Can a Robe Obscure the Gospel?

John Wesley RobeNow, I’m not sure this is really John Wesley, but we’ll let that slide for the sake of the larger conversation I want to have. I’ve heard all the arguments for wearing a preaching robe. Heck, I even like wearing a preaching robe. However…sometimes I wonder if it is something I prefer rather than something that aids in the translation and communication of the Gospel. I preach in a pretty rural area, and most people outside of the United Methodist churches I serve have never seen someone preach in a robe before. Sometimes I wonder if it is so strange to some of our visitors that it obscures the very preaching of the Gospel and even prevents them from returning. I’ve thought about this from a missional/contextual point of view. If we went to Papua New Guinea, for example, would we wear the traditional dress of a minister or pastor who had preached there for years, or would we drag out our pulpit robes or albs and begin to preach regardless of the local culture? I don’t think any responsible missionary would do that. In the same way, is it presumptuous or culturally insensitive for UM clergy to wear a robe (or alb) in a rural setting where people are more familiar with pastors wearing a nice buisness suit when they preach? Perhaps the value of a robe or alb overcomes any objections. What do you think? These are questions that I care about, and I hope there may some of you who can share your thoughts on this. I know these issues might be different for female clergy – I’d like to hear about that as well.  Any experiences or thoughts you’d like to share?

9 thoughts on “Can a Robe Obscure the Gospel?

  1. Personally, I like the robes.
    I’m a lay speaker and wouldn’t profess to wear one. But of elders, I come to expect it.
    Think about it. When are robes worn, especially in rural settings: At funerals and weddings.
    These are the times when people most seek the counsel of a pastor, or “person of God”. But what about every Sunday? For those seeking a more meaningful Sunday experience, the attire of a robe adorned upon an elder is significant. If it isn’t, then the role of the pastor is relinquished to that of another member of the community who happens to preach on Sundays.
    For me, I like the robes for our pastors. May I qualify that…our elders.

  2. Thanks Marty, I appreciate your thoughts. You’ve touched on some important issues regarding the pastor/elder as one who is called forth from among the baptized to a particular ministry. I like the robes too, and would want my pastor to wear them (if I were a layperson), but I still wonder about the contextual issues of this.

  3. Actually I prefer an alb over a robe because the robes traditionally worn by Methodist pastors are known as “academic robes” and are testament to their accomplishments in that arena. To me, an alb is a symbol of humility and service that does more to link me with the congregation rather than to highlight how “smart” I am. But then again, you are quite familiar with my views on clergy garb in all respects, so I’ll leave the comment at that.

  4. I have only recently completed Local Pastor Licensing School, but I believe more in the clergy collar and shirt even if we have a robe and/or stole. There is something that credits us to people in our congregations and especially on pastoral visits like the hospital and nursing homes that they distinguish us from your “run of the mill Baptist” who generally shares the look of an Eighties businessman with their slick presentation of combed-back hair and silk ties.
    And it is kind of cool when you go to a restaurant or grocery store – it amazes me how differently you are treated, called Fsther and simply treated better.

  5. matt- I just found this post.

    For what is worth, I wore a robe for almost the first year of my first appointment, despite hints from parishoners that they would be more comfortable if I wore a suit. Finally, I wore my suit during the summer because it was so hot, and I realized from the reaction that people had that I was making the “to wear or not to wear” decision more about me wanting to wear a robe than anything else. It was pretty obvious where folks in my church were coming from – either they didn’t care or they did care, which meant they would prefer I not wear a robe.

    Looking back, I don’t think my wearing a robe accomplished anything missionaly. I don’t think it did anything to help others grow in grace. I think it made me, as a young pastor, feel like I had a little bit more authority and legitimacy.

  6. The 2-point charge in this very rural area helped me with that decision. The smaller church encouraged me to dispense with the robe from the beginning; it only took me about 3 months to catch on and leave the robe off. The larger church told me from the first that their pastors wear robes in the pulpit, and that they would be happy to buy a robe for me if I did not own one already.

    I’m one that believes in the value of clerical collars for weekday wear, although that was new in the communities I serve. The only time I wear a clerical collar in the pulpit is when I have no other clean white (I tend toward white clergy shirts more often than black) shirt in the closet or I am participating in an ecumenical service (such as Baccalaureate) – where a robe or alb in this rural area would tend to exaggerate the differences with the pastors from the other local churches.

    I have introduced the white alb for celebration of the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion at the larger church (and for Baptism only at the smaller church). Both churches are happy with the alb. Oh, there are some who think it looks awfully “Catholic” – which is fine with me, being a bit of an Anglo-Catholic myself. And both churches were especially pleased with the addition of my red Order of Saint Luke scapular for the Sacrament(s).

