On Hymns, Vestments, and Funerals

Q. Opinions in our church differ strongly about the "dress code" for our minister and others leading worship (a range from polo shirt to "Catholic" vestments). We would appreciate any advice you can give us, especially about the use of robes.

A. I will here limit my answer to the wearing of special worship "vestments" (although the polo shirt versus the business suit is also an interesting issue). As often when discussing worship questions, it's helpful to be aware of a bit of history.

We can summarize the biblical pattern by noting that in Old Testament temple worship the priests wore garments especially designed for worship; in the New Testament church there is no special garb for those who lead worship. In the early church those who led worship wore the ordinary (male) clothes of the Roman world, including a tunic. However, over time, as clothes worn by "ordinary" citizens changed, the church maintained Roman style garb for clergy. Eventually these came to be seen as clerical clothes. In addition, as worship became more spectacular, the garments often became ornate and costly, with both the garments themselves and the decorative embroidery expressing liturgical symbolism.

The Reformation challenged this development, as it did so many other worship practices. The overall direction was one of simplicity, eschewing both ornateness and symbolism. Reformed and Presbyterian churches generally made one of two choices. One was to have the pastor's garb be similar to contemporary men's "dress" clothing (but always with a conservative bent). The other choice was the donning of the "Genevan gown"—a black academic robe, usually worn with white tabs under the chin. In Presbyterian circles the issue of clerical dress was often a more crucial one than in continental Reformed churches, because the Anglican church tried to force Presbyterians and Independents to wear "traditional" priestly robes. Presbyterians considered such vestments papist. That, very, very briefly, is a sketch of the history of liturgical garb.

Today, liturgical clothing style in Reformed and Presbyterian churches is extremely varied. The most common garb is the "business suit" for men and similar business dress for women. But robes are still used. Some clergy still wear the Genevan gown; others, especially in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), have adopted more colorful robes or white robes with colorful stoles.

It seems to me that the dress of worship leaders is a matter of what theologians call adiaphom—issues of secondary importance on which Scripture allows diverse practice. Here, as in all worship matters, the principle of appropriateness, of fittingness, is a prime consideration, as is the goal of each aspect of worship contributing to the praise of the Lord. One must also ask if liturgical dress creates a distance between leader and congregation.

If one does choose liturgical garb, I favor simple white (or off-white) robes for all those who lead in worship. The purpose of the robe is not to suggest a clergy-laity distinction, but to highlight that certain persons of the congregation have been set aside for leading the people in worship. White seems more appropriate than black (at least in most cultures), because in Scripture white is often associated with celebration and black with mourning. In addition, one can accentuate the liturgical season by wearing a stole with liturgical colors and symbols.

Q. Is it better to conduct a funeral service in church or in a funeral home?

A. Many family and local circumstances will determine that choice. In some situations, a funeral home may be appropriate. But more often I strongly favor conducting the service in the church building. Since a parishioner's life is normally tied closely to the life of the church, shouldn't the final "journey" also be associated with the church and the congregation?

Note: In RW 41 hymnwriter Fred Kaan was introduced; for those interested, he was featured in the latest issue of The Hymn (July, 1996, Vol. 47, No. 3).



In this column we have dealt several times with the question of changing the words of hymns. I recently came across another example. The hymn "Hasten the Time Appointed" in the Episcopal 1940 Hymnal contains these lines:

Let every idol perish,
Tiry truth to all make known.

However, jane Borthwick's original had the much more colorful

Let every idol perish,
To moles and bats be thrown.

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 42 © December 1996, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.