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  • Adam Embry

A Theology of Vestments

This is a blog series entitled, "A Theology of ..." written by various Anglican priests and deacons in our Jurisdiction.

We begin with a theology of vestments by The Venerable Dr. Timothy T. Ullmann, Dean, Parishes and Missions Deanery

Why do Anglican clergy wear vestments? Where did these come from and what do they symbolize?

To answer the first question, we hear the words of two Church Fathers. St. Clement (35– 99 A.D.) directs the priest to begin the service “girded with shining vestments”. And St. Jerome (342 – 420 A.D.) states: “From all these things we learn that we ought not enter the Holy of Holies clad in our everyday garments and in whatever clothes we will, defiled as they are by the usage of common”.

Our ministry as bishops, priests, and deacons is uncommon because it is holy. We stand in the Holy of Holies as bishops, priests, and deacons consecrated to administer the holy things of God for the holy people of God. And while vestments make the clergy stand out to people unfamiliar with them, their role is actually to obscure the clergy. Vestments put the focus on the ministry we are providing and on to Christ whom we serve. Therefore, what we wear in this sacred place at this sacred time radiates God’s holiness and righteousness.

Where did vestments come from? In Exodus 28 we read about the vestments of the Levitical priesthood as prescribed by God: “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. So you shall speak to all who are gifted artisans, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they may make Aaron’s garments, to consecrate him, that he may minister to Me as priest” (vv. 2 – 3).

In the early Church, the worship liturgy by-and-large followed Jewish worship with the addition of New Testament readings, the Eucharist, and overt connections to Christ. Many were familiar with Jewish priestly vestments which found symbolic fulness in Christian worship. Over time, specific vestment items were incorporated with specific meanings. Bishops, priests, and deacons would vest before the liturgy saying a prayer with each vestment article donned.

In historical Anglican liturgical use, vestments consisted of the amice, Alb, belt, stole, maniple, chasuble, and surplice. In contemporary usage, the Alb, stole, tippet, belt, chasuble, and surplice are more typically worn. So, our focus is on contemporary usage. (Notes: 1. It is perfectly acceptable to don all historical priestly vestments. 2. The cassock is not a liturgical vestment and will be discussed in a future blog as will bishop vestments and headdresses.)

Alb—Latin (albus) meaning “white.” An ankle length white tunic with close cropped sleeves worn by priests and bishops. It is the base vestment over which other vestments are worn. The Alb symbolizes the robe of salvation we received in baptism—it is our baptismal robe. Thus, it symbolizes the new humanity in Jesus Christ and life in the Kingdom of God (Rev. 7:9). In the words of St. Paul, we have “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:14). Therefore, it is the first vestment we put on.

Stole—The Stole is a scarf-like vestment worn by priests and bishops. It hangs around the neck and reaches to the wearer’s knees, each side sitting parallel. It is typically ornately decorated in liturgical colors with Christian symbols depicted on the panels. The Stole is worn over the Alb or the Surplice. The Stole symbolizes the spiritual yoke of the priesthood (“take My yoke upon you and learn from Me” St. Matthew 11:29). It also symbolizes the double portion of God’s Grace bestowed upon a priest for the celebration of the Sacraments. It is the one vestment (in the absence of any others) that is absolutely necessary for a priest to conduct any liturgical service.

The Stole was originally made of wool, which symbolized the sheep, or members of Christ’s flock. Both bishops and priests wear this vestment when exercising their pastoral office as a

witness to the fact that ministers of the Church live and act solely for the members of Christ’s flock.

Deacon Stole—The Deacon Stole is a long, narrow strip of cloth worn by deacons over their left shoulder and under their right arm to the opposite hip. The stole is a vestment and part of the liturgical dress of the deacon. It symbolizes the yoke of Christ, which Deacons are called to proclaim. It also represents servitude and humility. The Stole is always worn during the celebration of the Eucharist and other liturgical functions.

Tippet—The Tippet is a large black scarf worn by clergy over the surplice and cassock at the Daily Offices and often at Funerals.

It resembles a stole and is worn around the neck with the ends hanging down the front. It has also been known as the “Preaching Scarf” as it is often worn at various services by the one designated as the Preacher. It is customary to adorn the Tippet with the wearer’s seminary insignia as well as the diocese in which clergy serve.

Belt—The Belt is a cloth or rope secured around the waist of the priest. It signifies that the priest wears the mortification of the body and chastity, having girded his loins with the power of truth. It also symbolizes the divine power that strengthens the priest during the course of his serving (Psalm 18:32). Further, it reminds us of the towel which the Savior was given for the washing of the disciples’ feet at the Mystical Supper.

Chasuble—The Chasuble is a round/oval piece of fabric with a hole for the wearers head and is usually ornately decorated. Derived from the ‘Casula’ of ancient Rome, which was an outer traveling garment, similar to a poncho. It is a highly formal liturgical vestment worn almost exclusively during the Eucharist, denoting solemnity. Chasubles are always worn as the top layer of vestments, with the Alb and Stole underneath. Only priests and bishops may wear Chasubles which match the color of the liturgical calendar.

The Chasuble symbolizes the tunic with which Pilate dressed our Lord before His Crucifixion. In other words, it reminds us of the torment and suffering a priest endures during his ministry in order to serve God’s faithful. In addition, the Chasuble embodies the garment of righteousness with which priests must be vested as servants of Christ.

Surplice—The Surplice is a full white vestment with wide sleeves. It has an opening for the head at the top and typically reaches to the knees or beyond. The term is from the Latin superpelliceum, meaning “over a fur garment.” It was an oversized Alb worn as a choir vestment over a fur coat in the drafty and cold churches of Great Britain.

Today, the Surplice is usually worn over a cassock by clergy. It may also be worn by lay people with particular liturgical ministries at worship such as lectors or choir members. The academic dress of clergy may include cassock, surplice, and tippet, with or without an academic hood. The Surplice and Stole may also be worn by the clergy who preside at a Eucharist or baptism. It came to be widely accepted with the Tippet, and sometimes with the academic hood as the standard vestment for officiating/assisting at the Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer.

The Vesting Prayers will be offered in another blog.

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