The Church of Saint Peter
What are vestments?
Vestments are the clothes worn by bishops, priests, deacons, lay readers, cantors, servers and choir during the Liturgy, the worship services of the Church.
Vestments are not like costumes in a theatre. Vestments do not involve pretending or play acting, but rather are worn in worship when we come together in the presence of the living God. Vestments are more like a judge’s or lawyer’s robes which denote dignity and are worn when fulfilling an official function or office.
Why do Anglicans wear vestments?
Like other elements in the church such as Altar hangings, candles, stained glass, music, incense and so on, vestments add a rich and colourful element to the celebration of the Liturgy. Celebration usually involves some decoration and adornment. When we have a special meal at home or at a restaurant we expect the best and beautiful the house has to offer and we attire ourselves in the finest special clothes we have. How appropriate it is then that we should do the same at the Holy Eucharist, the Sacred Banquet of Christ
Vestments, like other symbols in the church, convey a specific symbolic meanings intended to enhance and deepen our understanding and appreciation of the Liturgy.
A vestment can help cover over the identity of the persons wearing them. We cannot, for example, tell whether a person is rich or poor by the clothes they wear hidden under their vestments. In this way a person’s wealth, status and personal idiosyncrasies can disappear behind the Lord they serve .In worship our Lord must increase, we must decrease (John 3:30). Vestments help us to focus on the ministry being exercised and the liturgy, rather than the individuality of the worship leader.
We may wear and appreciate vestments because of their antiquity and their use from earliest times in Church history. They reconnect us with our past and act as means of continuity with our brothers and sisters who have worshipped Christ for two thousand years.
Finally, the intentional anachronism, the deliberate choice to maintain “out of date” things such as vestments and other church customs may act as a critique on our society which seems to hunger after the latest, newest fad of the week.
Many of the Church’s vestments have their origin in the everyday wear of the Roman Empire. As fashions came and went in the Empire the Church did not show concern with trying to keep up with what was “in”. The clergy maintained the simple clothes it had always worn. Over time their clothes were so out of date that they did not resemble everyday wear at all and they became the distinctive mark of the clergy. Many of the vestment’s symbolic meanings evolved later.
Vestments in the Anglican Tradition
The first Book of Common Prayer, issued in 1549, instructed that “Upon the day and the time appointed for the ministration of the holy Communion, the Priest that shall execute the holy ministry, shall put upon him the vesture appointed for that ministration, that is to say: a white Alb plain, with a vestment [a chasuble] or a Cope.” If a deacon or subdeacon assists the priest they were instructed to wear albs and tunicles. People may be familiar with these vestments as they are worn at all Solemn Eucharists at St. Peter’s church. For other services the priest was instructed to wear the cassock and surplice.
The first Book of Common Prayer did not satisfy the more extreme reformers in England who felt the Church had not gone far enough in reforming its life and liturgy. The second Book of Common Prayer was issued in 1552 and reflected significant changes directed in a more protestant fashion. The traditional Eucharistic vestments were not permitted. The cassock and surplice were the only vestments allowed. Some Anglican clergy of the period influenced by Calvinism shunned vestments altogether and chose to wear secular clothing both in daily life and leading worship, often to the dismay of their congregations and bishops. They saw any vestment, even the simple surplice, as a symbol of the excesses and errors of the Roman Catholic Church from which they had broken away.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I the third Book of Common Prayer was issued in 1559 and attempted to reflect a balance between protestant and catholic minded Anglicans. It restored the use of the traditional Eucharistic vestments of the alb, chasuble or cope. Out of the reformation the cassock and surplice appeared as the standard vestment worn by Anglican clergy for all services of divine worship for centuries.
The 1830’s saw the beginning of the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Communion. Often described as the Catholic Revival, the Oxford Movement sought reconnect the Anglican Church with its reformation roots and the spirituality and customs of the undivided catholic church tradition. The Oxford Movement believed that the changes in the teachings and liturgy of the Church by later reformers did not reflect a church which claimed to be both reformed and catholic. Somewhere along the way the baby had been thrown out with the bath water. One of the Oxford Movement’s greatest contributions to the church was its emphasis on the centrality of the Eucharist in the Christian’s life and community. The Oxford Movement re-introduced a wide variety of the traditional vestments into Church use that we see commonly today.
