Episcopal Vestments

by Don Palmer

Vestments for the clergy came into use about the 4th century.  The point is well taken that Jesus the Christ wore no chasuble, mitre, or even a stole. Not a bad lesson to keep in mind. They are accoutrements, symbols, beautiful and meaningful.  They are not the essence.

We learn best from our mistakes and from our children.  Many years ago my 16 year old daughter and I were headed to church at St. Luke’s in Mountain Brook.  A big and a good church, but a bit high falutin’.  Anne wore a peasant dress and sandals.  (Gasp!)  Of course, I wore a suit and bowtie (my trademark). I sniffed a bit, and started to suggest to Anne that a peasant dress and sandals were hardly the proper attire for St. Luke’s in Mountain Brook.  Then a bolt of lightning hit me, right out of the clear sky.  If Jesus wore shoes at all, he wore sandals. I’d better keep my big mouth shut. I quickly glanced heavenward, hoping that my thoughts hadn’t been overheard.

Prior to the 4th century, long flowing robes were sort of the norm for everybody.  However, as the mode of dress changed, the church didn’t. (Sound familiar?)  That’s how we got started with ecclesiastical vestments.  The cassock, a long black garment worn under everything else, resembles the attire of those days.  Over the black cassock can be worn a surplice, a long but not so long white vestment with full sleeves.  Its history is interesting.  The name comes from the Latin meaning a garment worn over furs.  In the Middle Ages, with no central heat, monks were accustomed to wearing fur garments.  These were covered by a white robe.  (The cotta is a comparable, smaller white garment worn by acolytes and organists.  Latin for “coat”.)

The stole.  It’s a long scarf of fabric matching the color of the church season.  It symbolizes ordination, representing the yoke of Christ.  A deacon wears it over his left shoulder, crossing to the right side, where it is tied or fastened, thus being worn diagonally.  Priests wear it over both shoulders.  It came into use in the 4th century.  A black “tippet” is the equivalent of the stole, and is worn during services which do not include the Eucharist, such as Morning and Evening Prayer.
The alb is an all-white vestment (alb=white) which is ankle length with long sleeves.  It is worn by clergy during the Eucharist..  Generally the stole is worn over it, and is anchored at the waist with a cincture (from the Latin word for girdle.)  Cinctures are white ropes.  They snug the alb (or the cassock) to the waist.  They are knotted in such a fashion that the stole is also secured by the cincture.  I’ve watched our vicar make the knots, but I can’t quite figure it out.

The chasuble (from the Latin, “little house”) is a vestment made of silk, perhaps matching the color of the church calendar.  It is oval, large, and sleeveless, with an opening in the center for the priest’s head.   The priest may put this on immediately before the beginning of the Holy Communion itself.

Bishops—some bishops—wear mitres.  These are the distinguishing marks of the episcopate, the bishops. It is a tall, double-pointed hat (and I quote) “probably of Oriental origin, which can be traced back to pagan times. Something similar  was worn by the kings of Persia and Assyria long before the Christian era.”  It came into ecclesiastical use about 1100.  The two points of this double pointed hat have come to represent the Old and the New Testaments.

The mitre is elective.  Some bishops wear them; others do not. Bishop C. C. J. Carpenter, Bishop of Alabama when Elaine and Jane were confirmed, was so large and tall that he couldn’t have cleared a doorway, had he worn one.  Point of interest.

A rabat is a vestlike garment covering the chest, to which is affixed a clerical collar. (Erroneously sometimes called a Roman collar.)

These are the major vestments we encounter here in St. Paul’s. From time immemorial uniforms or such attire have been worn by selected people—judges, policemen, rulers, clergy.  A major purpose is to remind the clergy of that eternal admonition;  “Remember who you are and whom you represent.”

Magnolia Springs, Alabama, USA