Monday, June 25, 2007

Clergy Robes: Good or Bad?

Matt of Catching Meddlers wrote:

I’ve heard all the arguments for wearing a preaching robe. Heck, I even like wearing a preaching robe. However…sometimes I wonder if it is something I prefer rather than something that aids in the translation and communication of the Gospel. I preach in a pretty rural area, and most people outside of the United Methodist churches I serve have never seen someone preach in a robe before. Sometimes I wonder if it is so strange to some of our visitors that it obscures the very preaching of the Gospel and even prevents them from returning. I’ve thought about this from a missional/contextual point of view. If we went to Papua New Guinea, for example, would we wear the traditional dress of a minister or pastor who had preached there for years, or would we drag out our pulpit robes or albs and begin to preach regardless of the local culture? I don’t think any responsible missionary would do that. In the same way, is it presumptuous or culturally insensitive for UM clergy to wear a robe (or alb) in a rural setting where people are more familiar with pastors wearing a nice buisness suit when they preach?

I recently bought a robe and stole which I shall wear for weddings and funerals. The church isn't used to robed pastors, and I have no objection to leaving it off. That's all part of incarnational ministry -- adjusting the form (but not the content) of ministry to the cultural expectations of the people.

One of Matt's commentors, Robert Duran, had an excellent response to this issue:

Do robes and albs get in the way of the message? Yes, sometimes they do for some people. Business suits get in the way for some people sometimes, too (particularly $1,500 well-tailored suits that smack of the “prosperity gospel” or the “city slicker here to fleece the local folks”).

It may be that robes and albs are more important to me because I grew up in a church that considered such garments a mark of apostasy from the “true religion.”

Do golf shirts and khaki Dockers get in the way for some people sometimes? Yes, they do.

Where I serve right now, the only dark suit - the only suit of any color - the only coat and tie, in the church on Sunday morning would be in the pulpit. Does that make the suit, the coat and tie, an outmoded costume or uniform worn to express continuity with another place and time? Sure does - just as the robes and albs do. I just believe it is more important to show that connection with the Church over the last 17 or 18 centuries, than over the last 7 or 8 decades. For others, it is more important to reject either of those connections, each of which brings to mind as many tragic events as powerful and positive events.


DannyG said...

I have grown up in churches where the ministers wore robes, and it continues to this day. I guess that I've always been a bit partial to "high" church: I like some pomp and circumstance. Church should be something special, something different. Having said that, I think that Paul's admonition to be all things to all people comes into play here. I still think that the preacher should dress one level above that of the parishoners, as a way of designating his/her special position. And, having robes for very formal situtations, is a don't have to use it but can offer to wear it to give an extra level of authority to the situtation. (you may wish to consider baptisms, particularly infant baptisms, too). If you are doing adult baptism you may wish to make alternate arrangements, especially if you are using full imersion (Alexander Springs would be a great place for that)

The Thief said...

One of my difficulties is the stratification between clergy and laity that I often see. Yes, I have a calling to full-time, ordained ministry, but I believe all Christians have a calling to ministry (be it full-time or not, be it ordained or not).

To say that we should also use our style of dress as a way of differentiation is too much, in my opinion. Here's why: especially in the small town where I live, I am already set apart by my postition; my garments shouldn't have to move me another step out.

Along the Narrow Path said...

The pastor before our current one wore a robe every week, but our current pastor believes in wearing robes on special occasions like baptisms, communion, etc. On non-robe days, he wears a suit. Personally, I don't have a problem with only special occasions, but it is up to each individual.

Stresspenguin said...

Where I'm appointed ( a rural charge) none of the men wear ties and usually only wear polo shirts. Because I'm younger than most of my parishioners, I have found it necessary (or at least helpful) to wear something that visually separates me from the rest of the congregation. (side story: My first time as a lay missioner/pastor I was 26. I didn't want to wear a shirt and tie because I was still in the tail-end of my rebellious phase. Three months in, I started having problems with the church taking me seriously. Then one Sunday I wore a shirt and tie. Their attitude changed drastically. Theology aside, there are simply basic social/psychological preconceptions that people have regarding age, gender, visual appearance, etc.)

Therefore, I have developed the "one level up" method of determining what to wear.

I wear a shirt and tie (and pants) - minimum.

When the majority of men start wearing ties, I'll wear a suit.

When the men start wearing suits, I'll wear a robe.

When the men start wearing robes, I'll wear my swim trunks.

Anonymous said...

