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 strongly influenced by African philosophy, this seemed like a serendipitous find. Plus the stole was made by an “artisan [who was] fairly compensated.”)