Does Your Church Choir Wear Robes?

Are there patterns in robe-wearing within Unitarian-Universalism?  For instance, do New England churches tend to favor them, while newer fellowships do not?  Is it a matter of economics, with larger churches able to afford a little bit more pomp?  Are robes more common in historically Unitarian or Universalist congregations?  How do you feel about choirs that do or do not wear robes?  Although choirs are of course about the music, the actual religious experience is affected on some level when you compare a robed choir processing through the sanctuary and up to the choir loft accompanied by organ music vs. a motley assortment of uncoordinated jeans, slacks, and skirts assembling at the front with the piano playing.  The music may be similar, but the aesthetic, and perhaps the message, may differ in intriguing ways.

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7 responses to “Does Your Church Choir Wear Robes?

  1. j

    The UU congregation of Phoenix choir is an awesome musical group, but they do not wear choir robes. The intent is to remind everyone that the choir is part of the congregation and not separate a performance group. Motley, perhaps, but the choir is our crew and we are theirs.

  2. Patrick McLaughlin

    No robes on the choir at the fellowship in Vista, CA. Not a chance of them getting (or accepting) robes.

    Music is a really, really, really big deal here. But the idea of the congregants robing to sing would result in a revolt–among the choir, for starters. They did decide to get choir t-shirts.

    Yes, the experience is probably different–though since we lack an organ and a choir loft, it wouldn’t nearly be the grand, high church ceremonial you envision. And a lot of people wouldn’t appreciate it. Really wouldn’t appreciate it.

    Why is it that there’s an assumption that one way of doing choir is inherently better? The post suggests that the message is impaired or diminished. I’m with j here–the robes on the choir tend to obliterate the idea that those people singing are us, part of the congregation, rather than being some group of minstrels entertaining us.

  3. Transient and Permanent

    Patrick, I think you’re reading a lot into this post. The UU robes, organs, and lofts I’ve seen wouldn’t be mistaken by many for a really grand or high church ceremony, at least not anyone who’s been to a genuine high church service at some non-UU congregation. And how could you mistake your own choir for being someone other than yourselves–aren’t they your own parents, kids, or at least friends from church? The only congregations I’ve seen treat choirs like entertainment are those without the robes, who clap after hymns as if they were minstrels because there’s a lack of solemnity in the service. That said, this wasn’t intended as a slap at jeans-wearing choirs (that’s how it’s done at our congregation and my mother-in-law’s, for instance; my parents’ church wears robes). It seems worthwhile to have a discussion about choir aesthetics, perhaps especially since some people clearly have strong opinions on the subject.

    Not a large sample size, but so far we’ve got two western congregations with no robes. The ones I’ve seen with robes were either in the Northeast or in Texas, but the latter I’ve only visited for Christmas services and I can’t say if it’s standard garb during the rest of the year. They didn’t have robes in North Carolina and I honestly can’t remember what the Santa Monica church does.

    Y’all have raised an interesting question for me about whether ministers should wear robes, in that case. I think I’ll post the follow-up question about it.

  4. At the Congregational Unitarian Church in Woodstock the Choir was robed most Sundays when I got there eighteen years ago. Gray robes with maroon bows. These had replaced an earlier set of hideous mustard yellow robes, a few tattered examples of which still hung in the Choir closet. A few years later the choir director obtained a set of satin, electric blue robes as hand-me-downs from a wealthy Episcopal parish. They were not longer used for every choir performance Sunday, maybe three or four times a year when the music was classical or traditionally “churchy” instead of the Broadway, jazz, blues, spirituals (both Black and Appalachian forms), rock or world music that the choir was increasingly singing.

    The choir robes fit our older sanctuary space. The choir loft occupies the front of the church to the right (as seen by the congregation) of the pulpit and chancel table. Behind the loft is our historic pipe organ with the bass and baritone pipes framed in a gothic arch. But the choir robes vanished when the former choir director left. About the same time our minister gave up entirely on the robes that he had at least occasionally worn.

    Dress is now casual except for the annual Winter Holy Days concert service when the men don white shirts, ties and black pants and the women nice dresses often with matching scarves. Oh, and by the way somewhere along the way the Choir started getting applause, at least when they knock the congregation’s socks off, which they often do.

    One last thing. The abandonment of robes may not necessarily indicate an abandonment of tradition. In fact in may be seen as a return to old fashion Protestant simplicity. Photos of the choir in the ‘30’s (just after affiliating with the Universalists), ‘40’s, and ‘50’s reveal the choir to be robeless, the men arrayed in yards of suitable gabardine and broadcloth, the women prim in printed dresses, close fitting hats, pearls and white gloves.

  5. Transient and Permanent

    Thanks for the follow-up, Patrick, that’s a lot of good information. I hadn’t even considered the “what if your choir has awful ugly robes” question!

    I agree that there’s no necessary connection between robing and tradition, since there are plenty of congregations founded without them that subsequently explored the practice.

    I wonder if the choir director is often the main deciding factor: i.e., if she wants robes, there are robes, if she doesn’t want robes, there are none.

