If you were to enter almost any Catholic Church (either Roman Catholic of Anglo-Catholic) before the 1960s you would almost certainly have seen the clergy vested in a white linen garment known as an alb. Very often these albs were decorated with an extensive amount of lace. The lace in an alb served two important functions: first on a very practical level, the lace makes the garment lighter and more breathable (and saying mass in several layers of robes in churches before the invention of air-conditioning this was a welcome introduction indeed); second, and far more importantly, lace was symbolic of the amount of effort and care being put into the worship of God.
Before machines could make lace quickly and cheaply, it represented something of a luxury. Lace was expensive and very hard to make. Its intricate patterns were woven by hand and represented countless hours of toil and care. When lace first became available and fashionable, its use was not considered a sign of femininity, but of nobility, so it was quite natural that in seeking to worship the King of Kings, the church would very often employ lace in its linens and vestments to symbolize the supreme transcendence of God.
Of course, lace was not the only sign of nobility used in the worship of God. Chalices were to be ornate and made of the finest metal. Vestments and robes needed to be beautiful and splendid. Churches had altars that were intricately carved and windows that colorfully illustrated the stories of our faith. The worship of God was not something incidental: time, effort and treasure were devoted to make going to church the most awe-inspiring experience that most people ever had.
How far we have come. This past week I have twice encountered prejudice within the church against priests who still find great value in maintaining and wearing traditional vestments. It has happened plenty of times before, but enough is enough. So here are a few things I want everyone to know about traditional vestments and the priests who wear them:
- Femininity has nothing to do with it. Wearing traditional vestments has nothing to do with having a lace fetish and wanting to wear frilly things (not that there is anything wrong with that). Indeed, I sometimes wonder about the implied misogyny that seems to exist in so many put-downs about traditional vestments looking feminine. So what if they do? We need to recognize that our ideas about what is masculine and/or feminine have changed over time (just look at portraits of kings and queens through the ages if you don’t believe me). The church’s vestments evolved long before trousers became a thing, so maybe we should stop trying to assign them a gender. And while we are on this subject, it is worthwhile to state: not every priest that wears and values traditional vestments is opposed to the ordination of women! I, for one, love a good lace alb, and fully support women wearing them too.
- The vestments are not there to make me look special. The robes are not worn to glorify the priest, they are worn to glorify Christ. As a priest, I am a sinner in need of redemption just like everyone else. During the mass, I act in the person of Christ, to say his words of institution over the bread and wine and distribute his body and blood to his faithful people. It is a moment that is supremely not about me at all, but about Christ and what he has done. The time, effort and expense put into beautiful vestments is not done to make me look special, but rather to remind all of us how special Christ is and how glorious this meal is that he has invited us to.
- We are not trying to turn back time. I love patristic theology, early mass settings, medieval architecture, baroque vestments and altar furnishings, and even the occasional modern praise song (gasp!). My standard when evaluating church things is not “is it new?” or “is it old?” but “is it good?” What I have found, time and time again, is that things that have managed to stand the test of time have usually done so because they have lasting value from one generation to the next. I have no desire to go back to the days before civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights or air-conditioning, but I do believe that the people that lived before and through those times still probably have a lot to teach me. Just because we find timeless wisdom and value in things that are traditional does not mean that we fail to see the importance of the progress that has been made along the way as well. For the record, most priests that I know that have strong preferences for traditional worship are actually quite young, and much of the laity that are attracted to this type of worship are fairly young as well. This isn’t about catering to the blue-haired ladies in our congregations as much as it is looking to what is resonating with children and youth.
- This is not about some secret desire to be Roman Catholic. On many occasions people have visited my church and commented “This is just like Roman Catholic” to which I would like to reply “When is the last time you visited a Roman Catholic Church?” Traditional vestments were a hallmark of both Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic churches up until the 1960s, when after the reforms of Vatican II, the Roman church began moving toward more modern vestments (and by modern I mean reflecting style, material and color trends of the 1960s and 70s). Today very few Roman Catholic parishes worship in traditional vestments or follow the older Tridentine form of the mass. The fact is that Episcopal priests that wear cassock-albs, modern-styled vestments and worship at West-facing altars have far more in common with their Roman Catholic colleagues than those of us that have a preference for fiddle-back chasubles, and that is fine, it really is. I have no problem with priests and churches that can feel connected to Christ through newer rites and modern aesthetics. As long as it is faithful to the gospel and works for the community, great. Go with it. What I do have a problem with is the notion that those of us who connect with traditional worship in all its forms and finery on some level do not belong in the mainstream church and are just waiting for an excuse to leave. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am a mainstream Anglican in the Episcopal Church and that is right where I intend to stay, but if we say that our church has room for a variety of styles in worship, then we should live that out by not trying to force traditional worshipers off to the margins, or even worse, out of the picture altogether.
- Ultimately the lace may not matter, but style does. Style and substance go hand in hand. We need to get that. People pay more attention to what we do than what we say. If we put more effort into setting a nice table for a dinner party than we do preparing ourselves for worshiping at Christ’s altar, what does that say about our priorities? Say what you will about traditional worship, it is seldom sloppy or irreverent. It takes Christ seriously.This is not some show that we are putting on week after week, it is the worship of God, and it is that very same worship that has led many a faithful Anglo-Catholic to serve Christ in the streets and in the hearts and bodies of those in need, as well as at his high altar. Maybe a Solemn High Mass isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I get that, but please stop suggesting that we are going through all of this effort for any other reason than to glorify God.
The next time you see a priest wearing a lace alb consider this: he or she has probably done so as a conscious choice, but it may not be for the reason you think. He might not be trying to make a statement about his stance on some political issue in the church. He might not be trying to dress like a historical figure from ages past. He might not be trying to draw attention to himself by wearing something grand our outlandish. He might, just might, have seen something very beautiful and thought “surely this is worthy of God.”