Intertesting topic! Lay person here, who has always attended churches where the pastor wears the robe et al thus I am partial to such.
Many in my field of medicine (anesthesiology) have held similiar debates about attire/dress. We often arrive at the hospital very early in the morning dressed casually sometimes in shorts and sandels and go to the lounge to change into scrubs. Very few of us dress with shirt and tie (or dress/skirt), then change into scrubs as most prefer to round at the end of the day in scrubs. I adopted the practice of changing to a shirt and tie to round at the end of the day. Patients and collegues from other disciplines look at and treat you in a more professional manner from my experiences.
Until my wife and I had children, I would always wear a shirt and tie with a sports coat to church. I gave up the practice after repeatedly getting choked and ruining some nice ties along the way.


Kenny said...

On game days (and sometimes on other days), my pastor preaches in a Philadelphia Eagles jersey (I'm not joking). Then again, that's Calvary Chapel for you. Whatever is necessary to get the congregation to take the message seriously is what needs to be done. For some people, robes, or even business suits, will smack of pageantry and lead them to take the message less seriously. For other people, you just won't be credible if you aren't dressed up properly.

It's also important that the goal is really to get them to take the message seriously, not to take the pastor seriously. I think that concerns about clericalism should be considered carefully, and we shouldn't set the pastor off from the congregation too far with excessive formality in that area.

Todd said...

I use robes for Easter and Christmas as well as baptisms and weddings when appropriate. Meaning I have done a wedding in a Baptist church (where robes aren't expected) and for a couple who had a very (VERY) small wedding.

When not in a robe I choose khaki's and a nice shirt (sometimes button down (with an occasional tie), sometimes a polo).

For me it is more practical. I lead music and play guitar. I have never been comfortable wearing a jacket to play guitar (and the buttons scratch the finish). And dressing in front of everyone seems so Mr. Rogers.

I have wondered how I would handle moving into a church where more style is necessary. I would probably have to adapt until the congregation and I come to know each other better.

The Thief said...

I, too, play a guitar in worship, and I found that it's easier to play guitar in a robe than in a jacket!!

Matt said...

Wow, this topic has generated far more response than I ever imagined when I first wrestled with it. Let me update a bit. I still wear a robe at one of my Churches every Sunday. The other one I wear one on most communion Sundays and during special days throughout the Christian year. Thanks John for continuing the discussion! I hope we continue to think about this missionally instead of simply on the basis of our preferences.

P.S. Thanks for maintaining the Asbury Blog Roll on your site.


John said...

I wear a shirt and tie (and pants) - minimum.

Ah, but with a robe, you don't need to worry about pants!

Anonymous said...

I usually wear some sort of clothing. Preaching naked is usually frowned upon.

the reverend mommy said...

I always wear a robe. Especially for women, you get comments about your attire -- your skirt is too short, your skirt is too long, they don't like the cut or color, they don't like women in pant, etc...

Wearing a robe always seems to curtail that.

Also, robes have been worn in the Christian church for longer than they have NOT be worn and so you have tradition on your side.

And when you put on the robe, you "erase" your personality and put on the mantle and yoke of Obedience.

Thus I almost always wear a robe.

Methodist Geek said...

Because I'm the youngest adult man in my church, I wear a preaching gown in winter and a shirt and tie and a sport coat or a suit and tie in summer, except on communion Sundays. On Communion Sundays I wear a cassock-alb and stole, in order to set apart the sacrament as holy and a different sort of thing from a preaching service.

the reverend mommy said...

Ha! Preaching with clothing! Yes, I agree. Good thing. Might be distracting otherwise.

Wesley Groupie said...

A clergy wife/choir director's stand:
I have to tell my choir that they need to robe up in time for church. I get asked, "Are we going to be robed this morning?" I tell them, matter-of-factly, "Yes, you're going robed. I'd rather you not be DIS-robed...." No one seems to get the really bad joke in that one......

My husband has served in rural churches, and, especially when we were fresh out of seminary, he tried to NOT wear a robe on the hottest of hot August Sunday mornings. Because of his brown curly hair and youthful appearance (we're talking 23 years ago), the ladies in the congregation were APPALLED, and they told him he needed to dress like a minister if they wanted him taken seriously as a minister.

I guess it IS all in the culture of the climate.

CBrulee said...

The pastor should dress to neither distract nor detract from the spiritual message and tone of the worship service.
ReligioNews blog posting

Justin Pitts said...

Hahaha. Swimming trunks, but no pants??? Come on now, too much info. I am a Young Pastor myself and most of the time I wear a full suit and tie, if not I wear slacks a shirt and tie which is still pretty dressy in the rural congregation i'm over. But I am accepting the reins from my Senior Pastor in may when she retires. She wears a robe for special occasions, mostly baptisms and weddings. So I was thinking of doing the same, alot of the people that have joined our congregation the last few months have never seen either of us in a robe however and I just don't know how it would be accepted.