Vestments: the Cassock
It seems, judging from our travels throughout the Episcopal Church, that most clergy (outside of the High and Low Church margins1) haven’t the faintest idea about the garments they put on their bodies when they come before the Lord to worship. They wear what they have seen others wear, and mostly they seem to have little understanding of the history behind any of what hangs within their vestry closets. How else to explain the ubiquity of that most wretched innovation, the cassock-alb? We regard this as a problem, since an understanding of history will usually answer questions of use and appropriateness. As it is the clergy that are trained to lead in both the temporal and sacred concerns of the Church, it behooves them –– and us laymen –– to possess some understanding.
Simply put, the cassock is the basic garment of the Christian clergy. This cannot be overstated. Dearmer writes that “The Cassock in its English traditional form is double-breasted without buttons down the front, and kept in position by a broad sash. In this form it was worn (generally with the gown) as the usual out-door dress of the English clergy down to the beginning of the present century.”2 When one visits the cathedrals of England, or visits the Vatican, one sees the clergy going about, whether indoors or out, in their cassocks. In the English cathedrals and better-visited churches, the vergers (being professional members of the staff) will not appear within the walls of the church itself in street clothes. In Oxford and Cambridge (and any other locus of educated clergy), members of the faculty in Holy Orders will wear their hood and gown over their cassocks, while their lay peers make due with suit and tie.
The cassock descends from the Roman tunic, which was worn beneath the toga, and it shares a history almost entirely with the monastic habit. As everyday dress developed away from the tunic and toga, clerical dress (as with most everything else in the Church) was slower to change, and so the cassock was retained.
As noted above, the Anglican version is (properly) double breasted, made of Russell cord or wool, and gathered at the waist either with a band of the same material or with a leather strap. It will usually have a single button in the center of the chest from which to suspend the wearer’s academic hood. It will properly not have cuffs, which is a Roman custom. The Romans, for their part, favor the less-attractive single-breasted version. While all sorts of variations in color may be seen, the only really correct color for most of the clergy is black. Bishops may wear purple, deans and archdeacons may wear black with violet piping, canons black with red piping (at right).
But we should not get distracted by color schemes. The point of the cassock is that it should not set apart the wearer as an individual; rather the cassock, as the distinctive garment of the Christian clergy, should identify its wearer as a person in Orders, or as a deputy thereof and a servant of the Church. Its chief function (other than covering the body) is unifying, of substantiating the corporate set-apartness of those who have made their vows to Christ and to his Church. While some might call this runaway clericalism, our view is that so long as the clergy exist, a robust though not domineering clericalism is not in the least unwarranted.
With the cassock as the basic garb of those who serve the Church, all other garments –– the surplice, the scarf, the albe and the Eucharistic vestments –– all are worn over the cassock, and for worship alone. Once this is understood, one realizes that it not mere convention that a choir may be seen rehearsing before a church services in their cassocks alone (as at right), only to then appear in procession vested in surplices. The surplice is a worship garment, donned properly only for divine service. A choir no more vests in a surplice to warm up than a bride would don her gown for the wedding rehearsal. In this distinction lies the primary objection to the hated cassock-alb: it confounds the sacred with the everyday (since clergy are always seen walking around in it at coffee hour). The albe is a separate garment, with a separate purpose, and to neglect its particular use is to neglect the respect due to what the modern Church claims as its most central act of worship: the Eucharist. Eucharistic vestments are not for walking around. The cassock-alb is cheap, lazy, and incorrect, at all times and in all places.
As the Encyclopaedia Britannica puts it: “The cassock, though part of the canonical costume of the clergy, is not a liturgical vestment. It was originally the out-of-doors and domestic dress of lay-people as well as clergy, and its survival among the latter when the secular fashions had changed is merely the outcome of ecclesiastical conservatism.”3 So there we have it. Know what you’re wearing.
1. It is interesting to note that the extremes often have more in common with one another than with the great mass of Broad Churchmen between them. It is more interesting to note that the High and Low Church parties, being largely in protest positions, are more or less the only ones with definite, researched views on ecclesiology.
2. Percy Dearmer. The Parson’s Handbook (London: Grant Richards, 1899), 81.
3. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition (1911).