All That Catholic Stuff

By: Rev. Gregory S. Neal

“Why do you wear a clerical collar?”
“Why do you wear robes and stoles on Sunday mornings?”
“Why do we say that we believe in the ‘Catholic’ Church in our creeds?”
“Why do you make the sign of the cross over the elements in Holy Communion?”
“Isn’t all that stuff just Catholic stuff?”

These questions are fairly common, and I have heard them many times throughout my ministry. I suppose I should begin by stating that, as a denomination, The United Methodist Church is currently on very good speaking terms with The Roman Catholic Church. Over the past half century our two Communions have been discovering that we have more in common than we once thought we did. We view our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church as exactly that: brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus our Lord. We may differ on multiple points of doctrine, practice, and styles of worship, but we are united in our love of God and our desire to follow and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. All this being said, however, it is nevertheless true that The United Methodist Church not becoming more Roman Catholic in style or outlook. We are, however, catholic in our understanding of theology and the nature of the church ... and we always have been. Indeed, this is part of what we mean when we say, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, that we believe in “...the holy catholic church.” We are not saying that we’re part of the Roman Catholic Church, but rather we are saying that we are part of the catholic church — the Universal Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, unbounded by denominational walls or names. By saying that we believe in the “catholic” church, we are saying that we believe ourselves to be part of a community of believers which goes far beyond the narrow confines of our own denomination. Another way of looking at this is to say that we United Methodists are protestant catholics: we long for the unity of the Body of Christ, recognize that we’re not the only Christians, and that we share many beliefs, practices, and traditions with other Christian communities.

This is true of our theology and worship practices. We United Methodists are members of that branch of the Protestant Reformation that began with the Church of England. Theologically, liturgically, and even in terms of church government, we have our roots in the Church of England (within what is known as “Anglicanism”), and hence it should not come as a surprise to anyone that some of what we do, say, and believe, reflects those roots.

John and Charles Wesley, the founders of the Methodist revival movement, were priests in the Church of England. When Methodism began, it began as a spiritual renewal movement within Anglicanism (within the English Church), and neither John, nor Charles, Wesley wanted it to be anything other than a vital part of renewing the spiritual life of their national church. However, with the coming of the Revolutionary War came political and social divisions which, by the ending of the war, required independence for the Church in America. And, so, John Wesley consecrated a Bishop for the United States and sent him over to found the “Methodist Episcopal Church.” In other words, our split with the Church of England was over political issues, not theological ones. Indeed, our Doctrinal Standards are identical to those found in the Church of England and in the Episcopal Church today.

Our Anglican roots are very strong, indeed, but sometimes the manifestation of those roots can be mistaken for Roman Catholic leanings. I, and many other United Methodist clergy, wear clerical collars and robes because such is part of our Anglican heritage as Methodists. It is true that the wearing of clerical garb, like collars and robes, fell out of common practice in the southern Untied States and on the western frontier. This loss of Anglican tradition followed a loss of appreciation among many Methodists for our theological heritage and the teachings of the Wesley brothers. Indeed, for a long time it became difficult to distinguish between the average Methodist Church and the regionally predominate Christian culture (whatever that might be): where Lutherans were strong, Methodists often looked and sounded more Lutheran; where Presbyterians were strong, Methodists often looked and sounded more Presbyterian; where Baptists were strong — true throughout most of the old South — Methodists often looked and sounded more like Baptists. However, beginning in the 1960s Methodism began to re-assert its Anglican heritage, and especially the teachings of John and Charles Wesley, and as a consequence a rise in many of the Anglican traditions followed. Hence, wearing robes, clerical collars, more frequent Communion, the practice of making the Sign of the Cross and such — all of which are long-time Anglican and Methodist practices — started to make a come-back even in the South.

Many Methodist clergy wear black academic robes which, in one form or another, have been worn by many Protestant Clergy, and especially by Anglican and Reformed Clergy in John Wesley’s day. From the beginning in England it was also the fashion for ordained Methodist ministers to wear “preaching tabs” with their black robes. Preaching tabs are those two white strips of starched linen which one can see in paintings of John Wesley, hanging down from his clerical collar over his vestments. While the wearing of preaching tabs is very rare in the United States, it’s common still in England and in Methodist Churches in Europe.

In addition to the academic robe, with which most Protestants are very familiar, many Methodists (myself included) often wear the most ancient form of dress for Christian ministers: the alb. An alb is a white, or flax-colored, garment similar to a close fitting robe, which closes at the neck and is usually tied at the waist with a ceremonial rope called a cincture. During the first decades of the Universal Church the alb was the formal dress for male gentiles. As the years went on, and secular clothing styles changed, Christian clergy continued wearing the alb; it quickly became as strange and different from everyday dress as it is today. I like to look at it this way: if the Church had been formed in the twentieth century its clerical attire would have probably become suits and ties for the men and dresses for the women (like in most Baptist Churches); but, 2000 years from now, this style of clothing would look as strange as the alb does to us today. This does not make the alb “outdated” for worship, just different. Because it is light-weight and comfortable, I wear the alb more often in the summer months and, most especially, for Holy Communion. Its light colors promote a festive atmosphere, and the Lord’s Supper should be a time of thanksgiving and praise to God for God’s gift of grace and peace. Next to the black academic robe, the white alb is just about the most common form of Clergy garb in The United Methodist Church.

Yet another type of garment which one might see Protestant clergy wearing, and which I wear regularly if weather and/or air-conditioning permits, is the “cassock and surplice.” The cassock is a black version of the white alb, and the surplice is a white “sheet” which is worn over the cassock. Originally, the cassock was a fur-lined cloak which clergy in northern Europe wore to keep warm. Since they wore this instead of an alb, they wore the white surplice over it to take the alb’s place. The cassock is commonly found among Anglican Clergy, Roman Clergy, Clergy in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and among some in the Methodist Church.

With the robe, the alb, or the cassock and surplice, most clergy wear stoles made of different materials and colors. These are, quite often, gifts which clergy receive from time to time, and they all symbolize the towel that Jesus wore while washing his disciple’s feet. A minister is called to serve, and while we sometimes lose sight of our calling, the stole is supposed to remind us of this fundamental truth of Christian ministry.

Needless to say, none of these vestments are necessary for a minister to preach and lead public worship. I have preached in coat and tie, in sports shirt and slacks, and in shorts and t-shirt. However, when I am not vested in some form of clerical garb I do become extremely self-conscious as to how I appear. Is my tie straight? Should I button my coat or leave it unbuttoned? Is my fly open or closed? All of these nit-picky concerns are distractions which the vestments allow me to discard. In other words, the robes and stoles allow me to hide myself and truly be free to proclaim the word of God without my own identity getting in the way. And most of the clergy I have spoken with agree.

© 1993 Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.