“Pastor, when are you going to start wearing your robes again?”
Several of you have asked me that question. As you know, I’ve worn a minister’s robe in worship since arriving at Desert Hills. But I quit this summer. Now fall has come, and soon winter will be here, and I haven’t resumed wearing the robes. Why not?
I guess I’m not really sure. There are arguments for and against ministers wearing robes. On the one hand, it’s certainly convenient for the minister. It keeps his or her clothing from being a distraction. I can go right ahead and spill my coffee on my tie, or wear the same clothes two Sundays in a row, and nobody will know.
The robe also symbolizes my education. I got a fancy frame for my diploma, but you have to go to my study to see it. The robe is like a diploma you can wear. I doubt if that’s why Calvin began the practice. He supposedly began wearing his academic gown because his church was cold and drafty–or so the story goes. I suspect it was really for the same reason a chef (still) wears a tall white hat: in the middle ages, everyone wore unique clothes to indicate which guild they belonged to.
I’m not entirely persuaded by either of those reasons. It’s true that some people still wear uniforms — chefs, police and postal workers, and of course people in the armed forces. Doctors wear lab coats and carry stethoscopes. But nurses, on the other hand, don’t wear uniforms any more. I mean, they wear uniforms, but they aren’t uniforms: they’re all different. Where they used to be white and austere, now nurses’ clothes are laid-back and colorful. The idea seems to be that sick people are tense enough; the nurse doesn’t need to add to it. I think the same is true for when you see your pastor.
As for education, things have changed since Calvin’s time. Few back then could even read, and they couldn’t afford a Bible anyway. Today, at least in this country, everyone can afford a Bible, and if someone can’t read, there are always audiobooks.
But beyond that, the robe isn’t effective as a symbol of education, because even professors don’t wear robes any more–except on graduation day. I’d hazard to guess that more people associate the robes with how Bible characters dress than with scholars.
That’s dangerous. It’s one thing to say someone went to school. It’s another thing to put them on a pedestal and say they’ve got some special religious “juice.” The person on the pedestal is supposed to be Jesus. You can have someone ship you water from the Jordan River, but we discourage people from being baptized in it, because water is supposed to be ordinary water. The bread we eat in the Lord’s Supper is just regular bread. The whole point is that God uses ordinary stuff to do extraordinary things. The same is true about ministers.
Ultimately, the question of robes is a judgment call, like your preference in Bible translations–there is an element of personal preference. But there’s also a deeper question: does it help or hinder in carrying out the mission of the church? In that sense, having robes is more like the decisions our Session makes when it schedules the church’s worship services, or how frequently we celebrate communion.
What do you think? Should ministers wear robes? Why, or why not? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Give me a call — let’s talk!