Vestments hold a special place in our hearts

Published May 1, 2003

It was a sure thing: we asked you about your favourite vestments and your letters came in droves. We heard from deacons, priests, bishops, archbishops, artists and members of altar guilds. Dozens of photographs of copes, stoles and chasubles were sent to us, along with their stories. Vestments, it would seem, hold a singular place in our hearts.

This is not surprising; special vestments have been with the church since the time of the early Christians. According to Janet Mayo’s 1984 book A History of Ecclesiastical Dress, endowments to the church from wealthy benefactors provided for many garments for clergy at the turn of the last millennium. “By 1009,” writes Ms. Mayo, “The moneys acquired from fines for sins against God were to be spent according to the discretion of the bishop on the relief of the poor, the repair of the churches and ecclesiastical vestments (amongst other things) but never on any worldly vanities.”Indeed, church history is filled with references to church vestments; some have even taken on mythic proportions. Take, for example, the relics of St. Cuthbert (c. 636-87), Bishop of Lindisfarne. When the tomb of the saint was first opened – 11 years after his death – his burial chasuble was taken from his body and shown to the bishop as proof of how fresh the body remained. Several miracles were later attributed to that chasuble, which was kept in an ivory casket. Then, writes Ms. Mayo, there was St. Aldhelm who at the end of one Mass “was so rapt in contemplation that in taking off his chasuble he let it fall behind him, as his server was usually there to receive it.” Once, however, the server was not there. The vestment was protected, so the story goes, by the Lord, who sent through the window a sunbeam on which the chasuble rested until someone could take it away. Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1070-89, was extremely fond of splendid liturgical garments, and is reported to have given Christ Church, Canterbury, several copes that survived for centuries. These garments were so heavily embroidered with gold, that when they became too worn, they were reduced to ashes in order to recover the precious metal. Fast forward to the present. Turn to our gallery, and see what your church is wearing today. Some of the garments are modern, others reflect the church?s past, a parish’s history or an individual’s background. Then, there are the primate?s “Canada vestments,” a cope, stole and mitre. If it is possible for a nation to be depicted on a garment, it has certainly been done on Archbishop Michael Peers? vestments. The Northern Lights, maple leaves, a Mohawk eagle, prairies, mountains, the flowers of the provinces and territories – all of them are richly embroidered there. Commissioned by the primate in 1997, the set was intended to replace an earlier set of primatial vestments, which were a gift from the church in Japan. Age has made those garments too fragile for regular use, though they have yet to be retired officially to the General Synod archives. The stories that accompanied the photographs were as priceless as the vestments themselves. We read of chasubles made from the fabric of a wedding dress or depicting Bible stories or a favourite bit of Scripture. One Canadian religious order sent images of an altar frontal, hand-stitched a century ago and a rich, purple Lenten chasuble. Beloved stoles were decorated with a whole range of images, from wheat-stalks to more personal motifs. And yet there were detractors, most of whose letters were a variation on the question, “Vestments? What do you mean, favourite vestments? What’s the matter with the basic black cassock (ankle-length sleeved tunic) and surplice (wide-sleeved loose tunic worn over the cassock)?” One letter writer, Ted Taylor, suggested that “Decorative vestments are an unnecessary archaic symbol from our church’s somewhat embarrassing past. Hundreds of years ago the Church of England felt it necessary to continue with the Roman Catholic tradition of dressing its clergy in fancy clothes.” Another, Evangeline Murray, felt so moved by the issue that she put her thoughts in verse-form: “The vestment focus troubles me/ Our Lord wore no such thing./ He went along as one of us/ Encouragement to bring/ It is helpful to identify/ The clergy in their role/ But this can be quite simply done/ And not offend a soul.” And Dr. C.L. Rodgers wrote, “It seems to me that the elaborate vestments worn today by many of the clergy show their personal conceit and their desire to outdo one another in regard to their elaborate appearance. I feel that the clergy should go back to the simple cassock and surplice so that the congregations would pay more attention to the words that they are uttering than to the clothes that they are wearing.” I respectfully disagree. I think that beautiful garments, like beautiful surroundings – and I’m thinking here of the lofty ceilings of our largest cathedrals as well as the stone walls of the smallest community church – do not detract from worship. They add to it. But don’t take my word for it. Turn to page 8 and see for yourself.


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