Midweek Musing: Puttin' on the Robes. On wearing liturgical garments

In recent weeks, I have enjoyed 'robing up' again, a much rarer occurrence since moving to Scotland and away from placement as a congregational minister. Various comments and conversations have prompted reflection on why I wear the alb and stole. I am sure I have written about it before, but here's another set of thoughts, on why, when I am leading gathered worship, I wear a funny white robe and a coloured scarf.

Perhaps I ought to describe what these garments are, for those not familiar with the tradition. And specify that my tradition is Uniting Church in Australia, protestant, with heritage in Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist churches.

The alb – from latin alba, meaning white – represents our baptism, all the members of the body of Christ, baptised into the one Spirit. Technically, anyone who is baptised can wear an alb, and I believe in some traditions or congregations, whoever is leading worship or reading from the Sacred Book will wear an alb. My alb has a collar, one pocket and one slit at pocket level, and goes on and comes off over the head. So when, as you can see in the picture, I was stepping into the minister role on the day of my sister's wedding, when I was bridesmaid for most of the day, I needed help from aunt and mum to get into and out of the alb without messing up the expensive hairdo for bridesmaid's duties!
I wear a cross, too, the universal symbol of the sacrificial love of God in Jesus. The cross I wear is one of eight made by a friend of mine, given to me on my 21st birthday. It is the basis of the design for the cross that features on my red stole.
The stole. A scarf with a particular cut at the neck, worn only by ordained ministers. (There is another scarf, named as such, with a different cut, that can be worn by lay members: you'll see moderators or presidents wearing it if they are not ordained). The stole represents the yoke of Christ ordained ministers are understood to wear – that we step into the ministry of Jesus, a ministry of reconciling and radical love.
I wear stoles in colours according to the seasons of the church year. I have designed most of my stoles; they all feature symbols as well as the liturgical colours. The colours are Purple for Lent (more of a red-purple) and Advent (a blue-purple, or even blue), White / Gold for Christmas, Epiphany and Easter (also for sacraments of communion and baptism), Red for Pentecost, Palm Sunday and other celebrations (like my ordination and installation services), Green for Ordinary Time, which is a season between Epiphany and Lent, and a longer one after Pentecost. I also have a black one for Good Friday.
In the picture you can see the white one, with symbols embroidered in gold – wheat and grapes for communion, a shell with water drops for baptism, and a celtic cross.
On the purple ones I have beaded candles (designed and embroidered by an aunt), unlit for Lent because we extinguish candles during Holy Week in preparation for the death of Christ, and lit for Advent because it is a season of preparing for the coming light of Christ. I also have a blue Advent one with angels, messengers from God. This one is a gift from my supervisor.
I have two green stoles, one another gift from a mentor, with wheat and grapes; the other made by another aunt has a celtic tree of life and butterflies.
The black Good Friday stole has a cross and nails in silver.
at our service of ordination, 2010
And the red stole. This one mum and I designed for my ordination, and it tells the biblical story from Genesis to the early church. It features the shape of the dove's wings from the Uniting Church logo, threads and materials from grandmothers, artwork from friends and stitching of sisters. My Mum made this one, and the white and black ones, and also helped with the stitching of the purple ones.

Liturgical garments help point through me to God. The role of our ordained ministers is, in part, to point to the life of Christian spirituality all members of the body of Christ have chosen to follow. This is not a call to be perfect, or to be better than or above the non-ordained members of the church. It is a call to a particular role, immersed in the Sacred Story, entrusted with care of the members, asked to preside at the community's rituals with and on behalf of us all. We set aside some members for these tasks in order to do our best to ensure these central tasks of the community of faith are undertaken with care, respect and integrity. The central tasks of the community, mutual love and care, immersion in the story, re-membering through enactment of the story in baptism and communion are tasks for all in the community and for the community as a whole together. Members of the faith community are called to different vocations, within and without the church. Therefore we need an order who are committed to the community of faith, to the church, for its health, and for the health of all followers of Christ, so that when we gather we perform our core tasks faithfully, and when we go out, we are nurtured, equipped and encouraged.

When I stand among a gathering of a Christian community as presider (preacher, worship leader, presider of baptism and communion), I stand as me, but not primarily as myself. The light of God shines though me, picking up my particular colours – my personality, gifts, story – but that light does not stop at me. It flows from and to the Divine. I wear the white of our baptism, the cross of radical love, and the stoles of season, symbol and story in order to remind me, remind us all, to look through me, listen through my words, to God. It reminds us to look through the colours of each of us for the light of God. It reminds each of us to nurture that light, those colours, in ourselves, so as to carry that radical, reconciling love in our own words and actions, wherever we go.

I do not wear the liturgical garments to be looked at. In fact, I wear them precisely not to be looked at, my clothes speaking, as they do, and probably saying something I don't want to be saying in that moment. Men who refuse to wear liturgical garments, I ask you, do you really prefer the symbolic language of necktie pointing to masculine 'power' down below? Women who do not wear liturgical garments, if you wear a dress, how long will it be, if you wear pants are you appearing masculine to some, really, we are doomed whatever we wear.

Clergy: we are set aside for a particular role in the community, and in that moment we are not one of the crowd. We must do whatever we can to fulfil our role, with its symbolic nature, and point beyond yourself to God.

I wear the alb, cross and stoles in order to be looked through, to invite us to look towards God.

[I haven't talked about the other piece of clerical clothing, the clerical collar, which is not only liturgical, but worn beyond the gathered worship setting – perhaps another time.]


Popular posts from this blog

a message to my friends

Story Eucharist