Robes, Stoles and Preparing Our Hearts for Worship
You may have noticed some changes to the ministry staff’s Sunday attire as of late. Yes, I believe Stanley has gotten some new ties, but that’s not what I’m referring to.
Since the first Sunday of Advent the pastoral staff has been wearing our black ministerial robes and stoles.
We initially planned to wear these “vestments,” as they’re called, for the seasons of Advent and Christmas and make a decision from there as to their continued presence in worship. But the response we received from the congregation was so positive that we’ve decided to keep wearing them indefinitely.
Now, for a congregation such as ours that counts so many who have found their way to us from other traditions across the Christian landscape, the presence of robes and stoles is nothing new. But there are many “dyed in the wool” Baptists among us for whom it is. And some have asked for a few words of explanation as to what these symbols (and this is what they are) mean, and why we decided to begin wearing them.
Special attire for clergy has long been a tradition in the wider church. In the early church, clerical tunics or robes were not so different from everyday attire, but as fashions changed, clergy garb didn’t and came to be more closely associated with religious ceremony and ritual.
In the West, the Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions have tended toward white vestments for clergy, while the reformed traditions (Presbyterian, congregational, etc.) have tended toward black, such as the ones we wear. These black robes were actually incorporated from the academic world, in which many of the reformers were trained.
Stoles are the bands of cloth worn over the robes, the color generally corresponding with the different seasons of the church year (purple during Advent and Lent, white on Christmas and Easter, green during “ordinary time, etc.). There are at least two interpretations of what they are to represent. Some say that they represent the “yoke” of Christ that the minister has been called to take on. Others say they harken back to the cloths Jesus used to wash his disciples feet at the Last Supper. In either case and colorful as they are, these stoles are meant to signify humble servanthood.
There's much more to say about the symbolism and texture these vestments bring to our worship which I’d be glad to elaborate upon if you ask, but there’s also some good practical reasons for our wearing them.
To begin with, there’s a sense in which our robes in particular are meant to help you, the worshipper, by removing as much of “us” from eyesight as is possible. The fewer of our sartorial choices there are to see (fabulous as they may be) the fewer possible distractions, and the more potential for meaningful, engaged worship.
But these vestments are also important for us as ministers. When we don our robes and stoles, we are reminded of the office to which you have called us. It becomes a role into which we literally step as we stand before you to lead, as best we can, in the worship of God and the practice of discipleship. It’s a calling and a task we take seriously, and these garments help prepare us for them.
We’re still acquiring stoles of all the necessary colors, and also talking about other ways we can incorporate art, symbol, and color into the sanctuary during worship, so stay tuned. But for now know that these changes are being done with care and for the purpose of, as our church covenant puts it, continuing to help us worship with “reverence and joy.”