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.