What’s with the guy in the dress? Some suggestions for a theology of vestments.

I recently heard a fellow priest say that she had never heard a convincing theology to justify the use of vestments in church. Needless to say, that made me think I should have a go. As someone who pretty much daily puts on a variety of vestments to preside at the Eucharist and at Evensong, it seems reasonable to think about what we’re doing when we put on priestly garments (other than fulfilling the promise we made to follow the canons of our church which require us to do so, dear nameless colleague!). So here goes.

My first suggestion would be a general one, which is about the identity and demeanour of the person presiding at the church’s solemn and joyful offering of worship to God. In putting on clothes that belong to an order of ministry rather than clothes that represent our personal tastes, we are giving ourselves in humility to the exercise of a ministry that depends not on our personality but on our calling and on the grace of God’s Spirit. This does not make us anonymous and does not obliterate our personality, but willingly sets the ‘constructed’ aspects of our identity aside while we express the representational role of the priest for the church which offers the Eucharist. The church’s priest wears the church’s clothes to offer the church’s sacrifice or praise.

My second general suggestion concerns the ritual aspect of this offering. Putting on special clothing to lead a corporate act of worship enhances that act with something that visually marks this time out as a departure from everyday business and is a participation in something timeless. The same argument can be made for sacred spaces set aside for sacred purposes. Vestments are an indicator of transcendence.

My third suggestion is more theological. St. Paul talks of being clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27) and this relates to baptism. Priestly garments are a reminder of the baptismal garments in which we all were clothed to mark our incorporation into the cosmic Christ. Again, this is not an obliteration of our individuality but the incorporation of that uniqueness into the One who gives it to us in the first place.

None of this is about power, and yet it acknowledges that the messages sent by our clothing are powerful. Simple and beautiful priestly vestments point to the ‘something greater’ that happens when we offer all of human life to God, including the human artistry with which these garments are made. They say that life is for more than consumption. We could see this as a choice not to wear a label, but, instead, the simple robe of baptism which says that life is fulfilled when it is lived in the pattern of Christ, not when clothed with the patterns of exploitative human fashion.