This month we asked our bloggers to share their thoughts on wearing vestments in worship. Here’s what they think.
One of the central principles when planting a church is contextualization. To contextualize a church plant is to create the church in a way that connects with the values and lifestyles of the host community. I knew a church planter in Davis, California, for example, who wrote a beer enthusiast blog and read every book written by Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “Food Rules,” etc.). Davis is a college town that places heavy emphasis on better agricultural practices, and UC Davis offers a degree in viticulture (wine-making) and brewing beer. This church planter knew his context. To know one’s context is to demonstrate a degree of care for and connection to that context.
Enter the conversation about “vestments.” One of the only places we find vestments in mainstream America outside the church is at graduation ceremonies. They’re worn to signify the solemnity of the occasion. A graduation is truly a significant moment, and moments like these require a certain amount of ceremony. But apart from graduation ceremonies, no one is wearing doctoral robes on a quick run to the grocery store.
So if we use the argument of contextualization, the conclusion is straightforward: Don’t wear vestments in our churches. They separate pastors from culture, rather than connecting them to culture. They make pastors into masters of ceremony in a culture that has almost totally eliminated formal ceremony. Vestments ask the culture to buy into the special calling placed on pastors when the word “pastor” already tends to bring many casual conversations to a screeching halt. Why would we ask the communities in which we live to adjust to our atypical form of dress when we’re already viewed with suspicion?
But this isn’t the final word on the issue. It also gets at a deeper question, which is, “To what extent is it important for the church to be separate from culture?” Church planting relies on contextualization in the belief that churches need to “fit” their host culture. This enables pastors to teach and live in ways that reflect the values of the culture, but to do so in a way that is distinctly Christian. But perhaps what we really need are churches that don’t fit, that stand apart from the surrounding community out of the belief that we offer something altogether different and better. To this end, clergy vestments would make sense. Vestments, it’s argued, veil the person of the pastor, directing the congregation’s attention to God. Similarly, it’s argued that vestments remove the distinguishing characteristics of the pastor, so that the pastor’s social class or sense of style is not evident.
These are valid arguments for wearing vestments… except for one thing. They assume the symbolism of vestments will be rightly interpreted. And herein lies the problem. Symbols are powerful, but only as long as we know what they mean. The meaning of symbols is not self-evident. These symbols rely on people to faithfully transmit their meaning from one age to another. A church may be decorated with the Ichthys, but until someone explains its meaning, it just looks like the church is fond of fish.
When we fail to interpret symbols, people will provide their own interpretations. I was recently reminded that the Confederate flag has a history that is really valuable to some people, such that its recent criticism has been painful for them. But for me, ignorant as I am, I only ever associated it with white supremacy. Since no one told me otherwise, I gave it a new meaning that was different than its original intent.
In the case of vestments, I believe these symbols have been re-interpreted in a direction that is actually contrary to their original intent. Specifically, I believe vestments have become a symbol of a pastor’s perceived position of power and superiority. The pastor-in-vestment is made into a kind of untouchable person who speaks and acts with little accountability. Vestments elevate the pastor, but not in a good way. Meanwhile, our great High Priest ministered to his flock by dressing himself as a slave (John 13:4), and eschewed the temptation toward power offered to him by Satan in the wilderness.
I like the idea of vestments, but at least in America, I doubt whether we can gain back the meaning of this symbol anytime soon. So I conclude by saying that, except for certain congregations, I believe we should lose the robes. I include an exception only because there are certain contexts, particularly churches made up of older generations, for whom the symbolism of vestments is rich and meaningful and valuable. But apart from these, I believe vestments are not a boon but a threat. If, by our practices within the church, we are dissuading people from hearing the gospel, we are obliged as leaders to become iconoclasts of our own practices.
BRANDON GAIDE serves as associate pastor of next generation ministries at Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston. Brandon loves the church and clings to the audacious belief that a church committed to Christ is the hope of the world.