Should a Minister of Religion wear a uniform?

Table of Contents for: Should a Minister of Religion wear a uniform?

Clergyman in his vestments. Should a Minister of Religion wear a uniform?

I have on a number of occasions heard people comment on the clergy vestments (including Bishops and Archbishops) – things like:

  • “Whatever does he look like.”
  • “Nice frock!”
  • What has he got on his head?”
  • “I can’t imagine Jesus wearing that!”

Should a Minister of Religion wear a uniform?

What did Jesus and his early followers wear?

Below is a quote which I personally do not agree with:

In many places, people walked up to Jesus out of the blue, addressed Him as ‘teacher,’ which the New Testament informs us is the translation of the word ‘rabbi’…
The only explanation is that they knew by the way He was dressed.
When they addressed Him as a rabbi, He must have been dressed like a rabbi.”

‘Why Clergy Should Wear Clericals’ by Ken Collins [i]

Knowing that Jesus walked around speaking with authority and a deep spiritual insight and was performing many miracles of healing, I think people saw someone very different to the religious leaders.
The only conclusion is that I come to, is that they heard Jesus teaching with God’s authority and therefore they called Him Teacher ‘Rabbi’, because he was (and is) a true Teacher and not because he was dressed like a Rabbi.

Also we will see below, that for four centuries there wasn’t any special ‘uniform’ for members of the clergy.

So should a Minister of Religion wear a uniform?

What is the history behind the vestments?

The website ‘Academic Apparel’ gives a good potted history: which is included below.

Clergy vestments in the church after Jesus

Early Christianity:
The first four centuries of Christianity did not involve a special robe, tunic, vestment or other garb for members of the clergy… Over time clergy vestments became richer and made of costlier materials, and beauty played a larger role in church garments.”

Academic Apparel [ii]

Jesus and his followers and subsequent church leaders didn’t have any distinguishing clothing to set them apart from what the normal person in the street was wearing.
This went on for about four centuries.
Then, I believe, that as the spiritual authority dwindled from the church, the leaders started to ‘dress to impress.’

Clerical vestments in the Medieval period (11th to 15th Centuries)

Medieval Era:
Rise of the surplice (white, sleeved, blouse-like shirt with lace trim) worn over a cassock (plain black, long-sleeved, ankle-length tunic) as the official clergy garment.”

Academic Apparel [ii]

Charles Tracy writing about how elevated stone platforms in churches evolved into pulpits and lecterns:

By the Middle Ages they had migrated to the nave in the guise of a pulpit and a lectern.
Before the consolidation of the pulpit as a permanent fixture from the mid 14th century, preachers used either the altar or chancel steps, or a portable square and somewhat makeshift, utilitarian raised platform, which is sometimes illustrated in manuscripts.
The authorities clearly felt a need to regularise this informal arrangement into the dignified structures that we see today – indisputably objects of parochial pride and authority.”

Medieval English Pulpits by Charles Tracy [iv]

Again we are talking about the attempt to bring in an authority for the clergy when many lacked true heavenly authority.

Surplice Of Canon Of 12th & 13th Century. Should a Minister of Religion wear a uniform?
Surplice Of Canon Of 12th & 13th Century [iii]

Clergy robes from the Reformation (16th Century) onwards

A new style of pulpit wear took hold during the Reformation era, called the Geneva style.
This style, still in use today, was based on Academic Regalia for doctoral graduates…
rather than the secular fashion of the day.
It is at this time that the four basic types of gowns were established which remain today:
clergy robes, choir gowns, academic robes, and judicial robes.”

Academic Apparel [ii]

The Vestments Controversy in the 16th Century

The Vestments Controversy or Vestarian Controversy arose in the English Reformation, ostensibly concerning vestments or clerical dress.
It was initiated by John Hooper’s rejection of clerical vestments in the Church of England under Edward VI, and was later revived under Elizabeth I.
It revealed concerns within the Church of England over ecclesiastical identity, doctrine and church practices…
When Hooper was invited to give a series of Lenten sermons before the king in February 1550, he spoke against the 1549 ordinal whose oath mentioned ‘all saints’ and required newly elected bishops and those attending the ordination ceremony to wear a cope and surplice.
In Hooper’s view, these requirements were vestiges of Judaism and Roman Catholicism, which had no biblical warrant for authentic Christians since they were not used in the early Christian church.
He maintains that priestly garb distinguishing clergy from laity is not indicated by scripture; there is no mention of it in the New Testament as being in use in the early church, and the use of priestly clothing in the Old Testament is a Hebrew practice, a type or foreshadowing that finds its antitype in Christ, who abolishes the old order and recognises the spiritual equality, or priesthood, of all Christians.
The historicity of these claims is supported by reference to Polydore Vergil’s De Inventoribus Rerum.”

