Some thoughts on sacred vesture in the Anglican tradition

The survival of the surplice and cope in Anglicanism can be seen as an example of what is generally thought of as “comprehensiveness” in the tradition. On the one hand both were reviled as “popish rags” by the Puritans, yet on the other they show the merest hint of Catholic tradition surviving the dramatic changes of the 16th century.

As most are well aware, it is not until the second half of the 19th century that the chasuble and stole make their reappearance along with the other Eucharistic vestments. But that these were able to be revived in that era establishes a prejudice for the (then popular) gothic revival in all manner of things pertaining to the established church in England.

As for me, I plead guilty to that prejudice, though my own vocation requires of me a greater “comprehensiveness”. But there are things I would plead for as a general rule when it comes to sacred vesture that in fact also relate to all fittings and furnishings for sacred places. First, I would plead that we not fall into the charity of Judas and ask repeatedly how cheaply can we do what is necessary; and second and related to that, meagerness is never a suitable quality when we seek to glorify God.

Time and again I see examples of a meager inheritance in the form of sacred vestments created with the idea that shaving an inch here and an inch there won’t make a difference. Indeed they do, as in any style, a vestment cut to the tightest possible dimensions always looks miserly, regardless of the opulent embroidery that may be laid upon it. Sacred vesture in its fullest forms always brings a more devotional appearance to the movements of the sacred minister wearing it. I can think of a half dozen parishes where 6’ 6” laymen have taken the duty as sub-deacon only to be put into tunicles designed by well meaning but parsimonious altar guild ladies bringing comedy where it ought not be. We have all seen vestments that barely cover the knee!

So when you ask your vestment designer, or altar guild member to make up a chasuble, remember the best policy is beauty first, because we must offer to God our best reflection of His beauty.


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