The Liturgical Movement of the 1960’s opened an interest and appreciation for the liturgical arts, worship, and vestments of the early Church in church’s which had previously had never explored the use of colour and symbolism in liturgical garments. Such things as the alb, stole and chasuble are now almost universal in many Christian denominations.
The Holy Eucharist has always been the central act of worship of the Church and so most of the Church’s vesture evolved from what was worn when celebrating the Holy Communion. In the early days of Christianity the small church communities were directly led by its bishop (from the Greek episcopos “overseer”) their chief pastor or shepherd and spiritual father. As the Church grew it was impossible for the bishops to preach and celebrate the sacraments with all the flocks under their care. Many of the episcopal (i.e. bishop’s) responsibilities were shared with the presbyters or priests and deacons such as preaching and celebrating the Eucharist. So, bishops, priests and deacons share many of the same vestments. This remains so today. The bishop is our chief pastor. With the parish priest, appointed by the bishop in his or her stead, they exercise the ministry of the apostles to the people of God.
Alb - The alb (from Latin albus - white) was the basic garment worn in the Roman Empire. It is a simple ankle-length white robe. The alb resembles the white robe given to the newly baptized in the early Church as a symbol of having their sins washed away and the new life in Christ. The child’s baptismal “gown” is a remnant of that custom. It is a symbol of the Christian’s striving for purity and holiness.
Amice - The amice (from Latin amicio - “I wrap around”) is a rectangle of cloth tied around the face of the wearer like a head kerchief and then pulled down around the shoulders. It originated as hood to keep clergy warm in unheated churches and symbolically represents the “helmet of salvation” in St. Paul’s “armour of God” (see Ephesians 6:10-17).
Stole - The stole is a long scarf-like cloth that hangs around the neck, over the shoulders and down the front of bishops and priests. Deacons wear the stole around the neck and across the chest. The stole was the insignia of Roman magistrates and governors .It was originally a symbolic towel indicating that the magistrate was sweating or working hard on behalf of society. It was worn at the Imperial court and for public ceremonies. In the Roman era it meant that power also required becoming a servant.
When the Roman Empire fell, bishops were in a natural position to take up the leadership roles left in the chaotic void of Roman government and order. Bishops adopted and adapted the stole as their own. The symbols of might and power of Roman Empire on the stole (eg. The Imperial eagle, weapons etc.) were replaced with crosses as a symbol that Christ was our true king and the conqueror of sin and death. The crosses on the stole also symbolizes that a bishop’s authority came not from armies and empires, but from Christ himself as he said to Peter and the apostles, ”I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven….” (Matthew 16:19).
The stole was made of white sheep’s wool symbolizing that, like Christ the good shepherd, a bishop must care for the sheep of his flock.
The stole originally wrapped around the neck and down the back and front. Eastern Orthodox bishops still wear the stole (called and omophorian in Eastern Christianity) in this way. In Western Christianity it is called a pallium and is worn by the Pope and high-ranking bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. It ceased to be part of the Anglican bishops vestments at the reformation but can still be seen in Archbishop of Canterbury’s coat of arms and the coat of arms of the See (diocese) of Canterbury - the “mother” church of the Anglican Communion.
The stole was uniquely an episcopal vestment, but came to be worn by priests as they came to share some episcopal duties. As priests had no specific dress of their own, the stole became the distinctive mark of the ordained ministry. Before the sixth century the priest’s stole was called an orarion (from the Latin word orare - to pray) and indicated the role of priests in leading the prayers in public worship. Stole is a Greco-Latin word meaning “garment” or simply “cloth” and may be the origin of the phrase “man of the cloth”.
Wearing the stole symbolizes the taking on of the yoke of Christ’s service (Matthew 11:29,30). The stole has a small cross in its middle at the nape of the neck. The bishop or priest may kiss this cross before putting on the stole as a symbol that they take on Christ’s yoke and carry his cross in the spirit of willingness and love.
Chasuble - The chasuble is the poncho-like garment worn by bishops and priests while celebrating the Holy Eucharist. It was an overcoat worn by both sexes during the Roman Empire. Chasuble comes from the Latin casula meaning “little house” as it was thought to resemble a little hut. It became a formal garment in the late Roman period. As it was worn on special and festive occasions, the Eucharist being one of them, it became synonymous with the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
The chasuble reminds us of the seamless garment Jesus wore on his way to the cross (John 19:23, 24). As the bishop or priest wears the chasuble it reminds us that they are our vicars, that is, they vicariously and symbolically enact on behalf of Jesus the eucharistic action of taking bread, blessing it, breaking it and giving it to the people of God until his coming again.
