Why is my robe different than everybody else’s?
The meaning behind the different liturgical items in use at FUMC.
Many of you have asked questions about clergy robes recently, and my robe in particular. People have asked why our ministers at First UMC seem to have different stoles, why they change colors, and why I don’t have a stole and my robe is different. Well, here’s a quick overview.
Pulpit Gowns, Albs, and Cassocks
Vestments is the term for liturgical garments, and there are a variety in use at FUMC on a Sunday morning. The most well-known are the flowing gowns that the majority of our clergy wear. These robes are called pulpit gowns, and they are related to the academic gowns worn in European universities hundreds of years ago. Because this academic tradition played a strong role in the Protestant Reformation, the use of these gowns became popular in Protestant Church traditions, which includes the UMC.
Keeping with that tradition is the mark of signifying that a clergy person has received a Doctoral degree by placing three horizontal stripes on the sleeves of the garment. (Dr. Bruster and Dr. Marshall have these on their robes, for example.) Choir gowns are similar to the pulpit gowns but trace back to a different practice. They are made to more closely resemble the baptismal gowns that the ancient church used to celebrate those who were coming to the waters to profess faith in Christ and be baptized.
Another vestment in use every Sunday is the cassock. Cassocks are simple, floor-length, long-sleeved garments that button up the front. Use of the cassock is broader than just clergy, it’s used by a number of different positions to signify that they place a special role in the church service. Our choir director, organist, and acolytes all wear cassocks to signify that they are part of the leadership of the worship service.
Finally, the last article of clothing you will see is the alb, which is what I wear. Albs are ancient, with their roots tracing to the earliest days of the church amidst the Roman Empire. They are typically white (mine isn’t, more on that below), are made of simple linen or other light fabrics, and can be drawn together with a rope around the waist called a cincture. Albs can be worn by either clergy or laity (all church members) when they are leading the community in worship.
Stoles are incredibly meaningful vestments that are only used by ordained clergy. It’s important to note that, first and foremost, all baptized Christians are commissioned to ministries of love, justice, and service. Ordination in the United Methodist Church is a lifetime appointment to serve Christ’s church in ministry, and it is a serious undertaking. All ordained clergy have undergone graduate-level theological education and years of preparation, examination, and supervision before they are ordained. Ordination takes place at an annual service and includes the presiding bishop laying hands on the ordinand and bestowing them with special responsibilities and authority. It’s at that service that a clergy person receives their stole, which signifies that they are “yoked” (or bound) to their service in Christ.
There are two orders of ordained clergy in the UMC, elders and deacons. The orders represent different callings, and part of the ordination process is the discernment to which order a person is called. The order of deacons are called to lifetime ministries of servant leadership in Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice. These can result in vocational ministries inside the church or in the community, and a number of deacons are represented in our FUMC clergy. The deacons’ stoles are worn over one shoulder and fastened together at the opposite hip.
The order of elders are called to a lifetime ministry of Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service. While many of the ministerial works of elders and deacons are identical, elders have a unique role in presiding over the sacraments (Communion and Baptism) and submitting to the itinerant ministry (meaning elders are assigned to positions by the Bishop to serve where they can be of the greatest service to the Kingdom of God). Elders’ stoles are worn around the neck and hang down the front of the chest.
Finally, the color of the stoles is also significant. At FUMC, the colors are chosen based on the liturgical calendar. This is the “church calendar,” which divides the calendar year into seasons of worship. The colors are purple (Lent, Advent), red (Pentecost), white (high holy days like Christmas and Easter), and green (all other Sundays).
So why does Lance wear something different?
Alright, so now that I covered all the bases my explanation might make a bit more sense. First, I noticeably don’t wear a stole during worship because I am not ordained. I am in the official ordination process (and have been since 2009), however I cannot proceed any further until I graduate from seminary with my M.Div. degree. This, hopefully, will happen in the Spring of next year. After I graduate, our Board of Ordained Ministry will determine whether I am fit to proceed as a Provisional Elder in our Annual Conference, a process that begins a two year residency.
So how am I a clergy person if I’m not ordained? I serve the church as a Licensed Pastor, a position that authorizes (licenses) me to perform the duties of a pastor within a specific charge (in this case, FUMC). The difference between licensed ministry and ordained ministry doesn’t make much of a difference among the congregation — I preach and teach the Gospel, provide pastoral care, and preside over communion like any other clergy. The biggest differences relate to specifying my pastoral duties to this charge only and to reserving broader church roles (serving at General Conference, voting on major church law changes, etc.) to those who are ordained in full connection.
Finally, I choose to wear an alb for simple, personal reasons. First and foremost, they’re comfortable! My alb is lighter and more breathe-able than pulpit gowns, and because it closes high at the neck, I don’t have to wear a long shirt or tie underneath it. Because I wear it outside the sanctuary often (for example, an outdoor wedding in July …) this is a great feature. Second, I appreciate that albs have been used in the church since its earliest days. I draw deep inspiration and hope from the long tradition of the church, and wearing an alb helps me feel connected to the millions who have lived as Christians before me. Mine is different in one particular way, though. Albs are always white, but I asked our provider to make mine in black. Why?
Because I am clumsy and I spill a lot, and I was afraid of staining a white one.