pomp and priesthood?

I composed the above tweet as the royals and the clergy processed down the aisle of St Paul’s yesterday – the clergy bedecked in gloriously colourful and ornate robes.  It was an impressive sight.

But it troubled me.

And I hasten to say that this is just my opinion, and I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty nature(s) of church government in this post.

But I’d like to express how I feel about the clothes. The accessories of priesthood.  The things that say: I am important. I am special. I am different from what you are.  I have a sacred duty.

You may feel wails of protest arising – it’s not about making them important – it’s symbolism.  It’s glorifying God. It’s beautiful and sacred and profound.

I get it. But…

I spent most of my childhood going to an Anglican church.  It is where I made my own commitment.  I have a deep affection and respect for those inside it.  But I am not an Anglican. (You can read more about this part my journey of faith here, which is part 3 of a personal story. )

When I watch the bishops and archdeacons processing in all their glory I am deeply uncomfortable. I am so distracted by the colour and the pomp that I do not see the person, and the effect on the nonconformist, and the unchurched, is that of something very…alien.

From my understanding of the New Testament, an overseer / bishop, elder, deacon etc is to be marked by their moral qualities – their conduct, their faith.  This is not just in special roles either.  Woman are told not to pride themselves on their clothes and braided hair.  James warns us not to reserve special places for ‘important people’ at our banquets and occasions. I don’ t think he’d approve of reserving a special seat for the bishop. (I should say that I’m very aware that many bishops themselves probably hate special treatment and I have no disrespect for any of the people who hold such office. )

We’re told that Jesus, our once-for-all high priest, superseded the requirements of the Old Covenant and ushered in the New – he is the great High Priest for ever, and we are all a chosen people, a royal priesthood. The Old Covenant priesthood with all its richness and symbolism and ornate features was a sketch – a shadow of the reality that was to come.

Yes, I know that some are given special roles and enormous responsibilities, and are anointed for that purpose.  It is an immense privilege.

But pomp? Lavish robes and fancy gear? This jars with me. I know for some it will have special significance.  I know.  But for some it is – dare I say it – a stumbling block.

By all means, celebrate our traditions and use the beauty of  colour and symbolism, celebrating with all the senses. I love  colour; I love symbolism.  But when it comes to what we wear…

Either robe us all up – or no one at all.

16 thoughts on “pomp and priesthood?

  1. mattjschell says:

    You made some good points. The thing that I think of is what did Jesus wear? He didn’t wear anything special. I understand about wanting to stand out however if we look to the Scriptures we know something was missed. Christians are known through their love.


  2. nicolahulks says:

    Hi Lucy,

    I may be biased because I am currently in the process of sourcing my own robes to start theological college (!!) so I’ll lay that out there but there is another arguement here that I wanted to present!

    I understand how you’ve come to you’re view point but I think there can be a danger in generalizing from what sits right personally to the way all churches should operate. I, like you, had negative experiences of the kind of church that favours robes and symbolism in early life and so made the link that because these things sit wrong with me that means they are wrong generally and alienate everyone. I just don’t think that is the case the more time I spent with people of different backgrounds, and experiences of church, to myself. For many people there are deeply held and compelling reasons for clergy wearing robes in church.

    There is a really great story of a Bishop called Edward King who called himself the ‘Bishop to the Poor’. He moved out of the large house he was offered to be more accessible to people. He wore old shoes and clothes until they wore out but for Church occasions he wore more colourful and ornate robes than any other Bishop in the country. He saw his scruffy day wear and ornate vestments as equally sacred. There is a great quote about him written by Martyn Percy, Principle of Cuddesdon College that I love- ‘The scruffy and the ordinary, together with the beautiful and the precious, both in their different ways point us to the God who is both in the manger and the stable and who reigns in heaven presiding at the heavenly banquet.’

    So perhaps we can get along together, in jeans or robes!



    • Lucy Mills says:

      Hey Nicola, I don’t disagree with you – I definitely think we can all get along and that there are a variety of expressions of church and this is healthy. I didn’t mean to imply I had negative experiences of that tradition – I don’t, actually. My opinion is one I’ve come to as I’ve reflected on things throughout life so far and the exploration of my faith. I mentioned my early experience precisely because it wasn’t negative. I’ve always been keen on unity across denominations and eager that we should work together, finding areas of commonality where we can help proclaim the kingdom of God in all kinds of ways.

      Neither do I think it alienates everyone – I didn’t mean it as a generalisation – but I do think it alienates some. This is my personal opinion, and this post simply tries to stab at why. And for many I’m come across who don’t have the advantage of familiarity with the tradition – they just don’t get it. Without someone there to explain those compelling reasons, it does come across as alien to them (and I have risen up in defence of these traditions where I feel people are being hostile – despite not agreeing with them personally).

      Just wanted to clarify those things…no negative experience, and not intending to generalise! It honestly is my opinion from my own reflections on faith, church and scripture. I don’t assume that everyone will – or even should – agree with me.

