Decently habited, LXXXIV: The question of the Geneva Gown
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?
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.
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.