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Archbishop Justus, Ltd


Hallo again to all.

Earlier today we received an email from Australia asking us if we knew why Archbishop Rowan Williams apparently never wears a purple shirt. We referred our correspondent to the only web source for an answer we're aware of. And the answer is? The Archbishop of Wales allegedly doesn't own one, doesn't care for them, and prefers to emphasise the priestly-pastoral aspect of being a bishop.

The Ninth Bishop of Edmonton (Anglican Church of Canada), the Right Reverend Victoria Matthews

Does it matter? With poverty and despair ever lurking in our world, what difference does a purple shirt make? What matter chasubles, when children are dying of hunger? We understand the paradox, even if we have no answers for it. The Old Testament (Exodus 28) indeed documents costly vestments mandated by the Lord God. The New Testament is silent on the matter of clothing.

Why do we bother? A number of reasons. Vestments, which grew out of the normal street clothing of Romans, emphasise the church's link with its earliest origins. They tend to disguise the person and magnify the office: they enable us not to notice whether the priest is wearing a designer-label suit or the deacon a Gucci belt. Vestments are also a uniform, in that they tell us something of the function of the person clothed in them: think of judges, police, firefighters. Church vestments can, of course, separate the wearer from the ordinary gaggle of humanity and can, like so much else in life, become a point of pride. This is, in our opinion, Vestments Gone Bad.

Recently in England there has been a discussion of whether vestments should be relegated to the dustbin, as accoutrements that estrange rather than invite. It's easy to agree before much thinking. Everything one encounters when on one's first date with a church is odd: Hymns, with their old-fashioned prosody. Architecture, which bears little resemblance to a mall. Liturgy, which no matter how informal the rite or the service, is unlikely to resemble a conversation in a pub. All these things require some 'getting used to', but all can be means to lift us up in wonder, love, and praise.

A black chimere as a pointer to heaven, someone may chuckle? Well, reductio ad absurdum works as well with vestments as with anything. But we confess we find it easier to blur the personal distinctions of a bishop into the iconic figure of Christ when the Right Reverend Father (or Mother) in God is wearing vestments rather than a Prada suit.

It is easy to become involved in churchly things as a way of hiding from the hard realities of the twenty-first century. Endless debating the niceties of black tippets or discussing the proper number of buttons on a cassock can become embarrassing; after all, there are souls to win and the hungry to feed and we can't hide our head in amices forever. But understanding why those in Anglican Holy Orders wear the vestments they do—and being able to articulate it to a newcomer at coffee hour or defend it at a dinner party—should be a reasonable Anglican expectation.

Now about that purple shirt... perhaps the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate may want to consider one?

See you next week.

Cynthia McFarland's signature
Brian Reid's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 28 July 2002