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Beyond the aesthetic or cultural

18 December 2015

Vestments are not a style option: they have meaning, argues Edward Dowler


In the tradition: Morning Prayer of my Father by the Jewish painter Eduard Frankfort (1864-1920)

In the tradition: Morning Prayer of my Father by the Jewish painter Eduard Frankfort (1864-1920)

IN A remarkable painting, Morning Prayer of my Father, in the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, the artist Eduard Frankfort (1864-1920) depicts his father diligently preparing for his devotions. He is garbed from head to toe in a prayer shawl. A phylactery containing scriptural verses is bound to his forehead, and he lovingly ties another to his arm.

The old man’s clothing is very beautiful, but that is hardly the central point. Each individual item expresses devotion to God and to the scriptures that reveal him. Moreover, the dress of this elderly gentleman expresses his membership of the Jewish family (soon in Amsterdam to be tested by almost unimaginable suffering), and emphasises the fact that he stands within a line of continuity, which he did not start, and which will not end with him.

The subtle insights of this portrait would perhaps be lost on some of those who are currently advocating a new approach to liturgical dress in the Church of England. The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, recently made remarks to the General Synod which appear to presage the reform and renewal (i.e. abolition) of any requirements in this area.

It appears that, in Bishop Broadbent’s view, any decision about whether to wear a particular form of clerical or liturgical dress is essentially an individual one, based on the particular aesthetic tastes of an individual cleric or community: “The Church attracts folks for whom the tat is something that they revel in, and it becomes very important for them.”

Some of the clergy, such as the Bishop himself, will prefer just to wear a denim jacket. The Bishop becomes uncharacteristically coy when he describes who exactly revels in “tat”: this may, he remarks “go with a penchant towards being more flamboyant in their behaviour in general, shall we say”.

Additionally, members of the congregation from an African background, says the Bishop, have a particular love of seeing the clergy in traditional dress, although this is essentially not their own view, but a legacy from colonial times.

In summary, then: while vestments are popular with people who happen to be “flamboyant” (gay?) or “from an African background” (black); others may wish to disregard them altogether. Soon, they may be able to do so unimpeded: “We’re trying to change . . . towards saying that the local parish — in consultation with the bishop . . . should be able to determine what they do.”


FRANKFORT’s painting indicates that more may be at stake here than Bishop Broadbent admits. Distinctive clothing for the clergy, or indeed anyone else, is never just decoration, dependent on a particular individual’s or community’s aesthetic taste. Like the clothing of our parent religion from which it is in part derived, the distinctive clothing that the Church has handed down to her ministers comes freighted with theological significance.

For example, in the traditional outfit of bishops, the pectoral cross points to Christ’s sacrifice; the ring symbolises the bishop’s quasi-marital commitment to a diocese; the mitre connects the Christian bishop with the antecedent Jewish priesthood (see Exodus 39.28; Leviticus 8.9); and the crozier symbolises the enduring centrality of the bishop’s pastoral ministry in the footsteps of Christ the good shepherd.

Similarly, when it comes to eucharistic vestments, the symbolism of which is most obviously articulated in the traditional vesting prayers, each item also carries its own significance. For example, the alb signifies baptismal washing; the stole, the authority and duty of the priest’s office; and the chasuble, the love that “binds everything together in perfect harmony’ (Colossians 3.14).


IMPORTANTLY, there is not just one reason for wearing any of these garments: each has multiple layers of symbolism, accrued over the hundreds of years in which they have been used and reflected upon in the life of the Church. While, at any rate in the Western tradition, we can expect developments to occur, and perhaps some items to be changed or discarded over time, centuries of prayer and usage should make us hesitate before we acquiesce to the idea that they can simply be peremptorily ditched.

As with Frankfort’s painting, in addition to the theological symbolism that each garment distinctively carries, they bind us into a wider family: they indicate that the clergy are not just entrepreneurs and creative innovators, but that we stand in a line of continuity and history, which we did not begin, and which will not end with us.

The relative uniformity and anonymity of liturgical dress remind us that the Catholic Church is not a personality cult, and that we worship Christ, not the ministers. And they remind us also of the insight that is fast becoming obscured in contemporary Anglicanism: that the clergy are not so much called to be the creators and manipulators of liturgical rites, as to be their loving and faithful servants.

Personally, I have not the slightest interest in what the Bishop describes as “tat”, but I am concerned that my church should treasure the distinctive garments that we use for divine worship, and do so for good theological, ecclesiological, and historical reasons, and not just because they are presumed to appeal to a particular aesthetic or evoke cultural nostalgia.

Here is a confident prediction: when denim jackets have long come to be regarded as an unfortunate aberration in the history of clothing, bishops will still be using the mitre and crozier, and priests will still be diligently vesting themselves for the celebration of the eucharist.


The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is the Vicar of St John and St Luke, Clay Hill, Enfield, and the Director of Continuing Ministerial Education for the Edmonton Episcopal Area.

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