Faith Works 1-31-15
Why a preaching robe?
Cue the "disrobed" jokes.
You can call them preaching gowns, Geneva gowns, academic gowns, and any more you don't see them all that often, but a special robe or gown for preaching has been a standard over the last generation.
In my own tradition, which has had its splits over the years, a hundred years ago a morning coat and striped trousers were more the norm, at least in Ohio; it "casualed" to a dark suit somewhere around World War I, and that was traditional in most Disciples of Christ, Church of Christ, and a fair number of Baptist congregations for many years.
Preaching robes, the cousin to more formal liturgical vestments still called for in communions like the Anglican and Episcopal, Lutheran, and of course Roman Catholic Christian traditions, are a practical solution to a problem many of us wrestle with again today.
If you are a presider or preacher in the liturgical traditions above mentioned, you don't get up Sunday and wonder "what should I wear?" It really doesn't matter much (although many traditions have guidelines for presiders on their subfusc wear, as it's referred to), since in a truly liturgical tradition, you might have your personal garb, a cassock over that, an alb atop that, and possibly a stole and cope and . . . well, it gets complicated.
Most Christian traditions common in Ohio, if not liturgically emphatic, either expected preachers to wear a somber suit (we're talking almost entirely men back in the day, too), or a simple black gown. A preaching stole began to be standard, where both the Christian calendar and some personal emphasis could be expressed. The stole, a narrow sort-of-scarf that hangs down in front going around the back of your neck, would display the color of the church season (purple in Advent and Lent, white for Christmas and Easter, red at Pentecost and ordinations, green for nearly everything else), and symbols of the Gospel on the ends, embroidered or woven.
At my ordination, I received a number of stoles, one from my congregation with the Disciples' chalice on it, one from my family woven in many colors, and one from my wife she'd picked up at a Benedictine monastery we'd been visiting earlier that she saw me handle with admiration. They symbolize both the towel Jesus took on an a servant at the Last Supper for the footwashing, and the yoke we share with Christ in leadership.
But today robes and gowns and such are considered a wee bit formal, and contemporary worship usually is led by folks in their nicer street clothes (clean, tidy, but ordinary), and that says something important to visitors as well.
At our congregation, I split the difference (yes, I know, you're shocked). The choir has robes, as they have a set-apart role in worship just like the preacher, and truth be told they don't love them, so our mutual deal is that in Advent through Christmas, and as we get further into Lent and for Easter, we robe up. And when I'm doing a formal church wedding, I both robe and have a stole my sister made with a cross and linked wedding rings, from the same material as her dress (she's talented that way). Sometimes for funerals in the church I will "go robed" and other times not. It depends.
And that's the challenge today. It's not, for most of us, a simple "check the book" decision on what to wear. Many of us in preaching and pastoring know that too much formality can push away a seeker, but some in search of a faith to hold want a little more structure than their lives have right now. It's a fine balance, when to lead in everyday clothes, when to don all the special garments I can find and keep the personal statements to a minimum. I go back and forth, and suspect that's the new normal.
It does mean that on Sunday morning you have to think, if you're preaching, about what to wear, something my honored predecessors mostly didn't, unless it was because they had a lunch program after church. There's something to the steady simplicity of Martin Luther's choice of a basic black academic gown, signaling "I've done my studies, and have prepared this word to you" without any ostentation or attitude.
That, and a bright woven stole on the dark background, is my favorite preaching uniform. What's yours?
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him what you think best clothes a preacher or worship leader at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.