    I have talked to UUs who visited a church and decided not to attend because there were no choir robes and everything seemed too casual and therefore not serious about religion as an important part of life, and I have also talked to UUs who visited a church and decided not to attend because there were robes and an organ and the whole thing seemed too grave and and formal. It seems possible that since UUism mostly lacks religious content of its own at this point, it is more open to struggles over aesthetics–people may attend this or that church not to hear an accepted message/truth, but in part because it is personally comfortable according to their own individual style preferences. What I mean to say is that if your religion is based on a specific set of doctrines, you may satisfactorily encounter them at churches with a wide range of practices, from highest high to lowest low. But if your religion doesn’t provide a particular doctrinal content that you come to church to receive, then the trappings may become more important in your choice of which church to attend. This is just speculation, does it seem on track?

  6. Will—

    In our case think the robed/not robed thing both reflected the tastes of the former choir director and the ministers, and the congregation. I believe the choir became robed during the tenure of a ministerial couple in the ‘80’s. They made a somewhat controversial turn to more traditional Christian focused worship after two decades of relatively humanist leadership.
    The choir director was also personally more comfortable with Christian music both traditional and contemporary, although she could also heat things up with modern pop and Broadway stuff. When she left the long time accompanist took over the choir with a much more casual taste in apparel and a wider range of music selection. Our minister was never particularly comfortable in robes. Decisions to robe or un-robe the minister and the choir were also made in consultation with the Worship Committee so that it also reflects the evolving taste of the Congregation.

    Externals can provide cues that can turn-off or attract. I have met a few long time UU’s who moved into the area from strongly Humanist congregations who never returned for a second visit after experiencing our 100 year old sanctuary with its High Protestant stained glass windows, pews, choir loft and organ. It just felt too “churchy” for them despite the fact that worship content, including sermons, are pretty much in line UU churches, including drawing on a wide range of traditions and a strong social action bent.

    New windows have been installed in the social room adjacent to the sanctuary and fully visible from it which illustrate those traditions—earth centered, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Humanist/Rationalist, Islam, and Native American surrounding a central “Tree of Knowledge,” the symbol of our congregation. That balance has helped those uncomfortable with Christian trappings accept the evolving story of our Congregational community as played out in our architecture

  7. Patrick McLaughlin

    I think you’re reading a lot into this post.

    Could be. I’m just telling you what I see as the implicit–between the lines–commentary. “Motley,” “uncoordinate,” and the curious organ versus piano part (I wonder what percentage of UU congregations have church organs). To be honest, I think what I’m reacting to is a degree of regional culturocentrism, and perhaps something of classism.

    The UU robes, organs, and lofts I’ve seen wouldn’t be mistaken by many for a really grand or high church ceremony, at least not anyone who’s been to a genuine high church service at some non-UU congregation.

    True. But within the context–the UU world–it is. That it wouldn’t even make the starting blocks for high church in some denominations isn’t really relevant, IMO. I don’t really care that there’s a range–it’s another form of diversity and variation. But it is feeding a curious and disturbing division based on regional cultural attitudes that I’ve seen around the UU blogosphere (just for example, some of Peacbang’s perspectives on matters of ministerial dress).

    And how could you mistake your own choir for being someone other than yourselves–aren’t they your own parents, kids, or at least friends from church?

    Depends on the size of the church and one’s familiarity with them. And whether one’s new to the congregation. For the visitor… the robe sets them apart. The robe is an attempt to make them nothing but voices, as far as I can tell.

    The only congregations I’ve seen treat choirs like entertainment are those without the robes, who clap after hymns as if they were minstrels because there’s a lack of solemnity in the service. That said, this wasn’t intended as a slap at jeans-wearing choirs (that’s how it’s done at our congregation and my mother-in-law’s, for instance; my parents’ church wears robes). It seems worthwhile to have a discussion about choir aesthetics, perhaps especially since some people clearly have strong opinions on the subject.

    I’m not a fan of clapping… and yet… it’s a fracture in the coolly unemotional, intellectual, frozen-people in church culture that many also bemoan. Good lord, those folks in the pews are reacting–emoting. If people were sufficiently enthused and moved to call out something… say, “AMEN!”–would that be a concern? We struggle with a tradition where emotional response is feared and suspected. I’m struggling with how expressed appreciation (applause) is really a bad thing. But I’ve heard ministers and worship associates urging “silent appreciation.” What is that about? What does that express to a visitor… that moving, stunningly beautiful music is not responded to?

    But I do think that there’s a larger cultural issue involved. Expectations about dress are very different in the East and West, even now. One of our members, a board member, just had a trip back to the East Coast congregation where he’d been a member for almost 30 years. He’s been here perhaps six. He’s a lawyer. And yet he was scrambling over clothing because he’s not needed a suit for any purpose since being here. Not to go to church, not to go to court.

    I suspect that this isn’t so much about church, but about regional culture. The new sanctuary choir loft at First Church in San Diego is a fiasco; the choir loathes it. They’re separated from the congregation and can’t even see the pulpit. Even despite that intrusion of non-regional culture, if memory serves, the choir’s rejected robes–at least most of the time.

    Anyway, I really don’t feel heated personally about this. I was responding to language that felt like it was implicitly doing something like push polling.

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