    By the way, the smaller church which likes me in a suit rather than a robe on Sunday mornings, absolutely wants me in a robe for funerals and weddings. Is that because those are “official” church services, or perhaps because they long for that connection with the universal church of the ages for those important passages in the lives of us all? If so, does that mean that Sunday morning worship is not really “official” or not really important? Has Sunday morning just become a time for some singing and a comforting lecture from a non-threatening neighbor?

    Now, the black alb (yes, I know that is a contradiction in terms, at least based on the origin of the word “alb”) for Good Friday services has not proven as popular. . . yet.

    Do robes and albs get in the way of the message? Yes, sometimes they do for some people. Business suits get in the way for some people sometimes, too (particularly $1,500 well-tailored suits that smack of the “prosperity gospel” or the “city slicker here to fleece the local folks”).

    It may be that robes and albs are more important to me because I grew up in a church that considered such garments a mark of apostasy from the “true religion.”

    Do golf shirts and khaki Dockers get in the way for some people sometimes? Yes, they do.

    Where I serve right now, the only dark suit – the only suit of any color – the only coat and tie, in the church on Sunday morning would be in the pulpit. Does that make the suit, the coat and tie, an outmoded costume or uniform worn to express continuity with another place and time? Sure does – just as the robes and albs do. I just believe it is more important to show that connection with the Church over the last 17 or 18 centuries, than over the last 7 or 8 decades. For others, it is more important to reject either of those connections, each of which brings to mind as many tragic events as powerful and positive events.

    For me, each situation should be considered, and we should remain flexible and open to change as time goes by even in the same church and community.

    But those who reject robes and albs because they are costumes and carry some “baggage” with them, should be aware that WHATEVER we wear in the pulpit, or on the street (clergy collars originated among Anglican – not Roman, clergy so that they could stop wearing cassocks on the English streets just a couple of centuries ago or so), is a costume and sends a message to at least some observers.

  7. Good comments Robert. Quite an in-depth discussion about an issue that I have sometimes wondered if I inwardly “fuss” about too much in my own context. I think I’ve come to a point that I wear the robe (academic on usual Sundays, white alb on communion Sundays) as a signifyer of the “ordination to set apart ministry” and because it lends me some authority being that I’m 29 and often times get, half jokingly, the lines “you don’t look old enough to be a pastor,” or “have you graduated from high school yet!”
    Fact is, even though most of my parish is in the ranching or oil business, I’m not a rancher or an oil man, so why dress like one on Sundays? I don’t think my congregation expects me to be or think or dress just like they do–but I know they expect me to listen to them and be aware of their concerns and situations.
    I like that Robert points out that whatever we wear in the pulpit is going to distract someone from the message conveyed. This week’s scripture speaks about the plow distracting someone from acting on the Good News. I usually wear a shirt and tie, sometimes a suit, to church, then put on a robe if it isn’t too hot in the sanctuary. What I always wear is a clergy cross that focuses me on what I am preparing to do before I walk into the sanctuary. I ring the church bell to let everyone know Sunday school is over and time for worship to begin. I think that people come to like the formalities that clue us into the idea that worship is something special and sacred. In my opinion, we’ve sold too much of the church to the culture in order to be “non-threatening” anyway.

  8. When I was an associate pastor several years ago, my senior pastor liked to quote one of his old mentors. One of his lines was, “The Methodist Church started going down when the preachers started parading around in robes.” I think it was the same senior pastor who also told me, “Methodist preachers who wear clergy collars have an identity problem.” That rurual, “low” church attitude still affects me. I wear a coat and tie on Sunday mornings now. (That senior pastor also thought Communion was fairly dispensable and only celebrated it quarterly, so I don’t want to go too far down his low church road.)

    Several questions surround this topic: Are pastors who don’t wear robes trying to be “just one of the folks” at church and not stand out? Does wearing robes, etc. lend itself to a hierarchical view of clergy and laity that some want to avoid? Or, does it help affirm the authority granted in ordination? The Conference Board of Ordained Ministry recently had a lengthy discussion about wearing stoles: the official position is that only ordained clergy should wear them because of the ordination symbolism. Someone wondered if we were “straining at gnats.” I was reminded of the story that the Russian Orthodox leaders were arguing about the colors of paraments when the Revolution was breaking out around them.

    I think Matt’s comments about context and cultural sensitivity are a good starting place for thinking about all this.

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