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Preaching Uniforms; What to Wear in the Pulpit

One of my impetuous classmates once decided Lo ignore local custom. He was preparing to preach in a church in Holland, Michigan—a church with a conservative, low-church background. Instead of wearing his navy suit, my friend donned his black Genevan gown. As he walked down the center aisle after the service, he was startled to hear someone hiss "papist!"

What my friend had overlooked is that for most congregations the minister's worship clothing reflects the continuity of the faith. The person who hissed "papist" feared that the radical change in the pastor's attire threatened the faith in which he had grown up.

Why the Differences?

The incident clarified one important point for me: preaching uniforms are important to all congregations—low church and high church alike. All of us have definite opinions about what ministers should wear, and usually these opinions are influenced by what garments had status at an earlier time in our tradition.

For example, those churches that stress the continuance of a pure faith from the time of the apostles through a continuous ministry are also usually those whose worship dress is dominated by the forms of the late Roman Empire. Thus, the familiar alb and chasuble of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions are descendants of the indoor tunic and outdoor cloak commonly worn by the Romans. Throughout periods of barbarian invasion, breakdown of government, breakdown of education, and the rise and fall of petty and princely principalities, the church testified to its continuity with the past both in its liturgy and in the clothing worn by its clergy.

Communions who in reaction, rebellion, or reform have found their apostolic continuity elsewhere have traditionally shunned and condemned the use of the alb and chasuble (hence the hissing my friend endured in a traditional Protestant church). Those who followed in the Reformed tradition initially expected their preachers to be dressed in the vestments of the Renaissance scholar, highlighting that here was a person who had the proper equipment to exegete texts in their original languages, thus being faithful to their apostolic source.As a result, the Genevan gown, or scholar's uniform, became the norm in most Reformed churches. Ironically, these reformers held on to the tabs, an insignia of ordination also worn by the Roman clergy.

The Church of Scotland expected their pastors to wear not only the scholar's robe and the ordination tabs, but also an academic hood, to forewarn the congregation about what kind of sermon to expect. (During most of the twentieth century a Glasgow hood has prepared the congregation for a liberal sermon, an Edinburgh hood for something more conservative.)

Further reaction, rebellion, or reform within the Reformed camp brought associated changes in clothing. Those who left the State Church also left its scholar's gown for some other type of wear: street clothing or formal civil clothing. (Some will remember the Prince Albert suit of striped pants and cutaway coat.) But one fact remained unchanged: what the pastor wore was important to the congregation and reflected its history and traditions.

What's Appropriate?

Today, many pastors are confused by the variety of possible preaching uniforms and are looking for guidance on what's appropriate for a given congregation. Does it make any difference what a pastor wears?

Sometimes it doesn't. If the congregation has been exposed to such a potpourri of clerical dress that it no longer identifies any specific type of clothing with faithfulness to the gospel, then the minister is free to wear whatever his or her insights dictate. On the other hand, if the congregation has strong attachments to the past, the minister should introduce a change in dress only after he has firmly established himself as a caring pastor who is faithful to the gospel. Many ministers lessen their effectiveness by offending members of their flock in minor matters, such as dress, and then wonder why they are powerless on issues close to the heart of the gospel.

In deciding what's an appropriate preaching uniform for a given congregation, a pastor should consider three factors. First, and most important, are the expectations of the congregation: the preaching uniform should assist rather than interfere with the proclamation of the gospel.

Second, is the historical dimension: what have the people of this tradition considered appropriate? The answer to that question depends on where a pastor sees him- or herself in that tradition. For example, does tradition in the Reformed Church in America dictate that I wear a suit, as did most of my boyhood pastors? Or should I wear an academic gown, with tabs, as did the clergy of the Reformed Church in the seventeenth century? How a pastor answers this question says much about where he or she stands within a tradition.

A third factor that should influence the selection of a preaching uniform is the psychological consideration: What impact do color and shape have on the congregation? Do the colors speak of joy or of sadness. Does the shape impart a sense of importance to the action, or does it diminish it?

If we lived in a world where these considerations of shape and color would not violate congregational expectations and traditions, I know what I would wear to preach in. I would prefer a white garment to communicate joy, gladness, purity, and resurrection. I would want it cut in the shape of a chasuble to lend a sense of special occasion. I would adorn it with a stole, preferably handmade to communicate human care and creativity, in colors appropriate to the church year.

Instead I will spend a considerable sum on a new black Genevan gown. That's what most people in the churches in which I preach expect. Still other congregations will want me to leave my chasuble, stole, and new black robe at home and to preach in my suit. And I will do so. To paraphrase Paul, one must be willing to suffer the loss of suit, robe, stole, and chasuble and count them as refuse in order that I, or at least the congregation, may gain Christ.

In A Word

Many of the garments described on these pages have a long history that includes many changes in detail and style. The definitions here describe the way in which each garment is most commonly used today.

Alb

Usually a long, straight, white robe, secured at the waist with a belt, or cincture (see Rev. 1:13). The alb is collarless and, in most traditions, has narrow sleeves.

Chasuble

Originally an outer cloak to be worn over other clothing (see 2 Tim. 4:13),the chasuble (from "little house"or "tent") became the cape/poncho-like garment worn over other liturgical garments. The chasuble has varied in appearance at different times in church history: sometimes it has been white,other times of a liturgical color; sometimes it has been plain, other times intricately embroidered with symbols.

Stole

A strip of cloth worn about the neck, over the alb or robe, usually as a sign of pastoral or priestly office. The stole may be the same color as the robe or, as is more common today, the color of the current church season (purple for Lent, etc.). Often stoles are embroidered with liturgical symbols, such as a cross or a dove.

Genevan Gown

A black robe, similar in style to a traditional choir robe or academic gown, with bell-type sleeves,and white tabs attached to the collar. Favored in many Protestant denominations, the Genevan gown can be traced back to Calvin's time, when clergy began to preach in academic robes.

Prince Albert Suit

A black coat with tails and striped trousers, popular in the late nineteenth century and favored for some time (even when no longer fashionable)by many Protestant preachers.