      Oh, and I wasn’t saying everyone had to wear jeans either 😉


      • nicolahulks says:

        Oops, apologies for reading in negative experiences where they weren’t there. It was what you were saying about it jaring with you that made me think that.

        I didn’t grow up in any kind of church and only had the odd exposure to it until I chose to start going in my 20s so I definitely get the whole outsider perspective! There is no doubt about it that churches of all traditions present a mountain to climb in terms of culture and understanding for the uninitiated and we should absolutely work to reduce that where possible.

        From my experience I found robes and traditional music really appealing. It showed me something of the majesty of God and drew me in. I found that interesting as I know a lot of people assume the opposite is true, like you say it has to be explained but I really didn’t feel that. Even if you’ve not been raised in church different styles can raise feelings in people that aren’t all that predictable. What alienates one is attractive for another so I suppose it’s a good thing (and to be expected) that we have a range of expressions of the same faith.

        Anyway, fair enough for expressing your opinion. I hope you don’t mind me hijacking your comments section and giving mine!! 🙂

        P.S Happy about the jeans thing….!


        • Lucy Mills says:

          Yes…I was unclear…I meant it jarred while watching the Jubilee procession, rather than during my youth. (Good grief – am I old enough to say ‘my youth’?!)

          I can see what you’re saying and am sympathetic. You’re right in that what alienates one attracts enough – consider other aspects of church worship – what about raising hands in worship? I’m fine with this – and am even prone to it myself – but some are uncomfortable with it.

          I still struggle with the issues of not making ourselves look gilded up – eg ornate embroidered robes – it seems to clash with our call to not focus on the outward appearance – but I do understand and respect your opinion. I don’t actually find it unattractive in itself – I love the colour and symbolism and can be profoundly affected by it. It’s the concern over how it may be interpreted by those of different upbringing and cultures – eg the unemployed, homeless etc. seeing the clergy all dressed up in splendour may confuse them. How is the church a friend of the poor when the only time they see it is when we’re all decked up for great occasions? I suppose it becomes are responsibility to ensure they do see us getting ‘down and dirty’ in the everyday. Unfortunately, people do make snap judgements on what they see.

          Everything is open to interpretation – and misinterpretation, alike.

          No probs over commenting – I enjoy an occasional hijack – love the conversation!!

          The great thing about the variety of expressions in the Christian faith is that there is somewhere within our diverse body of Christ where we can all find our home – and role. I think it’s fantastic.


  3. Lawrence says:

    Your concluding remark, ‘Either robe us all up – or no one at all’, reminded me of the independent African congregation that meets in a church hall on Bath Street in Glasgow. All the members are robed up (with different coloured sashes to indicate their seniority/role within the congregation).

    I’m in two minds about this. Everyone in robes would be a great leveller (no chance of the stewards paying more attention to the guy in the Armani suit than to the one in the jeans and T-shirt), but it would be very intimidating for anyone who was not a member.


    • Lucy Mills says:

      Hi Lawrence – quite. I confess the last remark was a little tongue in cheek, and I would have deep reservations about it too. Interesting to hear of a situation where this is, indeed, the case.

      Thanks for commenting!


  4. Conrad Gempf says:

    Hey, Lucy. Oddly, my take on robes is exactly the opposite. When you say “Robe us all up, or none of us,” well, my understanding of robes from my Lutheranism is that’s symbollically EXACTLY what IS going on. A pastor wears a robe to say: I am not here as George, I am here in my office as a spokesperson of the congregation before God and announcing the words of God to the congregation. I do this not because George is worthy, but because I was called to this office thus I don the robes that every pastor dons to erase the distinctions of me and my clothes and my tastes and my jewellery… I’m not here as me.

    I was taught that the main part of the outfit is form-fitting black, representing human fallen nature, with just a hint of white peeking through in the collar to represent that originally, under all that, we were created in God’s image. But over it all is a much more loosely-fitting white garment that represents our new nature and salvation in Christ, which has nothing to do with my own shape or efforts, but rather to do with his free gift covering us all.

    Maybe I’ve got it wrong, or maybe anglicanism is different, but I always thought the very idea was that in my pastor’s robes, we all were robed and represented, and that the clergy wore robes to play down themselves as individuals rather than to celebrate themselves.


    • Lucy Mills says:

      Why, hello there!

      Actually, I don’t have an issue with this, and I can see the benefit and meaning of robes in what you say. I really like this way of looking at it.

      I guess what jarred with me was all the finery of the bishops’ garb…the gold embroidery, the splendid accessories…I understand it was a royal occasion – literally – but…

      Oh, I don’t know. I think it’s an issue I’ll remain muddled about for a while.

      Thankfully it’s not a dealbreaker!!


  5. Rosalie Squires says:

    One of our clergy was unavailable the other Christmas and I was asked to act as lay sub-deacon at Midnight Mass. The role involved preparing and leading the intercessions which is very much in line with my vocation so I agreed but I still have very mixed feelings over the fancy vestments I had to wear and parading round the church with the clergy.
    I’ve no problem with the vestments themselves, I should add.


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