This year I have the privilege of being on field placement in a parish with a much more “High Church” tradition than anything I’ve experienced before. This means that when acting as a deacon for services, I’m being vested appropriately; in the photo I’ve put in this post, you can see what “appropriately” means for high feast days. It takes some getting used to. (I showed this photo to one of my not-very-churchy friends and explained that it’s what I wore at Easter. Her rapier-like response was that yes, it did look like an Easter egg wrapper. Ouch).
I’ve found, over the weeks that I’ve been wearing this garment, or a variation of it in different fabrics, that I’ve gone through a process of having to think through what I think and how I feel about it. I started by hating it! I particularly dislike that this garment is one of a hierarchically graded set; the priest, the deacon and the sub-deacon each wears his (or her, in Anglicanism) particular garment which distinguishes their rank and function in the service. And, by the time you’ve noticed that the servers are in plain white robes, and the choir in choir robes, you might be forgiven for thinking that the folks down in the pews aren’t really part of what’s going on at all. Add to that the distortions and problems of clericalism in the church, and I felt that this kind of dress was a glorious technicolor celebration of abuse of power and quenching the Spirit. I could feel the tension in my body increase every time I put it on. But that’s not a sustainable way to be, when you’re trying to minister to people authentically and with genuine respect and engagement with the traditions of their community, so clearly more work was needed.
My supervisor gave me some help. What I had to say about the nature of the church and where it is often not at its best might be true, but consider this; were I not so vested, it might be the case that the only person in the church wearing special clothes during the service would be the presiding priest. Is it not better to have a glorious technicolor statement which says that ministry in this place is a team effort and a shared responsibility? I had to think about that. I don’t think it’s a whole answer; it might be a shared ministry, but it’s still hierarchically graded, and I’m not convinced that us-against-them is intrinsically better than one-against-them when it comes to visual symbols of authority and leadership. But it’s a start, perhaps, and an important point; this is not all about any one person.
The real breakthrough, though, as is so often the case, came when I had to swap arguing partner and defend the dalmatic in conversation against those who were critical of it (and of the parish and its tradition more generally). In order to do that, I had to go back to first principles; not just, why the dalmatic? But what, and why, a deacon? Or at least, what and why a deacon, doing what a deacon does in the Eucharistic liturgy? I took the reading of the gospel as my starting point for that. In this tradition, it is the deacon who reads the gospel; and not only that, but who physically carries the gospel in procession into the main body of the congregation, announces it, censes it, and proclaims it. And the thing is, while this is done in this setting by the deacon, in doing so the deacon represents something of the nature and work of all the baptised believers. We are each, as part of our Christian vocation, called to carry, announce and proclaim the gospel. I am reminded of the verse from 2 Corinthians 2:14: “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.” The role the deacon fulfills at this part of the service shows us (and allows us to hear and smell as well) in a very concrete way, something of who we are called to be, and what we are called to do. And in that context, what does rich vesture add to that message? It seems to me that it says something about the nature of that vocation, to be in triumphal procession. It says something of the honour and dignity the children of God are afforded, in being entrusted with this great responsibility.
Coming to terms with symbols in this way can be a personal, and even rather idiosyncratic exercise. It’s quite possible that no one else, looking at or wearing a dalmatic, will form quite the same ideas about what it can mean (and it’s quite probable that my ideas will continue to develop). But that message, of the vocation of all Christians as gospel-bearers, afforded honour and dignity in triumphal procession, allows me now to put the dalmatic on without feeling like a hypocrite. It gives me, functioning in that role, a point of connection with the people I’m here to serve, to encourage, and to help build up. And it gives me a point of connection with a living tradition which has persisted for millennia despite its weaknesses, flaws and problems. For that much insight, I am grateful.