Jason Micheli has expressed some interesting thoughts about an experience he had as a robed pastor in his post, Clergy Robes and Anonymous Notes in Church. I encourage you to go and read his post before proceeding.
More about that in a moment.
I grew up in United Methodist Churches where clergy wore robes. So did the choirs, the choral director, and the acolytes. But the most impressive were the pastors. It was more than the robe, it was their entire bearing, but the robe was certainly a major part of the effect. I recall the senior minister in particular, entering with profound seriousness, large black Bible in hand, long black robes flowing as he walked. A tall, white-haired theophany he was, who knelt ceremoniously with perfect posture in front of his tall velvet-seated chair, then rose to be seated to the side of the preaching pulpit. His black robe and vestments made him seem larger than life or perhaps more than human. He carried a definite aura of holy sobriety.
Of course, that was a child’s view, and when I finally became a pastor in a much lower-church Baptist parish in New England, there was no robe. In fact, there was little in the way of ceremony, no holy aura, and I approved. The congregation was composed of down-to-earth, plain spoken Vermonters, and though I wore a jacket and tie most Sundays, I never imagined that they would ask me to mount the pulpit robed.
The first time I wore a robe was some twenty years later, when a couple with a Lutheran background asked me to don a white alb while conducting their wedding. After that anomaly, it was back to our non-denominational clergy uniform, which at that time was still coat and tie or shirt and tie in the summer. However, it was obvious that our congregations were becoming more casual in their dress, and it wouldn’t be long before those leading the services donned jeans and declined anything that looked dressy — even as our culture was turning “casual Fridays” into an everyday practice.
Now I wear a white alb whenever I preside in the Lutheran church, and will soon add the vestments indicating my ordained status. I like it. I think it adds a great deal to the aesthetics of the service. Along with the sanctuary architecture and appointments, the designated clergy apparel communicates that we have entered into a space where we honor the sacramental nature of reality. We have entered sacred space, space set aside for God’s people to meet, praise, pray, and partake from the Word and Table together. Wearing the robe reminds me that I have a certain role in these sacramental actions — not one that is above the congregation, but actually beside and below them, indicating that I have been granted a certain vocation of service to God’s family.
Micheli’s experience (read his post for details) led him to reflect on the fact that, in his denomination, the robe has come to indicate “the priesthood of pastors and the ownership of members.” That is, it reinforces the clergy/laity distinction that puts ministers above the parishioners while at the same time giving congregants the idea that clergy are the “labor” who serve under the direction of the real “owners” of the church, i.e. them.
The author blames his denomination for this, noting how they communicate high leadership expectations for pastors while giving virtually all leadership authority to the congregation members. Furthermore the Methodists’ historical emphasis on itinerancy keeps ministers on the move, preventing them from developing any organic, relational authority in local settings.
Thus we come back to a theme we’ve seen over and over again with regard to Protestantism — whether of the low-church, revivalistic variety or of the higher church, traditional variety.
We have an authority problem.
We don’t understand authority and have little idea of how to talk about it or work it out in practice.
The matter of the clergy robe gives us another chance to discuss this.
It is not, after all, simply about what we prefer our ministers wear.