Preaching gowns

I was trying to explain to someone why I don’t wear a preaching gown, or any other clerical vestments. It’s kind of a long explanation, so I thought I’d turn it into a blog post.

Unitarian Universalists ministers who wear gowns to preach typically wear one of two types of gown. If they have a doctoral degree, they can wear a doctoral robe. When I was a teenager, the minister of my Unitarian Universalist church was Rev. Dr. Dana Greeley. As I recall it, he wore his Harvard doctoral robe to preach: crimson fabric with black insets, and black velvet bars on the sleeves.

The other choice of robe is the traditional Geneva preaching gown. This is the gown worn by ministers in traditions that trace their lineage (to use a Buddhist term) back to the Protestant Reformation, particularly to John Calvin in Geneva. The Protestant Reformation put the emphasis on preaching the Word, and they wore gowns that resemble academic gowns showing the importance of their education, their focus on the Word.

Since I don’t have a doctoral degree, I’m obviously not going to wear a doctoral degree. My reasons for not wearing a Geneva gown are more complex.

First, I feel that Unitarian Universalism has drifted far enough away from Protestantism that Geneva gown have little symbolic value for us any more. A Geneva gown symbolizes Protestant shift from priest to preacher, where preaching the Word became central to the Protestant religion. Our worship services no longer focus on preaching as much as we used to — I remember sermons lasting for close to half the worship service, but today my sense is the typical Unitarian Universalist sermon lasts for about 15 minutes of an hour-long service. So we are not preaching as many words as we used to do. Nor is it clear to me that we are preaching the Word — capital “W” — that is, the Word of the Christian God. A Unitarian Universalist minister who is Christian might want to wear a Geneva gown. But even Unitarian Universalist ministers who are Christian need to preach to theologically and religiously diverse congregations, so the Geneva gown might be about as appropriate as the saffron robes of certain Buddhist monks. A Unitarian Universalist minister who wears a Buddhist saffron robe is making a definite statement about their religious outlook; if I were to wear a Geneva gown, I feel I’d be making an equally definite statement, and I’m not sure it’s a statement I want to make.

Second, Protestant ministers wear a Geneva gown to set themselves apart from ordinary members of the congregation. The gown is a sign of their special religious status. I’m not sure that Unitarian Universalist ministers actually have that kind of special status. I feel that my position as a Unitarian Universalist minister is closer to the position of rabbis as described by Coffee Shop Rabbi: “Rabbis are ordinary people with specialized knowledge. Unlike a priest, we do not have special powers. A rabbi is a person who has studied Torah, Jewish law and tradition. Someone, either an institution or another rabbi, has declared that they can call themselves ‘rabbi’.” As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I consider myself to be an ordinary person who has specialized training: a three and a half year graduate degree, a one year internship under an experienced minister, and clinical pastoral education. Both a local congregation and the Unitarian Universalist Association have declared that I can call myself “minister.” In my understanding, my specialized training does not give me a special status such that I need to wear special clothes to lead worship.

Third, anyone can lead a Unitarian Universalist worship service. We are not like many Christian denominations, where only a priest or ordained clergy can preside at worship services. (Nor are we like the Church of the Latter-day Saints, where only men can preside at services.) So you don’t need a special person to lead worship, and the worship leader doesn’t need special clothes to lead worship. Alternatively, if ministers wear special clothes to lead worship, then maybe ordinary Unitarian Universalists should, too.

Fourth, I’m a cheapskate, and Geneva gowns are expensive. Yes, you can purchase a polyester Geneva gown for under three hundred dollars. But I don’t want to purchase any artificial fiber clothes any more — artificial fibers are one of the chief sources of microplastics in the environment. And a natural fiber gown will cost upwards of $1,000. I find it hard to explain to myself why I’d spend well over $1,000 on a garment that I’d wear at most 40 hours a year. Better I should either put that money into my retirement savings, or give that money to a local homeless shelter.

There are lots of arguments about why Unitarian Universalist ministers should wear some kind of special clothes to lead worship. I’ll outline some of those arguments in a follow-up post.

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