‘Vestments controversy’ Wikipedia [v]

Should a Minister of Religion wear a uniform?

Is it good for a minister to wear a ‘uniform’ that is instantly recognisable by the general public?

I think that the general public would answer ‘yes’. A good argument for this is put forward by Ken Collins:

There are situations in which clothing is very important.
I found this out by accident once, when I walked into a furniture store, coincidentally wearing the same sort of shirt as the employees.
I had to leave because the other customers expected me to wait on them.
Clothing conveys a message.
A business suit says, Money!
A police uniform says, Law!
A tuxedo says, Wedding!
Casual clothing says, Me!
Clericals say, Church!
Any of those messages might be valid in different contexts, so you have to make sure you are wearing the right clothes for the occasion…
It makes our function obvious to strangers.
It makes our duties inescapable, and it constrains our personal conduct, because we can’t disappear into the crowd when we are wearing clericals.
Clericals mean that visitors don’t have to ask, ‘Where is the pastor?’ They know just by looking.”

‘Why Clergy Should Wear Clericals’ by Ken Collins [i]

But the use of a clerical collar, or similar is sufficient for this purpose.
Vestments go beyond this primary goal.

From this we can see two important points:

  • For four centuries there wasn’t any special ‘uniform’ for members of the clergy. They wore the same clothes as the general public.
  • A ‘uniform’ based on academic qualifications was introduced.

(For further reading on academic qualifications of Church leaders see: Church leadership problems – choosing authentic leaders )

So should a Minister of Religion wear a uniform?

Are the clergy vestments culturally relevant?

I am of the opinion that ‘frills’ and ‘frocks’ put the clergy into a irrelevant place and out of touch with the general Public.
See the article about whether today’s church is still relevant to the 21st Century.

UPDATE: An article in The Guardian 10 Jul 2017 reports:

The C of E’s ruling body, the synod, meeting in York, has given final approval to a change in canon law on ‘the vesture of ordained and authorised ministers during the time of divine service’.
The measure needs to be approved by the Queen, who swapped her crown for a hat at last month’s state opening of parliament in another sign of dress-down Britain.
Clergy are currently required to wear traditional robes – a surplice or alb with scarf or stole – when taking communion or conducting one-off services such as weddings, funerals or baptisms.
On Monday, the synod rules that clergy could adopt different forms of dress, with the agreement of their parochial church council.
Where there is disagreement, the bishop of the diocese will have the final say.
For weddings, funerals and baptisms, the consent of the principal participants must be gained…
Attitudes had changed with generations, said Alistair McHaffie, a clergyman from Blackburn.
When he was a child he had addressed his friends’ parents as ‘Mr and Mrs’ and his father seldom left the house without wearing a tie.
‘We’ve become far more informal in what we wear and how we address one another,’ he said.
The change to canon law was simply reflecting changes in society.
Hundreds of churches had already dispensed with robes, and the move was simply giving them formal permission to do so…
Ian Paul, a member of the archbishops’ council – the C of E’s cabinet – wrote headlined ‘Why bishops should throw away their mitres’.
He said: ‘To most, and I would suggest especially the young, the sight of bishops in mitres puts them in another world.
It is world of the past, a world of nostalgia, a world of deference – and mostly a world which is quite disconnected from present experience and values.
It confirms for many the impression of a church irrelevant to modern questions, contained in its own bubble of self reference.
And in its hierarchical understanding of authority, it is a culture of which contemporary society is becoming less and less tolerant.’… ”

‘Clergy to ditch their robes in further sign of dress-down Britain’ by Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent, The Guardian [vi]

I like the phrase “contained in its own bubble of self reference” because many churches seem to be so unaware of how Jesus walked amongst the people and for many their main concern seems to be keeping their denominational ‘plates’ spinning (and that doesn’t exclude the new churches).

But we are straying a little from the topic, so how relevant is the historical clothing of the Ministers of Religion?
Is it time the clergy had a ‘uniform’ revamp – the Scouts did and it worked!
What do you think?
Should a Minister of Religion wear a uniform?

[i] Why Clergy Should Wear Clericals
[ii] History of Choir Robes
[iii] The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection. “Surplice Of Canon Of 12th & 13th Century.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1858 – 1875.
[iv] ‘Medieval English Pulpits’ by Charles Tracy
[v] ‘Vestments controversy’ Wikipedia
[vi] ‘Clergy to ditch their robes in further sign of dress-down Britain’ by The Guardian

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