Unitarian Universalist ministerial vesture continued

Most recently, Matthew Gatheringwater said:

Wouldn’t your argument work better, however, if it related to a pre-existing uniform vesture among Unitarian Universalist ministers? By adopting a style of vesture that is uncommon if not singular among Unitarian Universalist ministers, aren’t you in fact emphasizing your distinctness, rather than your uniformity?

old nameplate showing me in gown, collar, bands, and hood.

Uh, what I wear for the most part is pretty common, apart from the collar and bands, and even these are still found in some of the eastern Christian churches in the UUA, and the kindred Non-Subscribing Presbyterians in Ireland. But since I tend to think of myself as a Christian first, and a Unitarian Universalist (institutionally; I’m not a unitarian at all) second it is I had a more Protestant “uniform” in mind.

I’ve only known one person to really dislike the bands, and a few others said they make me look Scottish. (“No, not Ish, just Scott, thank you.”)

See these pictures from the 1998 Service of the Living Tradition. (I was going to make a bunch of links, starting from the earliest web coverage of GA, but you get the point. I just wish the godawful stole parade, seen in others years, would end.)

Irony alert: the largest group of hood-and-gown wearers in the UUA are the older humanists.

I’ve put up the old nameplate of this blog because it is the clearest good-hair-day image I have of me in my garb. (I’m still looking for the original to adapt to the current color scheme, so I can bring it back to the front page, and retire the image of me from 1977ish to my bio page.)

Were you (y’all?) thinking I meant something else?

By Scott Wells

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


  1. To the rest of the world, an in-joke follows, as I know the writer’s True Identity:

    OK, Knuckles: be nice.
    I know what kind of stole your loveslave love-equal-partner-in-life made. And it was even more fabulous, if something that I would poo-poo in common UU use.

  2. So, if you identify first as a Christian in religious community in which Christians are currently the minority, is your Protestant Uniform really a kind of protest, or at least a way of visually signalling your distinct identity? And am I reading you correctly? Are you saying that you (how, exactly?) subscribe to the doctrine of the Trinity?

    I didn’t realize robing was so common. I’ve seen it at special ceremonial occasions (installations, graduations, service of the living tradition) but I’ve only ever come across two regularly robing UU ministers (and was the infamous “Unitarian Doctor Death”). My impression is that it is becoming more common, however, and that stoles are nearly ubiquitous. It sounds like you have an issue with stoles. If you are in favor of one type of clerical vestment, why not another? Is it because stoles are used for sacraments in a Christian setting, but kind of an all-purpose garment for most UU ministers?

    Part of the reason that I’m uncomfortable with robing, etc., is because I know that the various clerical garments have specific meaning in a Christian context. As a non-Christian, I don’t want to appropriate or misuse another faith tradition’s symbols. I at least would like to understand what these garments mean before I try wearing any.

    Too late! Another reason I’m interested in this issue right now is because I was asked to robe for the first time. It was important to the people asking and I agreed, but with reservations. The robe was borrowed and it was too long for me. I kept tripping over it and the sleeves kept falling down over my hands. It was also very dirty and, as the service wore on, it had a distinct odor. I remember thinking that if it was important enough that I had to wear it, it should also be important enough to fit, or at least be clean! Mostly, however, I just felt ashamed, like I was presuming a false identity, or masquerading as a pretend priest, or flouncing around in front of the laity (one of whom I recall was actually a farmer in overalls) declaring my learnedness. I would rather have been wearing overalls, too. I realize, of course, that these are not the feelings you have when robing. I’m interested in what it means to you precisely because your experience is different; perhaps it will broaden my own.

    I’m still interested in your beef with Patton, too, but here is another, perhaps related, question: Do you view our religious tradition as historically progressive, in which one generation builds upon another? I ask, because from what I’ve read in your blog (admittedly not the whole story) you seem to espouse a Universalism that is isolated in history, as if it didn’t change and develop over time. As I have understood it, there were few significant theological differences between Unitarians and Universalists at the time of the merger and, in the final meetings, it was the Unitarians, not the Universalists, who held out for language about Jesus. If this is true, does it matter to you? If Universalism could redefine the role of God in its theology, at what point would you have to say, “If that’s Universalism, I’m not a Universalist any more?” Or can you isolate a period of Universalism and say, “Despite the influence of Humanism on those 20th century Universalists, I identify with Universalists of a different generation?”

  3. The academic gown has the widest acceptance in UU circles right now, but it and a variety of other ministerial garments have grown in use as women have entered the ministry and needed a way to signal some degree of authority. (The business suit didn’t prove quite so adaptable.) Stoles are probably even more universal, often worn without a gown.

    Matthew, you should probably invest in an academic gown: You’ve earned its authority, it will fit, and if you should ever need more than a suit and tie, you’re set. You’re likely to receive a stole from the congregation that ordains you, or from the congregation that calls you. Both are symbols alive and rooted in our tradition.

    My only complaint about vesture in the UUA is that a growing number of ministers wear collars and stoles for political protests but not in worship. That rings false to me. I’m annoyed every time I see it.

    I won’t wear a stole because I’m not ordained, and I rarely wear a gown — even though I earned an M.Div. — unless the church where I’m preaching is very traditional and expects a gown. (I won’t borrow one with another school’s insignia, either.) As a guest preacher, I think of myself as an educated layperson, and as interested as I am in sacramental worship, I’ve rarely been invited to lead it. So I act like a preacher. As a guy, I can get away with a dark suit and nice tie.

  4. Not ordained? I didn’t know that…

    I have mixed feelings about all of this. On the one hand, I like to play dress up. (I still have a cassock alb from when I served in a church during seminary.)

    On the other hand, I don’t like how vestments separate the minister from the congregation (going back to the “priesthood of all believers” from my charismatic days).

    I wasn’t aware that some ministers only brought out the vestments for protests. Very fake, I agree. Such a contrast to my favorite Jesuit at the BTI, who would take off his collar as soon as he walked through the door. (His collar hanging on the coat rack was how I knew he was in the building.)

    The head campus minister (UMC) here at Emory wears a business suit (with skirt) and a collar most days. It’s professional, it’s feminine, and it says “minister.” It passes the authenticity test because she wears it most every day.

    So, following her example, what vestment(s) could be worn on an everyday basis? Stole, collar…?

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