I once received this email from a Lutheran pastor, who wrote:
“In my present call I have inherited a ‘contemporary’ service. In the negotiations that are always necessary in these scenarios, I insisted on vestments (alb and stole) for eucharistic celebrations. A member expressed concern over the ‘pomp’ behind such vestments. My response revolved around the themes of historicity, sacramental reverence, and the value in vestments as a ‘covering’ of the individual and a way to point toward the meal. However, my response feels inadequate somehow. How would you answer the question, what is the purpose and point of liturgical vestments for Lutherans?”
I told my fellow pastor that he gave a good answer. Vestments relate the Church of today to its origins. Vestments worn by leaders in world religions are almost always the clothing worn at the time of the founding, whether those leaders are Tibetan Buddhist monks or Iran imams or Christian ministers. When I stand before the congregation on Sundays in alb, stole, and chasuble, I look like a Roman gentleman from the early centuries of Christianity. The Eucharist is not casual dining (even if some of our modes of distribution look like fast food!). It is served by those who are attired to reverently handle holy things. Assisting as well as presiding ministers should be vested because vestments cover the person (and personality) of the minister in order to emphasize the office of the ministry. In fact, vestments promote both uniformity and distinctions: uniformity in office, distinctions among the offices. So the pastor is distinguished from assisting ministers or acolytes by wearing additional vestments, such as stole and chasuble.
One might tell those concerned about “pomp” that God himself approves of vestments. After all, it was the Lord God of Israel who fashioned the vestments of the high priest for his tabernacle and temple. Read the description of the priestly vestments in all their intricate detail in Exodus 28. Consider all the layers on the high priest and remember that this is God’s own instruction for his cult which is detailed in chapters 25-31. This divine instruction (torah) is given at the same time as the Ten Commandments. There’s no division here between worship and ethics! One must appear before the Holy God in a state of righteousness, which had inseparable moral and ritual requirements.
Then what? Moses comes down from the mountain and finds the people worshiping the golden calf. Talk about pomp! There was plenty of pomp in the dancing around the golden calf. The historic renunciations at baptism were of the devil and all his works and all his pomps. Away with the devil’s pomp; the Lord wants his own pomp—and deserves it. “Worship” means “ascribing worth.” “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power” (Revelation 4:11). “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12).
The church member concerned about “pomp” probably thinks that vestments are incompatible with “contemporary worship.” Has he or she ever attended a real rock concert? Has he or she ever seen all the pomp on the stage as the band plays, sporting colorful costumes, while lights blink and spotlights shine and fireworks go off and smoke rises thicker than incense? What’s a simple alb, the baptismal robe of righteousness, compared with all that!? So-called “contemporary worship” (which usually has to do mostly with music) is still the liturgy of the church, unless the word and the sacraments are suppressed in favor of a concert with a “message” (which is sometimes the case).
Even so, we must bring to the consideration of vestments a critical perspective. I cannot here trace in detail the whole ecclesiastical history and, yes, the political history of clergy vestments. But I would briefly note that at various times in Christian history vestments were provided or prohibited by political authorities. Constantine and subsequent Roman emperors gave to the bishops the insignia of the court to show their new status in Roman society (the origin of the stole and other items that have since passed out of usage). The alb was the basic tunic, and those who were baptized were clothed in a new white tunic when they came up naked from the font, signifying that they had “put on Christ.” The chasuble in its Eastern and Western styles was simply the top coat of a Roman gentleman, and patrons provided the bishops, presbyters, and deacons with robes (dalmatics from Dalmatia for the deacons) befitting their public function. These were kept in a sacristy closet as “Sunday best” to be worn in the liturgy rather than on the street. During the Middle Ages there was a tug-of-war between popes and kings over who would present the pallium to an archbishop. At the time of the Reformation, the English Prayer Book, authorized by Parliament, prohibited chasubles, which were associated with the sacrifice of the Mass, but allowed copes, since Anglicans loved processions. The Puritans would have no “popish rags,” not even a comely surplice, and these were abolished in the Commonwealth.
During the Age of Enlightenment vestments passed out of use among all Protestants, except for the preaching gown—and even that was shed by many American Protestant ministers. So in the nineteenth century romantic reaction there was an interest in recovering the lost vestments. The Gothic revival, which aimed to reclaim suitable attire for liturgical ministers who were performing restored rites in reconstructed late medieval church buildings, may have been successful because of the industrial revolution against which they were rebelling. The new vestments could be mass produced by machine in sweat shops instead of being sewn by hand in cloisters.
Because shoddy material not correctly displaying medieval folds were the result, purists like Canon Percy Dearmer established the Warham Guild out of a sense of ritual correctness and moral scruples. Such guilds returned to hand making individual vestments, although at a higher price. However, let us remember that vestments are fundamentally garments, not costumes. They are garments to be worn for special events, and therefore “off the rack” will not do. I’m proud that all the vestments and paraments worn and used at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston were lovingly crafted by the hands of a member, and good material was used.
The vestments are sacred garments. They derive their sacrality from the nature of the events for which they are worn. Since these events—the proclamation of the word and the celebration of the sacraments—are not trivial, neither can the garments worn by the liturgical ministers be trivial. If they are shoddy the vestments will amount to a visual statement to all who see them that the act in which they are used is less than it purports to be: the worship of the Creator of all things through his Son Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.
What is at stake in liturgical worship is both sober in attitude and splendid in scope. The vestments worn for such worship must be equally sober and splendid. Sobriety means that they are not billboards advertising ecclesiastical programs or ideological causes. The vestments themselves are symbols. They don’t need to be decorated with more symbols. They also contribute to the splendor of the divine liturgy. For this reason they are made of good quality natural material like lamb’s wool or silk and may be decorated with orphrey bands of brocade or gold or with nothing. Vestments modeling simplicity and splendor simultaneously might make a statement about the whole life of faith. It should not be ostentatious, but it should be worthy.