The importance of robes?

Whilst writing about the recent formation of yet another select group of Anglican’s who want to prop up their own viewpoint, theologian Maggi Dawn wrote this week:

“believe me, there is nothing, nothing, nothing remotely feminine about clerical dress. It may have a skirt attached, but of all the things I have ever worn it is the least feminine thing I have ever encountered.”

Which reminded me of something that has been excercising my mind: what is the importance of robes?DSC_4822c(web)

When I was on placement at All Saints Basingstoke earlier this year, I preached in robes for the first time (cassock and surplice) and also robed in alb for Easter morning (pictured). Though it felt a little odd, it was expected, and something which helped the members of that church relate to me as a minister. It is actually part of the ‘feel’ of worship that some people really need.

Somehow I also felt the authority of the cassock and surplice went with the authority that apparently comes over when I speak (sometimes)… part of the ‘other’ me that some close friends find difficult to cope with. If you like, it felt like a visible symbol of the part of me that is becoming a ‘minister’.

Yet, as my vicar recently reminded me when the subject came up, robes were originally a sign of humility, designed to imitate the smocks of the ordinary folk so that the priest blended in with them. Now they are seen as a sign of authority, and by some as a symbol of status – with the negativity that that can cause.

Here in St. Peter’s we have congregations that sit on both or neither side of the ‘robing’ fence. Since I am reasonably comfortable in robes (unlike some of my collegues) I am most likely to make use of them in the times and places appropriate in this parish.

But are there ideas I’ve not already captured about this issue… and, remember I will only be a Lay Minister, not a deacon or priest!?



  1. I think you’re talking about the right words – authority, status, power, humility. The problems with robes and vestments is when they are perceived (by wearer or by congregation or others) as status symbols. and yes, they can be used like this. But authority isn’t coterminous with power and status – not necessarily. And it is authority you are talking about when you speak of the feelings when preaching, not status or self-importance.

    One of the big advantages of robing is that it doesn’t matter what we are wearing underneath – which also links to Maggi’s point that robes are not gendered – they are as-sexual, I think (except when church choirs use them to distinguish unecessarily between boys and girls, men and women). So no problems in worrying what is suitable to wear – much easier to take a funeral in cassock and surplice then trying to decide whether to wear a black shirt and skirt or coloured because the family wanted it to be a celebration…etc etc – and also allows one to go from toddler group/school assembly to a big funeral without worrying about clothes, or wear shorts in hot weather.

    But there is more to it – when robed I am doing this as an authorised minister, not an individual with my own issues and hobby-horses. I have to think hard about what I say – even if this is unconscious most of the time. So for me it’s less of an issue to wear them than not to – though I remember the difficulties in first putting robes on as a licensed Reader. Was I “letting down” my belief in the priesthood of all believers? I don’t think so – I think I was afraid of the authority (sic) that was being given to me and had to learn to accept it with (I hope) humility. Once I had done so, I stopped worrying about what I wore and could get on with leading worship….


  2. When I trained as a server, we were taught that the robes were to anonymise the wearer, at least to some extent. Instead of being ‘A’ the server you became ‘an acolyte’.


  3. So as a minister in ‘todays’ church, are we more anonymous wearing what Alec calls a ‘shell suit’ (by which I assume something similar to everyone else where, so t-shirt and jeans or similar) or wearing robes which I suppose avoid us having any ‘personality’ through our clothing.

    The advantages of wearing what you like underneath are huge, but it seems unlikely that I will have that opportunity too often.

    As it happens, took delivery of my cassock today. A little more ‘fitted’ than I anticipated, and the collar is very stiff! Suspect I need a female eye to check out the fit… preferably one with ministry/cleric habits (or should that be cassocks)! Volunteers?


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