Vestments are the distinctive clothing worn by those who lead worship. Today, vestments are not simply a distinguishing mark of the clergy. Lay assisting ministers, servers and acolytes, communion ministers, choirs, cantors, and other musicians also wear vestments.
This distinctive clothing is more related to uniforms than it is to costumes. Vestments are a nonverbal form of communication. They communicate in the way that uniforms do that the wearer is fulfilling an official function. They are not like costumes in the theater; vestments do not communicate pretending or play-acting.
Vestments also say that an individual is functioning in a particular relationship to a community of believers and connected to a recognizable, historical pattern of leadership. Like the robe worn by a judge in a secular court or the academic robe, hood, and cap worn by professors and graduates in an academic convocation, vestments speak of official action and recognition. The uniform of a police officer communicates quickly and efficiently. For Christians, vestments do the same. Vestments help us to focus on the ministry being exercised, rather than on the individual characteristics of a leader.
Christians have also used the color of vesture to communicate the character of the celebration of worship that is taking place. The colors of the liturgical year become the color of some vestments. In current usage in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, those colors are blue, purple, white, gold, green, black, scarlet and red. They relate to seasons and festival days of the church year.
Traditionally, there have been two patterns of vestments used by Christians. Eucharistic vestments are those worn for Holy Communion by the presiding minister: alb, cincture, stole, and chasuble. Of these vestments, Lutherans and others regard the stole (a long thin band in the color of the day or season) as the distinctive mark, sign, or badge of ordained pastors. They receive this vestment as a part of the service of ordination. Laity serving at Holy Communion are usually vested in an alb and cincture. This is appropriate for assisting ministers, acolytes, readers, choir members, musicians, and anyone else with a leadership role in the liturgy.
The second pattern of vestments is related to the divine office (the services of morning and evening prayer and the other prayer offices of the church). Here the tradition and the ecumenical pattern of usage is changing. The long-time use of a black cassock and white surplice for leaders at these services seems to be giving way to the use of an alb and cincture. However, in some settings, it may be desirable to maintain distinctive vesture between Holy Communion and Daily Prayer. A stole is usually not worn for Daily Prayer.
The cope is a cape-like vestment that can be used in the divine office by presiders and other leaders and at the Eucharist as a processional garment worn by the presiding minister in procession, and by other ministers (that is, the preacher).
Some churches that have bishops in historic succession use a miter (a stiff, pointed hat) for bishops. The cope is often worn by a bishop when he or she is not presiding at Holy Communion. Although they are not strictly vestments, some bishops also use a staff (crozier) and a pectoral cross to mark the office they have been called to exercise.
Ecumenically, in churches with ordained deacons, a special stole worn diagonally across the chest over the left shoulder marks their ordained ministry. Because our church has clearly chosen not to ordain its diaconal ministers, this deacon’s stole is not appropriate for anyone in the ELCA. Diaconal ministers are called to embody service. A simple dalmatic might be used if a vestment for Holy communion is desired for diaconal ministers who are not ordained. This vestment traditionally has not been worn only by ordained deacons, so it is an appropriate choice for ELCA diaconal ministers.
Christian vestments help to identify us with the church’s tradition. Using them in idiosyncratic ways confuses and undermines this identification, just as dressing a judge as a police officer only confuses and makes the uniform a pretense. Vestments, like uniforms, ought to communicate clearly and honestly.
Like other clothing, the exact design of vesture in the church varies over time according to artistic development. Congregations are using rediscovered traditional and exciting contemporary design, as they explore ways to use vesture in worship. Commercial vestment makers are not the only source for vesture. Artists and designers also work in this area. Many congregations seek out those talented in working with cloth to design and make vestments that reflect the local culture and artistic tastes.
- Van Loon, Ralph, and Stauffer, S. Anita. Worship Wordbook: A Practical Guide for Parish Worship. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995.
- Stauffer. Altar Guild Handbook. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000.
- The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.