Cincture - The cincture is the rope belt worn by the clergy and others. It symbolizes having truth encircling your inward being (Ephesians 6:14).
Dalmatic and Tunicle - The dalmatic was a large formal woolen overcoat in the Roman era worn by both men and women and remains unchanged in appearance to this day. The dalmatic receives its name from the Roman province of Dalmatia (in the former Yugoslavia). Wool imported from this province was once used to make the dalmatic. The dalmatic is worn by the deacon at Solemn Eucharists. The tunicle is virtually the same vestment as the dalmatic and can be worn by subdeacons, crucifers (processional cross bearers) and thurifers (incense bearers.)
Cope - The cope is a cape and has a similar origin to that of the chasuble as a style of Roman overcoat. It differs from the chasuble in that it is ankle length and open at the front and attached by a simple or ornate clasp. The triangular or semi-circular flap of fabric that hangs from the back shoulders of the cope is the vestige of what was once a hood.
The cope came into use as a garment for warmth in cold churches and outdoor processions. As these outdoor processions celebrated great festive occasions (e.g. Palm Sunday) copes became very ornate and richly embroidered. Copes are usually worn today to mark festive and important holy days in the Christian calendar. Anglican custom also allows the celebrant to wear the cope at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
“Choir” Vestments - A different set of vestments worn by the bishop and priest when not celebrating the Eucharist are called “choir” vestments. For the priest they consist of a cassock, surplice and tippet. Bishops wear a cassock, rochet, chimere and tippet. Both have the option of wearing an academic hood. These are worn when the clergy are in the choir area praying the Offices (services) of Morning Prayer (also known as Matins), Evening Prayer (Vespers) or Compline. They may also be worn for other services. Some Anglican clergy prefer to wear these vestments for all liturgies including the Eucharist.
Cassock - The cassock is the long ankle-length robe worn by clergy and others such as servers and choirs members. Cassock comes from the Persian word kazhaghand meaning a ”padded silk robe”. The name originates from the time of the Crusades in the Middle Ages. Not long ago the cassock used to be the everyday wear of priests in some Anglican circles, but it is rarely so today. As mentioned before, priests had no distinctive garment of their own. For centuries they wore the simple long robe in varying colours of the common man. By the Middle Ages black became the common colour for the priest’s robe denoting simplicity and austerity. It was originally fur-lined to keep clergy warm. The bishop’s cassock is purple or scarlet. Purple and scarlet were once the colours of Roman imperial authority. They came to be adopted as episcopal colours as bishops began to assume leadership roles at the fall of the Roman Empire. Cassocks worn by servers, lay readers and choir can be of any colour.
The plain clerical shirt worn today by the clergy is a remnant of the longer cassock. The clerical collar worn by clergy evolved in the seventeenth century. During that period fashion became somber and subdued. One of the few things that had any flair was the broad collar made of fine linen and intricate lace work. These collars were costly and would immediately display a person’s wealth and position in society .As an example to others not to get caught up in expensive and vain shows of status priests began to tuck their collars inside their cassocks and jackets leaving only a thin strip of simple white linen showing around the neck. As fashions in men’s neckwear changed, the clerical collar changed along with it, but always with the idea of simplicity in mind. The modern clerical collar of today comes from the starched collars of the nineteenth century.
Surplice - The surplice is a white loose-fitting linen garment with wide sleeves. Its name comes from the Latin superpelliceum meaning “over the fur garment” referring that it was worn over the once fur-lined cassock. It is one of the many different vestments that evolved from the alb and is not restricted to the clergy. It is Anglican custom that the cassock and surplice are the minimal vestments that clergy should wear when leading “formal” worship. The cotta (from old German kozza - “over mantle”) worn by servers is a short square necked version of the surplice. The surplice represents simplicity and dignity in worship.
Tippet or Preaching Scarf - The tippet is a long black scarf that resembles a stole but is completely different in origin or meaning. The tippet originated as a scarf of squirrel or bear fur to keep clergy warm. The fur is now gone but the black colour remains. It is sometimes referred to as a “preaching scarf” as the tippet is worn by bishops and priests for Morning and Evening Prayer which are liturgies of the Word and preaching. In some dioceses lay people licensed by the bishop to preach are permitted to wear a tippet of varying colours.
Rochet - The rochet is a white ankle-length surplice worn by bishops. Its large puffy sleeves are gathered at the wrists by cuffs.
