So we’re up to the point in the service where the average congregant looks over her shoulder to see a gang of people coming up behind her. “Smile! You’re a worship community now!”
There’s the Gospel, held high, with great solemnity. I muse on what would happen if a congregant ran up to kiss it or touch it in some way as I would see in a synagogue. Is it held high out of reverence for the Word of God? The vibe I get is more like my the memory of Great Aunt Agnes putting her Hummel collection on the highest shelf. “Don’t touch!”
Now comes the clergy in their vestments. Formally walking in a straight line, a flotilla of fabric.
One year, every Sunday, one of my kids took a class just that began just when the worship for an African American church was over. My daughter was a style conscious teen and as we walked by, watching the display of unique pride and style, she would exclaim “I love this church! Can we go there? It looks like a party.”
Personally, I love fashion – particularly as an expression of the inner, unique self. The florid hats in Harlem on a Sunday morning express the theology of uniqueness, creativity, and community. When a Buddhist monk in orange robes and shaved head passes, the world around him or her is changed a bit to contemplate mystery and simplicity. Similarly the robes of those in other intentional orders express mission and devotion.
An email report on the ordination of a bishop cited the beauty and high drama of the service. Such pomp – the bishops in all their vestments! – it was “thrilling” she wrote.
First – pomp is not an aesthetic that really works dramatically. It is the first syllable of the word pompous. As for dramatic, beautiful, thrilling, and even spiritual – have you seen Julie Taymor’s “Lion King”?
Episcopal clergy have their own seasonal outfits – and that’s fine. However, many I’ve met imagine this to be a priority – there’s fussiness and attitude about vesting that really needs to be rethought. Vestments are primarily functional, their presence may not be entirely necessary. They are a portal to tradition and history and not to be made into idols.
Then there’s the fact that celebrating the Eucharist is not about “look at me” vestments.
We live in a visual culture that morphs every twenty four hours. The church shouldn’t try to compete, but re-understand its place without losing integrity. And yes, slow down time a bit with symbolic representations of the faith, but cut out the personal preoccupation.
It is with great dismay that we observe too many clergy frequently referring to their love of “playing dress up”; that at Diocesan Conventions the line out the Almy’s booth is a long one and the social justice or faith formation booths have tumbleweed blowing through them; that clergy have consumer identification and self elevation according to whether they use Wipple’s or Almy.
You want to turn around in the driver’s seat and say “Cut it out back there!” Inject a bit of humility to the discussion. Stacy’s and Clinton’s makeovers on “What not to Wear” have more theology and mission behind them than the fussiness of some clergy. There have been instances of bishops flying to precious medieval European towns to buy particular fabrics for their vestments.
Let’s consider the lilies of the fields.
And when a bishop dresses up as a homeless person, equating the outfit with the real condition, something has gone, horribly, obscenely wrong.
Clergy, deacons, choirs – it really doesn’t matter. When all is said and done, the man-on-the-street who walks into the church does not see the tradition or fine weave on the stole. He or she is more interested – perhaps driven – to understand cope as a verb instead of a noun. The internal slide show of pop culture images makes a connection not with the history or tradition, but with science fiction.
Vested, to the average Joe or Jane, most of you look like alien overlords.
And that’s ok. Because as John Wimber said “I’m a fool for Christ. Who’s fool are you?”