Why Vestments?

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

Stacks Image 15
I’ve often been asked about the many kinds of vestments I wear for leading worship.  I’m not one to stand on too much formality when it comes to clothing – my usual weekday uniform is a pair of kakis and a polo shirt – and I loath coats and ties.  However, there is a time and a place for suits and such, and I do “clean up” quite well.  Nevertheless, when it comes to worship leadership, preaching, and presiding at Holy Communion, I take the dignity of the office I hold very seriously.  This is why I wear robes, albs, stoles, and chasubles.  They help me to hide myself so that I can stand before the people of God and proclaim the Word of God with a prophetic and pastoral voice. In other words, the vestments help me to keep myself out of the way when I am engaged in the public practice of preaching, or in other forms of worship leadership.

The need for formal worship vestments is not exclusive to the clergy.  All members of the family of God are called to be involved in leading the public worship of God.  When laity participate in worship leadership it is entirely appropriate for them to vest as a member of the baptized “Priesthood of All Believers.” The symbolism here is important: when anyone, lay or clergy, steps into worship leadership, they are not doing so by virtue of their own personhood.  They are, instead, leading worship in a reprehensive role: laity by virtue of their baptisms into the Body of Christ, and clergy by virtue of their ordinations to the Teaching, Prophetic, and Eucharistic ministries of the Church.  I take seriously the calling of the laity to be actively involved in worship leadership; when laity do this, it is entirely appropriate for them to vest in the garments of our common ministry – the Priesthood of all Believers – and this garment has been, for almost 2000 years, the alb.
Stacks Image 18
The alb is a white or flax-colored robe, or tunic, that cover’s ones street clothing. From neck to mid-calf.  Strictly speaking, this is not a clergy vestment but the basic worship garment worn by anyone – lay or clergy – who is serving in worship.  Choirs may wear them, as may lay worship leaders, Diaconal ministers, Permanent Deacons, Elders, and Bishops.  Since the early 1990s the alb has been replacing the black Geneva Gown as the most popular single worship garment worn by United Methodist clergy. Its simplicity, lack of oppressive weight, festive mood, and relative inexpensive cost doesn’t hurt, either.  The alb’s use in the church actually dates back to the 1st Century A.D., when it was the everyday clothing of Roman citizens.  Yes, it is essentially a “toga.”  With the alb is usually worn a cincture a rope which is tied around the waist, binding the alb closely to the wearer’s body.  Symbolically, it represents the towel that Jesus wrapped around his waist when he knelt to wash his Disciples’ feet.  Practically, it keeps the alb in place, closed, and looking “neat and tidy.”   Cinctures can be any color, but it is most common to see them either the same color as the alb or the color of the liturgical season.
Stacks Image 21
The alb and cincture are the symbolic garments of the “Priesthood of all Believers.”  On top of them, ordained clergy wear the symbol of their office and order of representative ministry: the stole.  As an ordained Elder (or “Presbyter”) I wear the stole yoked around the back of my neck and hung straight down from my shoulders over the front of my alb or robe. This is the single, and only universally recognized, symbol of my office of ordained ministry: not the robe, not the alb ... the stole.  Similarly, an ordained Deacon in the UMC, as well as in the Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches, wears the stole hung off the left shoulder and fastened together under the right arm at the hip.

There are other vestments that Elders and Deacons may wear when the sacraments are being celebrated – principle among these is the Causable. Even though the Chasuble is impressive, it’s always worn with a stole (either under it or overlaying it) because it is the stole that is the symbol of the order and office of Elder. Indeed, rarely will I ever lead worship and preach in the church when I’m not wearing at least a stole. The other garments can and do change – I often wear the preaching robe, which is a symbol not of ordained ministry but of educational attainment, the cassock (which is a black alb), the surplice (which is sort of a free-flowing alb), and the Chimere (which is a “preaching gown” worn over a surplice) – but the fundamental garment that I prefer to wear in worship leadership is the same garment I would wear if I were laity – the alb.  In many ways, by wearing it I am highlighting, in symbolic terms, the fundamental unity between myself and any other member of the congregation: we share the same baptism.

© 2011 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
Stacks Image p13_n9
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.