Church Vestments, Part I

by Don Palmer

As a consequence of the 16th century Reformation, when the protesting folks pulled away from their spiritual mother, so to speak, they pretty much left their vestments behind. In many Protestant churches today the academic gown alone distinguishes the clergy. In others the minister simply suits up in his Sunday-go-to-meeting best.

Let’s look at what they left—a look at the more common church vestments, their interesting histories and their usage. Vestments are the vestiges of clothing worn pretty much by all gentlemen during that period of time, not particularly distinguishing the clergy from the general public. The Christian clergy hung on to the common garments while the world changed and thus they began to be associated with clergy, liturgy, the church, and sacred symbols.

The alb is worn by clergy and lay ministers. It is an ankle-length, long sleeved vestment which is white; hence the name. It is worn during services at which the Eucharist is celebrated (or, emergently, on the other days when a proper fitting cassock cannot be found!) There may be a hood sewn onto the collar, called the amice, was originally to protect against inclement weather since churches were often roofless. The amice can be a separate vestment. The alb is the successor to the Roman tunic. Since manual labor in an ankle-length white garment is difficult, it is said that the alb came to signify upper class and intellectual men. Fortunately we have forgiven this association and consider it a symbol of purity.

The alb is secured at the waits by a cincture, a white rope (cotton, usually), or a wideband or sash of silk. The name cincture is from the Latin word for girdle (which it can also be called) and is related to cinching the saddle on a horse as well as to the miserable disease shingles, the rash of which can vaguely resemble a girdle.

Cassocks—the “ordinary” vestment for priests and others. This ankle length vestment is usually black for priests, deacons, and lay folks and purple for bishops. Red for cardinals; hence their name. (Incidentally, “ecclesiastical purple” isn’t quite written in stone. For instance, Bishops Duval and Duncan used differing shades of purple.) Cassocks trace their origin to the Gauls and, later, the Romans. Their chief function in earlier days was to provide warmth. Ancient churches were without heat, and often in the open air. Some cassocks were actually lined with sheepskin or fur. Until recent times they were usually woolen. Cassocks have upright collars and some (not ours) have either 33 buttons symbolizing the years of Christ’s earthly life, or even 39 representing the 39 Articles of Religion. Cassocks fit tight at the waist. They do. Here at St. Paul’s, I wear Oscar Rich’s cassock. I noticed. This is the vestment worn at non-Eucharistic times by clergy, lay ministers, and acolytes.

The clergy wear stoles. These are long band s of cloth worn draped over the neck, with each end (often fringed) hanging below the waist. They are commonly in the color of that particular season of the church year. Deacons wear their stoles over their left shoulder, crossing and fastening on the right side. Some clergy are innovative and have other colors and symbols on their stoles. Stoles are symbolic of yokes, and hence, humility.

Priests wear chasubles during the celebration of the Eucharist. It is a large, oval, sleeveless vestment with an opening in the center for the head, thus similar in design to a poncho. You will notice that the Vicar has his chasuble draped over the altar rail, and he dons it before the Eucharist itself. It is a seamless garment and recollects the garment taken from Jesus at the crucifixion.

Well, we’ve gotten the Vicar and the LEM vested. We’ll go on with this next month, with the surplice, cotta, mitre and others.

Magnolia Springs, Alabama, USA