Gown talk

I wanted the talk about clericals and vesture to cool down — there are lots of other things far more important to talk about. But I also hate to see a discussion hang.

A few points in no particular order.

Butterick sells patterns for gowns: a pattern that doubles for the Geneva (preaching) gown and choir robes. (They also sell a cassock pattern, which I understand has become popular among Matrix fans.)

I confess I have vesture dreams of unrealistic grandeur. Once I heard about the epitome of High Reformed vesture: cassock and collar with bands, gown, hood, cape and cap. The sort of thing I imagine one would wear if accompanying Charles I to the block. But short of Jesus Christ returning to Earth via Siberia, I can’t imagine an occasion that would require such a get-up. Still, I do have the cap.

Despite what Philocrites said earlier, and what is oft repeated: the customary black ministerial gown is originally a medieval ecclesiastic garment, and only later academic one, and thus not fundamentally one. Except, of course, that the universities came out of the church’s need for trained professions. (Don’t use a graduation gown in worship; they’re cut a bit differently.)

But Philo is right to wear a gown — even if occasionally, and I hope this addresses one of Matthew’s earlier concerns — because the gown (without stole, bands or anything associated with the ordained state) is an appropriate garment for anyone entrusted by the church to engaged in a ministry with a position of invested leadership in worship. (Is that vague enough?) For trust, read somewhere in the ambiguous “in care” process prior to ordination, or a locally appointed chaplain or lay leader.

It is ecclesiastic (pertaining to the church) not clerical (pertaining to the clergy). After all, if not directly “on the job” a gown would be an inappropriate garment for anyone to wear.

So, getting back to Chutney’s point: clerical garb and not vesture is appropriate street ware. Mine is black suit, clerical shirt with collar or banded shirt with clerical vest and collar. But you have to be careful and thoughtful. Sacerdotal churches keep their priests in uniform 24/7. I only wear them whem I’m in a setting where I’m exercising a ministerial role. Wearing them is a public witness to the ministry, and there are many, many people who are glad to make you an object of projection. (And directions, as in “Fawder, do y’know the way to the Air and Space Museum?”) If I lived in Boston, I might eschew them or at least out of doors. This is a fine point. Now that I’m not in a parish, I’d probably not now wear them to meetings (like I have done at General Assembly) but I do when I preach or lead a wedding. Sometimes if I have secular errands after a churchly event, I’ll cast off the jacket and detachable collar. It can be a bit Johnny Cash, but that’s better than the “Father Brown Goes to Safeway” bit.

Speaking of — I think if you’re not going to wear them in church, it is an abuse of your ministerial standing to wear them at a demonstration.

Comment to your heart’s content!

Later. Chutney remarks that there’s a parallel discussion at AKMA. Be sure to catch some of the comments; I would fit in well in that group.

Keeping with what Chutney also said, a former (Unitarian Universalist) minister of mine wore a white gown of a style normally used to baptize adults. (I think she had the weights removed.) And as I said before, I think I’d wear a white garment — probably a surplice over cassock, specifically — because of the white baptismal garment synchronicity. It also reminds me of that line in the Te Deum: “the white-robed army of martyrs praises you.”

Now, not everyone needs a white robe or black for that matter, and perhaps I’ve come across as too percriptive. Read the foregoing as, “if you’re going to do x, then do it well, and here’s a range of traditional options.” That said, Left Coast Unitarian asnwered his own question about what’s proper liturgical attire at his lay-led fellowship: “In our fellowship, the custom is a suit for men who lead a service.”

Author: Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

9 thoughts on “Gown talk”

  1. AKMA is on the subject at http://akma.disseminary.org/archives/2005/04/what_i_wear.html

    Ain’t nothing wrong with a bit Johnny Cash. Nothing at all.

    Maybe I could go for the collar, but without the black. This would also get me out of wearing hated ties. Less conspicous, but still a sign. It also could be seen as saying that, yes, I’m a minister, but I’m still a regular guy—I am not on a higher plan than you. (Here, asumming I was really ordained and not just “internet ordained” and would therefore have reason to wear clerical garb.)

    One reason I wore a cassock alb (usually just for monthly communion Sundays) was that is was (intended, at least) as just a baptismal gown—any Christian could wear it. We need some options like that–that can signify the “priesthood of all believers” without veering into clericalism.

  2. Hey Guys!

    I don’t really have anything to add but wanted you to know that this is one of my favorite discussions. Don’t let it die!

    For the record, I do not wear a collar except very rarely (once every couple years or so) and only if there is a good reason. On Sunday it is the Geneva and stole of seasonally-appropriate color. Doing the colors at the Eliot church doesn’t come from the UCC side of things so much as from my UU Christian predecessors. The same can be said for the robe. In fact, congregational memory declares that both the interim immediately before me and the longest serving minister of the church (Walter Kring not too long ago) were both suit preachers… I must admit, I am often tempted to drop the stole during Ordinary Time and possibly even the robe, too…

    You know, its funny but now that I am in a Christian church–and one where people dress worshipfully for Sunday morning–I don’t feel the urge so much to wear the “churchy” clothes. That having been said, while neither I nor my congregants would miss the robe & stole most Sundays, they (and I) would miss it for communion (first Sunday of the month), new member services, and Baptisms (about once a month, too). So there ya go…

  3. About wearing a collar in Boston, I wouldn’t wear a tab collar because that is what our Catholic brothers wear, but a full collar and then a different color suit or something that makes folks realize that you don’t fit the usual picture of a clergy person, but becareful or some might think that you are trying to impersonate a priest.

    As for robes, Scott knows my own personal choice a “split sleeve Geneva” available at Wippells ( http://www.wippell.com/ ) I would do a bad job describing it so I’ll let your imaginations run. I wear it with my hood, maybe a collar and tabs if I’m feeling like I want to scare people.

    What our pal Unity and i are trying to get our hands on are Parson hats, you know those round flat hats that preachers always wear in cowboy movies and as soon as you see someone wearing it you know “that’s the parson.”

  4. I’ve also enjoyed this “thread” although I’m naturally still interested in Scott’s answers to my probing and probably impertinent questions. Scott, I’m really interested in how you manage your religious identity because I think the experiences of Unitarian and Universalist Christians are instructive to religious humanists, who seem to be facing a post-Humanist Unitarian Universalism in much the same way that we’ve inherited a post-Christian Unitarian Universalism. (A phrase, I am proud to say, that I have never embraced.) I want to know how someone in your position manages a meaningful identification with Unitarian Universalism because I fear I will one day be in your position, too.

    As for vestments and clerical garb (thanks to you I now know the difference between them), I am tempted, like Emerson, to say: “Why should the vest on him allure/Which I could not on me endure?” You wouldn’t know it, but I have a background in textile design. It was actually one of the ways I realized I was thinking about ministry. All my projects began to take on religious themes and my work became more and more an expression of my sprituality. I find vestments alluring, but they do go against my principles, at least until I can be persuaded otherwise. I will take the advice about a gown, however, and at least have one made that fits.

    I have designed a whole line of “religiousware” with a difference: I would like to see lay people have the opportunity to make and wear garments that reflect their local liturgical tradition. I currently offer a workshop about Praying with Our Hands and I’d like to continue this work in the future. Participants can, for example, work together to create a gown to be used for child dedications. So far, this has been my creative response to the vestment issue. Gowns for everyone! Silly, I suppose, but there you have it.

    I should answer your question, too: It wasn’t a funeral; it was Christmukah.

  5. I am still entertaining the dream of a Chalistry (a UU monastery, sort of), and of course we would need some sort of clothing for that.

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