Relics of the Amorites?

When (if) we read about the controversies over vestments that inaugurated the English Puritan movement, we’re probably tempted to wonder how people got quite so worked up about this.  Were a mere robe, surplice, and cap really the “relics of the Amorites”? “filthy rags culled from the popish dunghill”?  Was it really worth abandoning the ministry rather than agreeing to wear such vestments, vestments that after all were simply the uniform that the clergy had always worn?  So what if the papists wore them–hadn’t the papists worshipped in the same church buildings too?  And no one was saying that these should be simply abandoned and torn down.

But on second thought, this mania, bizarre as it seems to be, appears relatively explicable when one considers the fact that there are apparently still a great many Protestants who recoil in horror and revulsion from the the idea of distinctive clerical garb.  It’s one of those things I grew up around so much that I never stopped to reflect just how bizarre it was.  Just what is the objection?

In his magisterial The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, Patrick Collinson offers some hint as to why the vestments proved so polarizing, which puts the Puritan protest in a more sympathetic light (but renders modern objections all the more inexplicable).  

It was not, he said, so much that the non-conformist clergy were themselves unable to stomach the thought of clerical garb, or even of clerical garb that was similar to that the papists had worn.  Many would have preferred to do without it, for a variety of reasons, but would not have gotten up in arms about it on their own account.  For most, their objection was founded on an honest conscientious concern for their more simple-minded parishioners:

“However much they might detest the old ceremonial, men of learning could preserve a measure of detachment toward the more incidental trappings of popish worship, distinguishing between the thing itself and its superstitious use….But for ‘simple gospellers’ (as the London ministers describe them) the symbols themselves were a concrete, visible offence.  Their emotional reaction reminds Dr. T.M. Parker of the attitude of the revolutionary sans-culottes to the knee-breeches of the ancien regime, and even of the artorial principles of the first Socialist Cabinet ministers of 1924.  The comparison is not strained, for Elizabethan protestants regarded the surplice and the square cap as the uniform of an oppressive class.  Unlike the new bishops and many of the preachers, they were witnesses of the Marian burnings, and they were well aware that many hangers-on of these cruel proceedings continued to hold office in the Elizabethan Church, and that it was for them that the English ministry was still saddled with some portions of ‘the pope’s attire.’”   

In other words, for many of the ordinary folks in the pew, it felt as it might have felt to a German in 1950 if all their policemen were going around in Gestapo uniforms and swastikas.  The vestments in themselves have nothing to do with the errors of the Roman church, and certainly nothing to do with the murderous persecution under Mary, but one can certainly understand your average Joe in the pew for honing in on such visible symbols, and having trouble abstracting them from the context he had originally encountered them.  If this was how many parishioners felt, one can begin to understand the conscientious scruples of some of their ministers.


But of course, this sharpens the question–Why is it that so many Protestants today maintain this phobia for vestments?  The closest thing to a sensible answer I’ve heard seems to be that in the apostolic church such things would not have been worn, but all things would have been done with simplicity.  But this shaky skeleton of an argument (which was boldly asserted by many of the Elizabethan Puritans) invites a host of objections: how do we even know that?  It is entirely an argument from silence.  Even if it were so, on what basis is that normative, any more than the fact that back then, they met in houses rather than church buildings for worship?  And the simplicity that is so often extolled when it comes to ceremonies and such was of course not simply a feature of apostolic worship (if it was that–again, this is mainly an argument from silence), but was clearly a feature of the whole lifestyle of the early Church, in which all things were held to be common and luxury was eschewed.  Until Protestants are ready to return to that kind of simplicity across the board, it’s hard to see what force a call for such simplicity in clerical vestments could have.

It seems to me, then, that the main impetus for the objection today is not all that dissimilar from the phobia that Collinson identifies above.  Then, it was understandable…but now?  How many modern Protestants have had friends burned at the stake by Catholic zealots?  How many have witnessed an oppressive economy of indulgences and works-righteousness?  Indeed, given that vestments have now been honored with hundreds of years of use by fine Protestant clergymen, one can scarcely complain that they carry the inescapable association with “popery.”  What is it with the seemingly unshakeable phobia of all things Catholic that still dominates large sections of American Protestantism at any rate?  Are we fated always to be a religion of reaction?  Can Protestantism ever grow up and stop defining itself in merely negative terms, desperate to prove above all that “We’re not Catholics” (and now, more recently, “We’re not liberals”)?  

