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Decently habited, LXXXIV: The question of the Geneva Gown

May 22, 2012

We do write at length on the virtues of choir dress.  The surplice and cassock are a handsome and liturgically appropriate vestment choice for clergy officiating the Eucharist and the Daily Office.  But what of our Protestant brothers and sisters who don the heavy black robe with wide sleeves and velvet panels which mimic a tippet?  Why the departure from the norm?

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                                                                          One of these things is not like the other…

The Geneva gown originates from the time of the Protestant Reformation, and was first worn by Andreas Karlstadt in place of his usual cassock and surplice.  Karlstadt argued that the point of vestiture – to be invisible while serving the people – had been lost during the reign of Mary and the height of Catholicism in Great Britain.  Vestments were a painful reminder of popish requirements to conform, and so Karlstadt began wearing the black gown worn by academics at the time.  (He also went on to shed vestments of any kind in church, scrub the service clean of music and art, and reject anything but the spiritual presence of Christ in the Eucharist.)  Martin Luther first balked at the substitution to the black gown, but he also began wearing his academic robe instead of clerical vestments.  Thus a tradition was born.

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Andreas Karlstadt in his academic robes, the precursor to the contemporary Geneva Gown.

While the surplice remains the primary vestment for Episcopal clergy today, the Geneva gown has become the standard for many Protestant ministers as well as remaining to be the foundational academic vestment.  United Methodist, Baptist, Brethren, and some Lutheran clerics will wear the robe when leading the church in worship.  While the Geneva Gown does not have a role in Episcopal liturgy, we applaud the spirit which brought about its use.  This is a gown that aims to make one invisible, even while doing the very personal work of preaching a sermon. It aims to set aside the ego.  The Protestant preoccupation with what is “adiaphora” notwithstanding, the Geneva gown reminds us that God calls us to serve the world as Christ’s own, not as our own.  We do not dress decently because it is attractive to do so, or because we are prescribed to conform to a certain doctrine or discipline.  We dress decently because CHRISTIANITY IS NOT ABOUT YOU.

For that, brethren, we salute you.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. David permalink
    May 22, 2012 20:00

    The question of vesting in black and white is still an issue in the Lutheran church today. As a member and candidate for ordination in the ELCA we use the white. Most have adopted the cassock-alb but those of us who understand vesting use choir dress and traditional albs. Similar are the Missouri Synod Lutherans. When you get to the right theologically of the LCMS, you tend to get the black. This can be found in the Wisconsin Synod (WELS) and the Mankato Synod (ELS).

    This debate in Lutherandom goes back to the Reformation and the fight between Matthias Flacius and Philipp Malenchthon. Flacius was against the white, going so far to say that the surplice was so billowy so the antichrist could hide underneath and if anyone wore an alb, he was personally rejecting all the reforms Luther fought for. Malenchthon on the other hand suppoerted the use of the white and the keeping of the high mass, as he explained in the opening paragraph of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession. For the most part Malenchthon won out, especially after Flacius was branded as a heretic.

    Another issue for the Lutherans was the wholesale adoption of the Geneva gown by the Swiss reformers, hence why it is called a Geneva gown and not a Wittenburg gown. The logic became this: We’re not Calvinists. We’re not Zwinglians. We do not want to be confused with them either. So we don’t wear black.

    Also as a Lutheran, yes worship is adiaphora. But just because something is adiaphora doesn’t mean that it should be taken lightly or not seriously. I take worship seriously. I take vesting seriously. Unfortunately not many of my colleagues, especially in the ELCA, feel the same way.

  2. Isaac permalink
    June 6, 2012 17:49

    The Geneva Gown, no, but cassock, bands, gown and tippet, yes! Wouldn’t that be how services outside of Prayerbook offices be ‘decently habited?’

  3. evelynunderhill permalink*
    June 6, 2012 21:11

    For an Anglican service of worship, yes, the cassock and alb are expected. But for our friends in other denominations, the Geneva gown is true to their historical liturgical traditions. I applaud any UMC, Lutheran, Baptist, or Presbyterian who wears a Geneva gown at all, knowing full well that in many American churches these days, vestments are often optional.

  4. Richard Bowley permalink
    September 26, 2012 04:57

    As a student studying for ordination into the Independent Lutheran Diocese, the appearance of the Pulpit robe outside of Calvinism comes from the works of Pr. Pillip Jakob Spener, whose influence is based on the book, “Pia Desideria.” As such, you see the black robe being common in Continental Europe and the WELS. We in the ILD take pride in putting on the full TRADITIONAL vestments, much like our brethren in the LCMS and the German SELK, the latter being a reminant of the pre-merger Prussian Lutheran Church.

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