Anglicans or aliens: Priests ponder the wearing of vestments

The Church of England has decided to let priests wear normal clothes rather than the traditional vestments while conducting church services. Photo: Anneka/Shutterstock
Published September 29, 2017

(This article first appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press.)

As someone who didn’t grow up in the Anglican church, I can’t tell an alb from a surplice from a chasuble from a stole.

After attending an Anglican church for a few years now, I am more familiar with those clerical vestments. But I still couldn’t pass a test on what each one was—or what they represent.

For people like me in England, it soon may not matter.

The Anglican church in that country recently decided to let priests wear “lay garments”—normal clothes—rather than traditional vestments while conducting services.

One reason given for the change is how British society as a whole is more casual in its dress.

But another reason was because of how non-churchgoers—young people in particular—might be put off by the ornate robes; seeing people wearing them may make them look alien and disconnected from modern-day life.

Whether or not that’s true, there’s no doubt that most Canadians today wouldn’t be familiar with Anglican clergy vestments.

Vestments have their origin in the ordinary street clothes from Roman times. In the Anglican church, they are worn by bishops, priests, lay readers and others involved in the worship services.

While they make the wearers stand out to people unfamiliar with vestments, their role is actually to obscure them—to put the focus on the ministry they are providing, and on to Christ.

How do Anglican clergy in Winnipeg feel about vestments? I posed that question to a few of them.

“I’m not aware of any national directives of what [clergy] should wear or not wear,” says Donald Phillips, the bishop of Rupert’s Land.

“There is no written code in the diocese. It is assumed that priests know what to wear,” (the standard priestly wear) although “nobody says they have to wear it. But it’s understood.”

For Phillips, vestments provide an appropriate sense of “mystique or solemnity,” although he acknowledges there might be “some wisdom” in what is happening in England.

“People have drifted away from church,” he says, adding that churches need to be more welcoming of newcomers. “But I’m not sure dispensing with the vestments will change that.”

Paul Johnson, rector and dean at St. John’s Cathedral—the mother church for the diocese—prefers to always wear them: the alb, stole, cassock, surplice and chasuble.

“I like to wear vestments for the symbolism,” he says. “It’s a visible reminder of what we believe, similar to the stained glass windows.”

He does dispense with the chasuble, a heavy poncho-like garment, in July and August, however. “It’s just too hot, and the cathedral isn’t air-conditioned,” he says.

For him, staying with the traditional “is a good place for me, and it’s what the congregation expects.”

Jamie Howison is the priest at saint benedict’s table. St. Ben’s, as it is known, offers a looser and less formal style of Anglican worship. What’s his take on vestments?

“Not only would I go without vestments, I do so on a semi-regular basis,” he says of what he wears for presiding over communion at house services, family camps, retreats or for the church’s child-friendly service.

For him, it’s “all about context.” Vestments in a house communion or at camp “simply feel overdone and really rather overly-earnest,” he says. But for the regular Sunday evening worship service, “they fit.”

For him, an apt analogy is mealtime. Some days “it’s grilled cheese sandwiches and soup at the kitchen table, and some days it is a more formal celebratory meal,” he says.

For the former, “paper napkins and ragged placemats are fine, but for the latter you set the dining room table with linens and use your best serving dishes, and you quite probably dress differently as well.”

At a practical (and tongue-in-cheek) level, vestments mean he “never has to think about what I will wear to church”—unlike ministers in other traditions, who have to worry about their clothing choice each Sunday.

On a more serious note, “every time I put that stole across my shoulders I am aware that it symbolizes the ‘yoke’ of my work and vocation,” he says.

“What a privilege, and what a marvelous burden.”

John Longhurst is a freelance faith page columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press.


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