Clerical stoles

In two earlier posts (one and two), I wrote about preaching gowns. Personally I’m not a fan of preaching gowns, but I understand why they can be of use. Now I’d like to think out loud about clerical stoles.

Stoles are those long pieces of cloth that clergy drape around their necks. The stole comes from the Christian tradition. I don’t remember Unitarian Universalist clergy using stoles until the 1980s. My recollection is that Eugene Pickett, when he was president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, insisted that clergy should wear stoles. By the 1990s, clerical stoles were pervasive in Unitarian Universalism. And by 2003, the year I participated in the Service of the Living Tradition as a newly ordained minister, I think I was the only minister who didn’t wear a stole.

Some people understand the stole to be a symbol of ordination. But choirs that wear robes often also wear stoles, and we generally expect most of our choristers to be non-ordained persons. So I’m not convinced that the stole is a symbol of ordination, and only to be worn by ordained clergy.

Also, stoles are reminiscent of other special religious clothing in other traditions. A stole is somewhat similar in appearance to the Japanese Buddhist wagesa, though the wagesa has very specific symbolic meanings (as I understand it) which obviously differ from any symbolism a stole might have. A stole is perhaps slightly reminiscent of the Jewish tallit or prayer shawl, insofar as it’s something to drape over your shoulders when engaging in religious observances.

It seems to me that there are other cultures that drape long pieces of cloth around your neck. Think of Hindu men who wear a dupatta over a sherwani for their wedding. I feel like there are other examples, though I can’t think of any right now. So even though there’s a strong connection between the stole and Christianity, it you take the cross off a stole maybe it’s not a Christian stole any more. When Unitarian Universalist minister Hank Peirce wears his Boston Bruins stole, there isn’t much connection between the stole and Christianity.

I don’t like wearing a preaching gown, but I feel reasonably comfortable wearing a stole. I think of it as a uniform. Like when I worked at the lumber yard, and I had to wear a shirt with a “Concord Lumber Corp.” patch over the shirt pocket, and my first name embroidered on the other side of my chest. (And yes, I’ve thought of having a stole made with a patch that says “First Parish Unitarian Universalist” on one side, and my name embroidered on the other side, but rejected the idea for obvious reasons.)

I wish I didn’t have to wear any special clothes to be a minister. As a Universalist, I think all humans are of equal worth, and wearing special clergy clothing sets my teeth on edge. But I realize that people want to see their clergy wearing some kind of uniform. For me, a stole represents a reasonable compromise between egalitarianism and the need for a uniform. So on Sunday, when I participate in the Town of Cohasset 9/11 observance, I’ll be in uniform, wearing a stole.

(Getting a stole for Sunday proved to be a challenge. I have a stole that my younger sister gave me when I was ordained, but it’s still in a moving container somewhere. I just found out about the Cohasset 9/11 observance, and had to get a stole on short notice. But finding a stole without any Christian symbolism on it, that could be overnighted to me, was a challenge. I finally found Threads by Nomad, a small company that’s trying to provide clothing that doesn’t do “damage to people or the planet.” They had clergy stoles on sale and they were able to overnight one to me. Sadly, it looks like they’re selling off their stole inventory, so maybe it hasn’t been a good business opportunity for them. Their website tells me that the stole I bought was “made from a fabric called mud cloth from Mali. Mud cloth is dyed using fermented mud — a traditional dying technique in many parts of the world but notably in West Africa. Our mud cloth is not mass produced and therefore every piece is different in design.” Since I’ve been influenced by African philosophy, this seemed like a serendipitous find. Plus the stole was made by an “artisan [who was] fairly compensated.”)

5 thoughts on “Clerical stoles”

  1. I think that a stole (and a robe or gown), like uniforms, are a symbol of the office and function, not the status of the person. As a lay leader, I have a small chalice pendant I wear when I lead a service, and often wear one of various stole-like scarves. They are reminders that, while we are equals, when leading a service, we are speaking not just as ourselves, but sharing what we have gleaned from our sources – our own experience, but informed by the accumulation of other sources of wisdom. When we are in the pulpit, or participating in another ceremony, we are not presenting ourselves, but representing our community and traditions.

  2. Lisa, you said it better than I did. I especially like your last sentence: “When we are in the pulpit, or participating in another ceremony, we are not presenting ourselves, but representing our community and traditions.”

  3. I’m likely more “high church” than a lot of my UU colleagues, and I do like to robe. But more to the point, as a female minister, I don’t want people distracted by what I’m wearing in the pulpit. Not that I wear anything outrageous, but in our culture, we as women are continually judged by our clothing. Even if someone’s reaction is “Wow that’s a great dress!” it’s still a distraction. And yes, I alsoregard it as a uniform of sorts, an identifier.

  4. Julia Corbett-Hemeyer, yes, it is different for women.

    Various outlets are starting to report on women who decide to wear just one outfit. Most notably, Harper’s Bazaar ran a piece on this topic way back in 2015. The author, Matilda Kahl, began wearing just one outfit to work. She says negative comments “ended abruptly when Mashable published the widely read, ‘Why Successful Men Wear the Same Thing Every Day.’ It came out almost two years after I had started wearing my uniform, and to some extent, it was a relief. My work ensemble didn’t come off as a mystery anymore. On the downside, I couldn’t help but notice that it appeared as if I needed a male authority to legitimatize my choice of clothing in order for others to truly accept it.”

    Kahl has gone on to become something of a folk hero. But just because Kahl was able to pull this off doesn’t mean all women can pull this off. For a horrific example, read this piece on the Ask a Manager website. Sadly, I can totally see this sort of barely-concealed misogyny happening to a woman minister at a UU congregation.

  5. This is a very timely and interesting page for me today. I had just posted a photo of a group of UU ministers in their brilliant stoles over dark robes. For my tiny UU congregation in Texas this really looks “weird” but interesting. In our more than 50-year history I don’t think we have had a robed and “decorated” minister more than a half-dozen times — as visitors. And in our small, simple building they looked very out of place — at least to some of us. The discussion here about how the practice started and what its various meanings are is quite helpful.

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