Of all the chapters in The Red Book, I found the most sympathy with this one. Not because there are fewer distortions in this chapter than in the others. Historical ineptitudes still abound, such as the assertion that “When Constantine moved his court to Byzantium...the official Roman dress was gradually adopted by the priests and deacons. The clergy were now identified by their garb, which matched that of secular officials.” Close, but not quite: in fact, the clergy in the days of the fourth centuries and beyond were not identified by their garb. Like everyone else including the Christian laity, they wore the normal secular clothing of men of their social station, “which matched those of secular officials”. To quote from Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy, “sacerdotal functioning in ordinary dress did prevail in Christian usage everywhere...All over christendom ecclesiastical vestments derive from the lay dress of the upper classes in the imperial period”. The clergy wore “the ordinary lay gentleman’s dress of the day” (Shape, p.399, 400). When fashions changed in the world, they did not in the church, so that the vestments in which the clergy now serve Liturgy are still the usual work-a-day clothes of the “lay gentleman” in an earlier period—though admittedly stylized and fancied up quite a bit.
But, we may ask, if St. John Chrysostom served Liturgy in his usual clothes, shouldn’t clergy today do the same? If he appeared in the public streets of Constantinople in ordinary clothing, why do the clergy now where a cassock when in public (or perhaps the “clerical collar”)? For this does constitute a change.
The answers to these two related questions are both rooted in the same freedom, the Christian flexibility to do whatever proves necessary to meet the needs of the time. Certain things in the Church do not change and cannot change, such as its apostolic Faith and its fundamental Tradition. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, and so the Church’s saving Gospel and proclamation of Truth must remain the same forever also. But certain other things can change and must change if the church is to fulfill its divine mandate and meet the changing needs of its people.
Take the catechumenate for example. In the early days of the Church, one did not need such a long period in the catechumenate, for the hostile pagan environment in which the Church lived and in which it suffered persecution was sufficient to “weed out” potential converts who were not serious about serving Christ. After the Peace of Constantine, conversion to Christianity offered certain social advantages, and some people asked for baptism who were not sufficiently serious about the Faith. Thus, in order to both offer the Faith to all and yet still keep the standards high, a more lengthy catechumenate was now required. The Church thus changed an outward detail to preserve unchanged its inner life. Changing situations mean the Church must respond with flexibility.
Clerical garb is one of these changing things. The Red Book objects to clerical garb because it sets the clergy visually apart from the laity. That is precisely why the Church should use clerical garb—to distinguish the clergy from the laity, and to express the glory of the Liturgy in a public setting.
It is just here that it becomes important to recognize that we live within the flow of history, and that there is no such thing as an ecclesiastical time machine. We cannot return to an earlier state of affairs, even if we wanted to. For example, in the second century, there was no set New Testament canon, no universally agreed upon list of New Testament books that corresponds to what we have today. That canon was then still evolving. That was fine for then; history was still flowing. But if one tries to return to the situation of the second century and assert that the New Testament canon is still open and not yet established, one will err grievously. Not yet having a canon is one thing; rejecting the established canon in an attempt to rewind history is quite another. If one did indeed dispense with the set canon and asserted that the question of canon was still an open one, one would not be like the pious Christians of the second century, but would be like the impious ones of the twenty-first century. “Time marches on” as the saying goes, and there is no such thing as a time machine. We cannot step into the same flowing river twice.
It is the same with clerical street garb and liturgical vestments. There was a time when the clergy did not have them, but they did not have them not because they rejected such clothing, but because this development had not yet taken place. But for the clergy now to serve in secular clothing would precisely involve rejecting them, and taking a stand against them in a way that the early church never did. History has moved on, and we still live within its flow. For good or for ill, the Church has chosen to garb its clergy in distinctive clothing. On the street this expresses the difference between clergyman and layman; at the Liturgy it expresses the glory of the Liturgy and honours the Lord’s sacramental Presence. For the Church now to reject such clothing and dispense with them would be to make a statement that clergy are not different than laity, and that the Liturgy is not the sacramental Presence of Christ which we say it is. And it is just these false statements that the Church cannot make.
The street garb the clergy—the cassock or clerical collar—is in fact a uniform, and it is worn for the same reason that all uniforms are worn—to identify its wearer as having a certain task. When one needs a policeman, one looks for the uniform. When one sets apart a man for military duty, one puts him in a uniform. When a physician works in a hospital, he works in a uniform. People in fact want to see these people thus uniformed while they work, and are comforted by it. It is the same with the priest—the uniform sets him visibly apart, so that he is available when needed. The Red Book naturally resists the uniform, because it rejects the concept of clergy. But those who have a clergy will want to have their clergy visible.
The liturgical vestments of the clergy serve a somewhat different purpose, that of adding to the total splendour of the liturgical celebration. In this sense the priest’s vestments resemble the bride’s wedding dress, in that both are splendid to celebrate the occasion. They do not serve a practical purpose, but an aesthetic one. The bride could be married in jeans and a t-shirt. The priest could serve Liturgy in a sweat suit. But the bride wears the wedding dress because its splendour witnesses to the importance of the occasion, and expresses her joy. In the same way, the priest wears vestments because this witnesses to the glory of the Lord and expresses the fact of His sacramental Presence. For the bride and groom to be married in casual clothing would be to make a statement about the casualness with which they regarded their union. For the priest to reject the historic use of vestments and serve Liturgy in a sweat suit would be to make a statement about the absence of any sacramental Presence. The Evangelical Protestant churches are just being consistent when they reject liturgical vestments, for they have already rejected such a sacramental Presence. In the same way, the Orthodox are just being consistent in retaining liturgical vestments, for we maintain the historic belief in the sacramental Presence. Priestly vestments are not “an affront to the spiritual principles that govern the house of God” as the authors of The Red Book allege. Since the vestments became customary centuries ago, they are an expression of those principles—namely, of the role of the clergy within the Church, and the sacramental Presence of Christ within the Church’s Eucharist.