Anglicanism gets a bad rap for being a lukewarm middle way, with no positive contribution, but in many ways, it seems better positioned to demonstrate what a positive Protestantism looks like than so many Reformed and evangelical churches, which remain trapped in a perpetual reaction to imaginary foes.  

4 thoughts on “Relics of the Amorites?

  1. Peter Escalante

    Brad,I think you must mean certain kinds of evangelicalism, not Protestantism, because classic Protestantism both in Europe and America had and has no trouble, for the most part, with clerical garb, and in fact the modern clerical collar, now worn by Roman clergy too, was something of a 19th c Protestant invention.The question of vestments , as you suggest in this essay, revolves around their intelligibility and meaning. For instance, a ministerial Geneva gown is basically academic garb, and the same as the gown worn by judges and professors: it signifies learning, authority, and gravity. It is a living symbol, hence intelligible, and its intelligible meaning is good. Maniples however are not living symbols, and thus are unintelligible. The papal tiara (now retired) is still an intelligible symbol, but its meaning is bad.Much American evangelical dislike of vestments is basically radical populism and individualism misquoting NT condemnations of "traditions of men". It is of a piece with the idea in some extreme circles that ministers shouldn't be learned. It's not so much a "Catholic phobia" really as rather a class phobia, though the RC might be used as a trope for the kind of "class" the issue is really about- especially since Americans don't like to openly admit that they have class conflicts, and also it seems more "religious" to detest "the Whore of Babylon" than to detest Harvard.But also, remember that in the 19th c Church of England, the Anglo-Catholics for the most part weren't arguing for their taste in vestments as an adiaphoric matter, or giving good reasons why birettas and maniples would be usefully intelligible. They were rather- ironically given their supposed detestation of "Puritanism"- arguing for a sort of regulative principle of Tradition, that ministers were bound in conscience and canon law to conform to the usage of the "Catholic Church" even sartorially. This naturally disgusted many people in the C of E whose beliefs were still evangelical and Reformed, and left many feeling that certain kinds of vestments had a really bad meaning.peace,P


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Joel,Please do elaborate–what does Jordan say? I have a feeling that he'd be coming at it from a very different angle than I'd like to, as he is almost exclusively biblicist in all of his liturgical argumentation–he differs from the Puritans in his conclusions, but not his premises…I wonder how much room for adiaphora there is in his paradigm.Peter,Thanks–helpful elucidations as always. Of course you're right that "Protestantism" is too broad–I wasn't at all trying to say that this was a "Protestant" opposition to vestments across the board. Perhaps I should have said "ultra-Protestant." "Evangelical" gets close to it, but many hard-line Reformed types (those among whom I've spent most of my life) don't really adopt the "evangelical" label for themselves. Among American evangelicals generally, I think you're quite right about the "class phobia" issue…very well-put. I wonder though if that applies in hard-line Reformed circles as well, e.g., Scotch Presbyterian or CREC-type churches. There, there does seem to still be a firmly anti-papist (and often anti-Anglican) impetus.Regarding the 19th-cent. Anglo-Catholics, I didn't really know much about their views on vestments. It doesn't surprise me, although it certainly does seem odd to adopt such a dogmatic stance. Of course, with Hooker, I would want to give a great deal of weight to tradition, and would thus tend to say that we ought to seek continuity with traditional vestments unless there is a good reason not to.


  3. Brad, Many thanks for an engaging post! I'm approaching something of the same question, without the complex middle bits, so I'm grateful to you for retracing some of the current Protestant suspicions through the Elizabethan lens. I'm also compelled by your suggestion that the present offense at garb is (as Peter suggests above) a sort of barely disguised populism cloaked in theological 'garb.' But this isn't so thinly rooted, as this populism grows out of a soil furrowed by centuries of social levelling – suspicion of vestments is caught up in a suspicion of authority, and any sort of distinctive clothing (unless, in my case on the West coast… Birkenstocks) serves as a way of 'marking out' one person as special. This is why, I suspect, the choir can have special robes, because that represents a people set apart in the midst of worship in contrast to one person set above in officiating over worship. But the ironies continue, as many churches are hardly unfamiliar with the notion of authority… we follow identity-cult preachers around (via twitter if necessary) as if they're messiahs and submit inordinate amounts of our discernment to those persons. So again, much reason for more careful deliberation over the ecclesial identity which makes up the protestant mind in a historically careful way. Perhaps your students will be able to work out this issue with greater clarity in the context of their churches… but then we'll need a host of academic theologians who remain invested in their ecclesial contexts… Best,Jeremy


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