.

The Church of England had practiced an amalgam of Protestant and Catholic modes of worship since Henry VIII broke ranks with Rome in the 16th century. As the established church in Great Britain, Anglicans generally sought to achieve a happy medium, albeit not without some friction as liturgical practices had tilted one way or the other. A threatened Anglo-Catholic tilt in the wake of the Oxford Movement in mid-19th century Britain led to legislation in Parliament banning such “popish” practices as using candles, incense and bells during services and priests wearing special vestments to celebrate communion. All are now common practice – or at least tolerated -- in many Episcopal churches today.

What difference does it make if a bunch of bishops want to display their plumage on ceremonial occasions? Does God care one way or the other? In fact, the Lord has taken an active interest from the beginning in human attire. Indeed, you might say he was the world’s first haberdasher, since it was the Lord God who dressed Adam and Eve in animal skins before they were unceremoniously booted from paradise in the biblical creation story. Thereafter, it was considered bad form to parade around in the altogether.

But is it possible to be overdressed if you are serving the Lord in some formal capacity? Jesus apparently thought so. He spoke approvingly of the attire worn by John the Baptist, who got his fashion sense from Adam and Eve, dressing in animal skins. “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.

The Risen Christ is often depicted in religious art dressed in raiment befitting a bishop at the Fond du Loc Circus. But these are otherworldly visions, not the world we actually live in. As Jesus tried to explain to Pontus Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” You would think that those who profess to follow in Christ’s footsteps would ask themselves, “What would Jesus wear?” The only time he wore an ornate robe in this world was when Roman soldiers dressed him in one to mock “the king of Jews.” And the only time he wore a crown, it was a crown of thorns. Had Jesus sat for a group portrait with the bishops at Fond du Lac, I am afraid he would have looked distinctly out of place.

*A bishop who assists the diocesan bishop and is in line to succeed him (or her).

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