In the first centuries of the Christian church, church leaders dressed like regular worshippers, in the civilian clothes of the Greco-Roman tradition. Specialized clothing for Christian clergy didn’t really develop until after the 4th century and didn’t become consistently regularized until much later. The norm for the dress of Christian clergy leading worship—priests—was to begin with a simple garb, actually similar to the Greco-Roman every-day robe: an alb (“alb” meaning “white.”). This loose white robe, usually worn with a white rope or cincture around it, was meant to make clear in the gathering who were leaders and who were laypersons. The loose fitting cut was meant to make it easy to wear over other clothing but also to deemphasize the human form in favor of making the religious office of priest/pastor more easily visible and recognizable. The whiteness of the robe hearkened back to the baptismal garments placed over the newly baptized, white to signify the death to sin and the resurrection in Jesus. As clergy vestments developed, other elements were layered over the alb to signify different attributes of the religious leader: a stole or preaching ropes were hung around the neck. A chasuble—a large, colored poncho—was layered over the alb and stole during communion to emphasize the holiness of the sacrament of communion and the importance of the communing priest. Copes, a circular cape, were used as a kind of overcoat for bishops and select presiders. And also headdress including bishops’ mitres were utilized. Other types of clergy garb such as black, button-up robes called cassocks and later clergy shirts and collars were developed as everyday clergy clothing or for use in services without communion. These are just some of the “vestments” that continue to be used in the Lutheran tradition even today. In the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions you will find additional vestments.
For more than a year, here at St. Matthew’s--NoHo we have been livestreaming our services without or with only very limited numbers of people present, and mostly from our outdoor spaces. Our primarily livestreamed services were more casual and interactive, and throughout this pandemic I chose to give up wearing the traditional vestments of white alb, cincture and stole and chasuble and just wear my clerical clothing—usually black—with a range of tunics in different colors depending on the liturgical seasons. In fact, if you walk into my clothes closet at home, you will see that my tops, tunics and shirts are all hanging arranged by liturgical color: blue for Advent, green for ordinary time, red for Pentecost and Reformation Sunday, purple for Lent, and a lot of black for my weekday coverings over my black jeans and clergy shirt.
On Easter Sunday St. Matt’s—NoHo reopened to worshippers (socially distanced) and moved back into the sanctuary. But I haven’t started vesting in white again yet. Because I have had to prayerfully think through both the traditional meaning of our historical Lutheran vestments and the unintended significance they might have for contemporary worshippers.
White robes might signify religious leadership and the presence of God for many, especially long-time Lutherans. But for others, especially for some African-American Lutherans, white robes can signify horror and violence and death. I’ve had more than one African-American colleague tell me stories of the abject fear they or a Black sibling experienced while watching white clergymen in white robes processing toward them—hood or no hood. And Rev. Lenny Duncan, Lutheran pastor and public theologian has recently called out the Lutheran church for its use of white vestments, especially hooded white robes, in his provocative and illuminating book, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US: “I perceived those white hooded robes [used in worship at my seminary] as an existential threat against my personhood….white hooded robes were a symbol of terror for black folks….So now I wear a black cassock when I lead worship, because whiteness does not equal holiness, and blackness does not equal evil, brokenness, or self-denial. Black is holy.”
Trauma runs deep and gets transferred from generation to generation. You don’t need to have had personal experience with the Ku Klux Klan to feel the threat on your existence by similar-looking symbols of white power.
I’m from Virginia originally. Northern Virginia to be sure, but still when I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, Virginia still had vestiges of the Confederacy, and white hooded robes and burning crosses meant racism and death threats. I’m a white privileged woman and even I carry some awareness of the trauma of these symbols in me. In one of the congregations I served, the congregation had a long-running practice of decorating the sanctuary on Easter Sunday with two very large white wooden crosses with a score of candles affixed to each. Easter morning, the candles on the crosses were lit aflame to signify the promise of Resurrection. But all I could see was racist burning crosses that signified the threat of death. And I asked that the practice of lighting the crosses stop. We replaced each of the candles with white lilies, turning the lit cross into a blooming cross to signify the Resurrection. To be sure, the change didn’t satisfy the longing for familiar ritual of long-term members; but it created a new and less freighted symbol of what God longs for—renewal and justice.
Those of you who know St. Matt’s, know that St. Matt’s has a history of high-ish church liturgy. As we return to the sanctuary and more traditional worship space, I now have to make a decision regarding how I as your pastor and worship leader will dress. I’ve prayed about it. I’ve talked with a variety of church members--African-American, multiracial, white-- about it. And this is what I have discerned to do for now.
I have purchased a new white alb. It is more tailored, more form-fitting, shorter. it has no cowl around the neck, or anything that could be construed as a hood. It looks more like a light coat, or what in some traditions might be called a “preaching robe.” And I will likely wear it without a cincture. I wear it as a sign of the office of pastor/preacher, not as a claim to holiness or white privilege. I wear it as a reference to the traditional baptismal robe, again not as a claim to holiness but as a sign of my and our profoundest need for the repentance and forgiveness that manifests in Baptism. I am still wary of always wearing a white alb, because I do not want to propagate unintentionally that being white is holiest or best, and that the absence of whiteness is evil. And I do not want to trigger in others the traumas of racism. But I want to prayerfully and thoughtfully try out this intentional way of vesting white for a time and gather your feedback.
I have also purchased a new stole and will purchase others. The stole in many ways for me is the true mark of the office I hold as a clergy person. The stole—not the alb—is the vestment given only after ordination. The stoles owned by St. Matt’s are attractive and were purchased to match the paraments that are hung on the altar and the banners in the chancel area. But matching the wall hangings isn’t important. Important to me is to use the stoles as a way to express my commitment to proclaiming the Gospel. And so I will be acquiring some new stoles that will continue to match the colors of the liturgical seasons, but will include images and colors and textiles and textures that proclaim God’s story of love and restoration to and with different contexts.
And I will also from time to time wear other liturgical vestments such as a different preaching robe, or a black cassock. Indeed, I have found a number of formerly-used black robes in a closet at the church, and we can explore returning those to use by worship leaders during some seasons.
I share my reflections on vesting white because I want us to be in conversation about how we together can most meaningfully and impactfully proclaim the healing and liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ in a world and season where we are called to self-examination and change to eradicate the evil of racism. I believe that for the community that currently gathers at St. Matt's, my effort to intentionally and thoughtfully vest in white while adding other forms of clerical dress will be a welcome effort to free us from uncritical attachment to liturgical practices that might mean different things to different people. We always want to be mindful of the people who aren't part of our congregation and make sure our practices aren't becoming hurdles for new Christians. At the same time I know that for some, my efforts here undoubtedly fall short of the call to "stop prioritizing tradition and civility over the lives of the marginalized" (Duncan).
I ask you too to pray and reflect and imagine and share your ideas so that together we may build the beloved community of Christ at St. Matt’s—NoHo.
Pr. Stephanie Jaeger