Chimere - Worn by bishops, the chimere is a scarlet or black sleeveless ankle-length vest. The chimere was originally an outdoor riding jacket .The pleats in its back were meant for the fabric of the chimere to fan out over the horses back making it easier to wear when riding. As a riding jacket the chimere symbolizes the bishop’s role as an apostle, apostle meaning “one who is sent” to travel the world to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.
The Bishop's Other Symbols
Mitre - The mitre is the two-part, folding hat that comes to two points at the back and front. It has two ribbons or lappets hanging down the back. Mitre comes from the Greek word for a turban or a cloth cap. The origins of the mitre are unclear. It may have been a magistrate’s hat worn in the late eastern Roman Empire. It may have also just been a common style of hat worn by bishops to keep them warm as they traveled from community to community and became associated with their apostolic ministry.
The mitre was originally a plain white cone-shaped hat. Over the centuries it saw many changes in size and shape. By the early Middle Ages it came to the shape of mitre we’re familiar with today.
The shape of the mitre resembles flames of fire and symbolizes the tongues of fire which descended on the apostles at the first Pentecost (see Acts 2). The Holy Spirit still descends upon the Church through the special apostolic ministry of the bishops as they ask the Spirit to come upon those being strengthened for the service of God in baptism, confirmation, ordination and the celebration of Word and Sacraments.
Crosier - The crosier is the bishop’s staff in the shape of the shepherd’s crook. It symbolizes that the bishop is the shepherd of his flock. The crosier's shaft is a walking stick symbolizing a bishop’s call to travel near and far to preach the Gospel. The curled end of the crosier symbolizes the bishop’s role in guiding the flock, and pulling along those sheep who may have strayed from the fold. The pointed end of the crosier symbolizes the bishop’s role in defending the flock when attacked by persecution or internal strife or error.
Episcopal Ring - The episcopal ring, like a wedding ring, symbolizes the bishop’s betrothal to the Church and to the people under his or her care. Most bishops’ rings are set with an amethyst stone. Amethyst is a purple stone, purple being the bishop’s colour. Amethyst means “I am not drunk” and refers to St. Peter’s words on the day of Pentecost that the apostles were not drunk but filled with the joy and power of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:5-21) Bishops, as successors of the apostles, wear the purple-stone ring as a reminder that they too are empowered by the Holy Spirit, as at the first Pentecost, to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.
Pectoral Cross - The cross which hangs on the bishop’s chest (Latin pectoris - chest) reminds us that we, with our bishop, and all those baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection must daily pick up our cross and carry the love of Jesus into our world.
The early church did not assign any specific symbolic colours to its vestments. What was important is that the vestments were clean, in good repair and made of the best fabric available.
Now, although many vestments have set colours like the white alb or surplice, the eucharistic vestments change colours in accordance with the colours of the Church Season:
Advent: Purple or blue - royal colours awaiting the coming of the King of kings to be born.
Christmas and Epiphany: White or gold - symbols of holiness and joy celebrate that Christ is born.
Lent: Purple - a dark, brooding colour of penitence in preparation for the celebration of Easter.
Easter: White or gold - symbols of light and radiance reflecting the glory of the resurrection. Also used for funerals.
Regular Season (Sundays after Pentecost): Green - a colour of life and new growth meant to reflect the spiritual growth as we reflect over the past church year.
Red: A symbol of fire - used for all festivals of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost, confirmation, ordinations). The symbol of blood - used for saint’s days who were martyred.
White: For all Feasts of our Lord (eg. Ascension, Transfiguration), for all feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary (with blue being another option), All Saints Day and for saint’s days who were not martyred, for weddings, Harvest Thanksgiving and other days of celebration.
Vestments are a means to an end. They are a way to enrich our worship with beauty and symbolism and can connect us with our Christian heritage and traditions. The point of vestments is to help us focus our minds and hearts on Christ himself.
As a caution not to get these ends and means mixed up, Jesus has something to say. He reminds us that the Kingdom of God is not about what we wear (Matthew 6:24-34). Jesus also cautions us of the danger of an outward show of shallow religiosity while we neglect the greater issues of justice and love (see Matthew 23:1-32).
By Dean Rose
Permission is granted to use and replicate this or parts of this article with the following ascription;
From an article by Dean Rose, St. Peter’s Church, Oshawa, Diocese of Toronto.