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Why do we do that? Liturgical Vestments

A newish member of my former congregation asked me how I decided what liturgical garb to wear on any given Sunday. It was a teachable moment. When discussing this with colleagues on the Bishop’s staff, it was suggested that I share some thoughts about this for a wider audience. I am not an expert in liturgical haberdashery. However, over my 34 years as a priest, I have gained an appreciation for the breadth and depth of what clergy in The Episcopal Church wear on Sundays as a symbol of the office they are fulfilling.

When I was a boy growing up at St. Andrew’s, Elyria in the 1960s, the Rector was the Rev. Dr. G. Russel Hargate. On Sundays he wore a black robe called a cassock, covered by a white garment called a surplice. What Dr. Hargate wore in addition to these two liturgical vestments depended on the service for the day. On the first, third, and fifth Sundays, Morning Prayer was offered and he would wear an academic hood (the color of which was purple and red because his Doctor of Divinity Degree was from Kenyon College) and a long black scarf, which looked like a stole but was wider and called a tippet. On the second and fourth Sundays, Holy Communion was celebrated so in place of the academic hood and tippet, Dr. Hargate would don a stole bearing the color of the liturgical season according to “the Roman Rite” (white for Christmas and Easter, green for the season after Epiphany and the Sundays after Pentecost, purple for Advent and Lent, and red for Palm Sunday and Pentecost).

Dr. Hargate retired in 1973 and we welcomed the Rev. Dr. Roderic Hall Pierce who had been a Professor of Church History at Bexley Hall, the Divinity School at Kenyon College in Gambier and Bexley Hall when it became part of the consortium of seminaries in Rochester, New York. Dr. Pierce arrived about the same time we were going through the Prayer Book revisions of the 1970s and St. Andrew’s made the leap of moving to the Eucharist as the proper liturgy for the Lord’s Day. With these liturgical reforms came some new (to St. Andrew’s, Elyria) liturgical vestments. To serve as the Celebrant at Sunday Eucharists, Dr. Pierce wore an off-white linen robe called an alb. Around his waist he wore a rope known as a cincture and he wore stoles bearing the color of the liturgical season. (For more information about liturgical seasons and colors, you can read the article in the Summer 2019 issue of Church Life "Why Do we Do That? [Liturgical Seasons & Colors]" by the Rev. John Drymon). However, as the service moved from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Table, Dr. Pierce would put on another garment called a chasuble which he referred to as a “Eucharistic vestment.”

I’m pretty sure I didn’t learn all the differences between these robes and their origins until sometime during my seminary training (1982 - 1985). By that time, Bexley Hall had merged with the Colgate Rochester Divinity School and moved to Rochester, New York. The new Dean, the Very Rev. William Petersen, had taught ecclesiastical church history at the Nashota House Seminary in Wisconsin for many years and he brought with him an appreciation for Anglo-Catholic worship. One of my first learnings was that most liturgical vestments started out as practical clothing–at least in our English liturgical genealogy. Outside of homespun muslin, the color black was the simplest and easiest way to dye material. Clergypersons weren’t the only ones who wore black robes, especially in merrie olde England which was often damp and cold. Neck-to-floor robes were worn for warmth in church and cathedral alike. These black garments weren’t just worn in church or on Sundays, they were in fact “street wear” or everyday clothing. By the middle ages in the Roman Church, when functioning in a sacerdotal manner, clergy would put on an alb and chasuble if functioning as the celebrant at the Eucharist, or a white surplice if acting in an assisting role. By the time of the English Reformation, the white surplice was replaced by an academic gown known as a “Geneva gown,” which clergy wore with white preaching tabs if they were filling the role of preacher. Skipping ahead a few hundred years, the simple black robes, white surplices, Geneva gowns, and preaching bands came to the shores of the United States with the Anglican missionaries before the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and the formation of The Episcopal Church in 1785.

From 1833 until 1851, a liturgical reform movement known as the Oxford Movement (a.k.a. Tractariansim) swept across the boundaries of the known Anglican Communion which sought to reclaim the Eucharist (and the ceremonies of the Eucharist), including the use of all five senses for worship. This paved the way for the reintroduction of liturgical colors and Eucharistic vestments. In our diocese during this time, Bishops Charles MacIlvaine and Gregory Bedell were ardent anti-Tractarian. Bishop MacIlvaine wrote and preached volumes and volumes of sermons against Tractarianism and its “Popish” ways and many are the stories of his battles with parishes in our diocese who had altars instead of communion tables, vested choirs, or whose priests dared put colored stoles around their necks. While Bishop Bedell was equally “low church” in his approach to his Sunday uniform, by the end of his episcopate he took his place in Sunday morning processions behind vested clergy and vested choirs in some congregations of our diocese.

When Trinity Cathedral was consecrated in 1907, the fourth Bishop of Ohio, the Rt. Rev. William Andrew Leonard, was presented with a ceremonial cope, mitre, and crozier by the Mather family. Rumor has it that he wore it only once and no photographs exist of him vested as such. A photograph does exist of the fifth Bishop of Ohio, the Rt. Rev. Warren Lincoln Rogers, wearing Bishop Leonard’s cope and mitre but he looks very uncomfortable in these vestments. When the Rt. Rev. Arthur B. Williams, Jr. was consecrated Bishop Suffragan of Ohio at Trinity Cathedral, he was dressed in a cope and mitre given to him by the clergy of the Diocese of Ohio. Our current bishop, the Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr. and our assisting bishops, the Rt. Revs. Arthur B. Williams, Jr. and William Persell are equally comfortable wearing high church or low church vestments–thanks be.

For a further description of what deacons, priests, and bishops wear while celebrating, officiating, or presiding see A Priest’s Handbook: The Ceremonies of the Church 3rd Edition (Dennis G. Michno, Christopher Webber) or The Ceremonies of the Eucharist: A Guide for Celebration (Howard E. Gally). Both of these manuals provide ample descriptions and sometimes conflicting information on when different robes may be worn, what may or may not be worn under a cope, or when liturgical hats (such as Canterbury caps, birettas, or zuchettas) might be worn–or not. If you really want to know the background of liturgical wear, you can consult my 1897 edition of Historic Dress of the Clergy by the Rev. Geo. S. Tyack. All of which is to say that from this priest’s perspective, there are lots of opinions and guidelines but no hard rules about what a priest wears on Sunday mornings–or at other times of celebration.

If I am celebrating the Eucharist, I generally wear a cassockalb, stole, and chasuble. On high holy days, I’ll often wear a cope and a biretta for the liturgy of the Word and change into a chasuble in the sacristy at the time of the offertory. If I’m officiating at Morning Prayer on a Sunday I’ll wear a cassock, a surplice, an academic hood, and a tippet. If I’m asked to officiate at Evensong (sung evening prayer), I’ll add a Canterbury cap and preaching tabs to the liturgical mix. If I’m assisting at celebrations of the Eucharist but am not the Presider, I generally wear a cassock, a surplice, and a stole but might also wear a cassock-alb and a stole.

We have a rich liturgical history in The Episcopal Church/ Anglican Communion from which to draw. And since involving all of our senses in worship is one of the goals for good liturgy, having a variety of vestment choices helps with our sense of sight. Hopefully our liturgical haberdashery serves to enhance and not distract from worshiping God in the beauty of holiness.

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