Someone asked me recently why I was doing this series. The answer is simple. I think it is important to understand the reasons we do what we do in worship as a means of enhancing our experience. Plus, if we joined a club of some kind, we’d likely be taught the customs and traditions of the club to help us feel more at home. Same thing here. So today, in the last of these for awhile, I’m focusing on why the clergy and laity dress as they do to lead worship.
If you’ve come to the Episcopal Church from some other denomination, you’ve noticed we dress funny for worship, i.e., we have unusual garments that are worn. We are not alone in having special garments that are worn by the clergy and those assisting at the altar. We retained the Roman Catholic worship garments of the Reformation period of the Church and have been using them every since. [There is a “more or less” here, but there’s not space to elaborate.] Some other liturgical groups use the same garments and they are making their way into churches that might not have used them 50 years ago, such as some United Methodist parishes. So, what are they called and why do we do it?
The white garment we wear at services of Holy Eucharist is called an alb, from the Latin word for white. A garment much like this, the toga, was the daily wear of Romans in the formative years of the Church. When clergy wore them they were just wearing their “street clothes.” But as the dress style changed, the clergy kept the alb as their basic garment. Originally these street clothes might be of different colors, but over time, the Christian community settled on white as a symbol of purity.
Laity serving at the altar wear albs too. Most albs have hoods, but some clergy wear a modified alb called a cassock-alb. It is essentially an alb without a hood. The albs are tied at the waist with a cord called a cincture. One underlying reason we wear vestments is to cover what we wear under them so as to not call attention to ourselves in a way that distracts worshippers.
While all those at the altar wear the alb, clergy also wear a colored strip of cloth around their necks called a stole. The stole is a sign of their office as clergy. Priests wear it over both shoulders, hanging down the front. Deacons wear the stole diagonally from the left shoulder to the right side. The stole originally was a kind of Roman robe or cloak which was worn by civic officials. Over time, in the Church it became simpler and took its current form. The stole represents the authority of the office of priest or deacon with the priest’s stole also representing the yoke of Christ they took on at ordination.
The celebrant of the Eucharist also wears an over garment called a chasuble. Chasuble is from the Latin word for “little house” because the garment shelters the celebrant. The chasuble can be simple or elaborate, but it is always seamless as Jesus’ robe was said to be—the robe for which the soldiers cast lots and is meant to remind us of that robe.
In some parishes, celebrants don’t wear the chasuble, wearing only the alb and stole. In other parishes, that might be considered “low church,” i.e., they have a little less emphasis on ritual and custom, the celebrant and others may wear a black garment that hangs to the top of their shoes and has a little square cut out at the neck. It’s called a cassock and is worn instead of the alb. Over that, they wear a long white scooped necked garment called a surplice. Over that, they wear their stole. This was essentially how the clergy dressed at the time of the Reformation in England. The return to albs and chasubles, which had been Middle Age customary wear, came about in the Anglican Church in the 19th century because of liturgical reform called the Oxford movement. That movement sought to return to the liturgical practices and customs of the Middle Ages.
Deacons don’t wear chasubles at the altar. They wear a similar though simpler garment called a dalmatic. It is the liturgical color of the day with simple decorations. Just like the alb had been the daily wear in Roman times, with some servants wore the dalmatic as their sign of office. It’s liturgical origin seems to have been Byzantine and was introduced in the West for liturgical use in the early 4th century first in Rome. It spread from there and was universally adopted by the 9th century.
For certain processions, such as major feast days, the celebrant or the Officiant may wear a cope. The cope was originally just a cape worn outdoors to protect against the weather. It is a large outer garment, open in front. Attached to the back is a colorful section of cloth that originally was a hood. Now it is purely decorative and is removed once the clergy are in position at the front of the church, just as you would take off your coat once you’re settled in.
For other services called Offices, such as, funerals, weddings, and Morning and Evening Prayer, the Officiant will wear cassock and surplice, unless there is a Eucharist. The cassock is actually a garment some priests wear as daily wear over their other clothes. For some of the offices, the Officiant may wear a black, stole-like band of cloth over the shoulders and down the front. This is called a tippet and originated in the 14th century. It is typically Anglican, though some non-Anglicans wear them. Bishops dress differently from the other orders of clergy, that’s enough for today.