Monday, November 23, 2009

All About The Clothes, Even When It's Not

Instapundit spotted and featured this site, "Bad Vestments," which means that the political color for the moment is libertarian true blue. The site itself features photographs of lavish, odd, or, if I may, ugly liturgical clothing being worn by priests and bishops. The site's recurrent theme is "because Christian worship is not supposed to be about you." As far as I can see, its creator doesn't identify her- or himself, so one can only speculate about the coloration of their theological views. One hint is the persistent references to the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, as Mrs. Schori, a commonplace on theologically conservative blogs, where some find her views objectionable and others, her gender, at least insofar as its being fit for the episcopacy is concerned.

No question that the site is a hoot. Yet ridicule is a questionable activity for Christians (mea culpa, he quickly adds), anonymous ridicule* even more so. It's in the paradox of Christ that when we fault others for acting as though it's all about them, it can mean that it's all about us. If the authors of "Bad Vestments" have an idol, it's liturgical exactitude. Like two of the folksingers in "A Mighty Wind," we prayer book-thumping Christians are tempted to worship color -- purple for Lent and the impending season of Advent, white for Christmas and Easter (and weddings and funerals), red for Pentecost (think the tongues of fire as the Holy Spirit descended on the church).

Many of the priests and bishops depicted at "Bad Vestments" are thinking well outside the basic Crayola box. One smiling bishop is arrayed in cathedral stone gray, which doesn't show up on any of the liturgical calendars I've seen. As for ordinary time, or, as some say, "after Pentecost," the long season between Trinity Sunday and Advent, green is called for, but surely not lime green, Holy Father. And yet what's the matter with a little variety within the confines of those all-too-familiar basic color groups? Suggesting it has to be a certain green is akin to arguing that God prefers the King James Version of the Bible.

To be fair, "Bad Vestments" doesn't seem to be making such a restrictive point. Creative is one thing. Hideous is, of course, another. The site's other targets are we pastors whose raiment sometimes screams, "Please look at me, and get ready for a homily about where this bizarre rig came from." As a matter of fact, I have some stoles (the long strips of colored cloth, a vestige of Roman senators' garb, that priests wear around their necks) that people have given me or that are meaningful for some other reason. This especially applies to those I've brought home from two Holy Land pilgrimages. The red stole shown here, a treasured gift from the Altar Guild of the Cathedral Center of St. Paul in the Diocese of Los Angeles, prevented me from being the most inconspicuously dressed new priest in recent history at my ordination in January 2004, for which I'd neglected to order a custom-made chasuble as my beloved colleagues had.

It makes me feel good to wear these items, and sometimes I'm tempted to talk about them during sermons, but I rarely if ever do. I'm not sure why. And then's there's the issue of wearing our own vestments at all. Before almost every service, and especially on Sunday, I remember advice from my mentor, the Rev. Canon Mark Shier, now enjoying the first months of a well-earned retirement as rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church. A priest of God for over a third of a century, he had a sacristy drawer full of personal vestments that he wore for weekday services but almost never on Sundays. He told me that that it gives the congregation pleasure and perhaps even some comfort to see their priest wearing a stole from the same set, as the Altar Guild would say, as what they see on the altar and the ambo (the liturgically correct term for lectern).

Yesterday at St. John's, our church was dressed in white to help us remember Christ the King on the last Sunday in Pentecost. We don't get to wear white all that much, so I was tempted to reach for a white and gold stole from the heart of old Jerusalem, the handiwork of Sami Barsom, a Syriac Orthodox tailor I met in 2007. I've worn it often enough on Sundays that it's soaked in the water of a score of baptisms. But just before the first service began this week, for whatever reason I heard my teacher's voice, so I wore the beautiful white St. John's house stole instead. Yep. I matched. Even when it's not about the clothes, it is.

*Mea maxima culpa, because each post, I now see, is signed by Christopher Johnson. Sorry about that, brother.

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