Are Ministers Who Wear Robes Somehow Wrong?

Responses to yesterday’s post on robed choirs suggested that robes cut the choir off from the congregation, turning them into a show or making them somehow not part of the congregation.  The natural follow-up would seem to be ministers, the other group that (besides choirs) often wear robes.  Are ministers who wear robes somehow improperly cutting themselves off from the congregation?  Do they somehow not seem like they are “one of us?”  Is this a problem, or should they indeed somehow be differentiated?  What if they just wear a stole?  Or wear robes and a stole?  Is it more acceptable for the minister to be robed than the choir, and if so, why precisely?  Do you think you might you feel more comforable if your robed minister wore more normal clothes, or, for that matter, if your casual minister took to wearing robes?  Why?  What is the reason that some ministers wear robes, anyway?



Filed under Unitarian-Universalism

7 responses to “Are Ministers Who Wear Robes Somehow Wrong?

  1. As to the earlier question, the Newton congregation, founded in 1844, and since the turn of the last century occupies a lovely gothic sanctuary has a robed choir as well as robed minister. And the Providence congregation gathered in 1720 and for the last hundred, fifty or so years, has occupied what has been described as a New England meeting house on steroids, does not have a robed choir, but does expect the minister to robe as well as occupy the nose-bleed pulpit…

    As to the merits of robes, I have differing opinions on different days.

    In general I think I approve.

    This is sacred time, we come to a special place, we have engaged an individual who is at least rhetorically priest, prophet, teacher and a bit more, and we expect something.

    Robes certainly don’t make the preacher. But they don’t hurt, either.

    Freedom of the pew takes care of the rest…

  2. Patrick McLaughlin

    Nope. But I know she’d prefer to.

    There’s a lot involved in this. Region, culture, congregational culture, gender…

    Women’s dress and fashion makes this a bigger minefield for them. Is the minister dressing “appropriately”? Is she looking too church lady or too out on a date? I can well understand why wearing a robe might be appealing for female ministers.

    Doing so in a building that’s small and “plain” and in a congregation that is one of those roughly 50 year old fellowships? It’s a matter of culture and custom. Putting on the robe would be reacted to, and not well, by enough people that it wouldn’t be worth it.

    Flip side–what is going on in people’s heads (minister and congregation) when someone’s in a robe, or not? How would it, for example, change things if a minister who preaches robed all the time… were to stand in the pulpit wearing clean, new blue jeans and a shirt without a tie?

    There’s a lot of cultural signaling going on. And some of it may be bound up in issues of class, or responding to class.

    In the end, I think that I’m less uncomfortable with a minister with (or without) robes. There is a role-distance that ministry creates. The robe then can be simply a visible, formal, putting-on of the role. The trick is that if it’s being put on to claim that authority because one’s in ministerial garb, it’s likely not serving a beneficial purpose. It’s important that it serve as symbol, not as vessel.

  3. serenityhome

    My feelings about robing might be contrarian to many. Here are my experiences of robing and not robing and hopefully rational reasons for doing or not doing so. My internship was at the First UU Church of San Diego, there we robed for rites of passages. The reason as I understood it was these were moments to be separated out from ordinary time. When I did my student ministry with a small congregation in MI I robed every single time. The reason was this was a congregation that suffered a painful schism and were meeting in a school cafeteria to rebuild their community. It was important for them to begin to feel like a church again and to create a sense of the sacred. When I began serving the two congregations in Mississippi, I did not robe. I wore a tie but did not wear a suit jacket. The reason was I wanted to be fully accessible to these two congregations and not be set apart. I also wanted to be comfortable in the hot humid weather. At no time did I feel my ministerial authority diminished by not robing. I did robe for weddings and other rites of passages. Yet, when I was doing a public function in the community, I put on a collar because I wanted to be known as representing a clergy presence. I am now serving a small congregation in Alabama and I am robing every Sunday I am there. I still want to be fully accessible to the congregation but here I am sensing the need within the congregation to have a sense of the sacred moment in the service and my robing helps carve out that sacred space. I immediately disrobe after the service and join the congregation in after service activities. Yet, for the congregation I am still serving in MS, I am not robing. The congregation’s needs seem to be different. And it is not because none of their previous ministers have never robed on Sundays, many of them have. I am seeking to meet perceived needs of the congregation. Perhaps I am wrong in using my attire as one means to address these needs symbolically but for now it seems to be important to the congregations I serve to use a variety of symbols as needed to address the congregation. Until my understanding of robing or not robing changes, I intend to continue.

  4. Well, you cant do better than “Serenity Home”‘s response – it’s exactly that: you wear what’s called for.
    the same is true for those of us on the pews….

  5. Transient and Permanent

    Lots of good responses, thanks for helping to nuance my understanding of the issues. It does seem clear that the answer lies in the particular dynamics of each minister and her congregation.

  6. Rev. Lisa Smith

    To be very real, sometimes even in the congregation there will be unbelievers and those who are serving the Lord, some who have not learned how to look at the minister as God’ spokesperson and some who should but yet have eyes to see. If the minister is an attractive lady, even if she is dressed very well, their minds and thoughts can stray.Their minds need to stay on what she is preaching. By robing the attention stays where it should and also reminds her who she is and keeps the calling before her.

  7. Papa Rob

    When asking whether a minister should robe or not, wouldn’t it be good to understand the history of the robe in worship?

    Does anyone know why ministers robed in the first place? It was for the same reason as University Professors, judges, and english politicians…to be set apart as teacher to learner, judge to civilian and political leader to average citizen. It was one of those tradition things that we brought over the pond when we became a country of our own. It continued to pick up steam in the USA because all of the new Universities were staffed by learned professors who rather enjoyed being recognized for their knowledge. But, now in 2010, only two Universities in the world, and none in the USA have professors clad in robes. It no longer served a relevant purpose. And yet, we hold tight to it in most churches, making claims that it makes it mare sacred, or more formal, or even more traditional. Does it really do all of those things? Or is it just that we like to think of the traditional church that our grandparents went to and desire for sameness and comfort?

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