To Robe or Not to Robe

“In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandments of God and hold to human tradition.”  Mark 7: 7-8

I had a real dilemma this week as to whether I would offer a reflection on the romantic love poem of the Song of Solomon or the rich opportunities in the Gospel of Mark as Jesus rails against the Pharisees and their almost single-minded devotion to upholding religious traditions that are more human in origin than divine.

romantic coupleI was tempted to play with the Song of Solomon. Just the fact that we almost never hear a sermon from the erotic love poems of the Song of Solomon tells us something about who we are. What we avoid tells as much of a story as what we choose to preach from the pulpit. I wouldn’t say that I am avoiding the Song of Solomon this week. It’s just that this text on human vs. Godly traditions in Mark is so apt to our current ecclesiastical future that I can’t miss an opportunity to offer some reflective thoughts. Love poems will come later, I promise!

Since beginning my position as the Presbyter for Vision and Mission ten months ago I have found myself running through a little exercise every time I preach in a church. The question always comes up as to whether I should wear a robe or not. I share this with you because the exercise that I move through each time seems to have its basis in this distinction between honoring a human tradition or honoring a sacred covenant (a commandment from God).

Warner Mountains
Hiking in the Warner Mountains just 20 minutes east of Lakeview

This last week was a perfect example. I preached in Lakeview—the lovely, but isolated town in SE Oregon that is nestled right at the foot of the Warner Mountains and boasts miles of hiking trails, mountain biking, fishing, hunting and even a ski area just ten minutes from town. I asked my host before I left Portland, “What is your tradition with regard to robes? Should I wear a robe or not?” She told me, “Wear whatever you are comfortable with, but I am sure many would appreciate seeing a pastor in a robe.”

It may seem counterintuitive, but I decided not to wear a robe. I dressed in a pair of sharp-looking dress slacks and equally sharp dress shirt with matching tie and topped it all off with my Guatemalan stole. This way I could look respectable and pastoral all at the same time. But I also decided to preach without a manuscript and walk among the congregation in the center aisle.

The funny thing is that I am not consistent church to church in what I wear and how I preach. In the past few months I have worn on a couple of occasions my white preaching robe and preached from the traditional pulpit. On one occasion I preached wearing a pair of jeans and a short-sleeved casual dress shirt and opened up the sermon to questions and comments. One might think that I am wishy washy. Most often I follow the pattern of the pastor. Does she wear a robe? Does he usually preach from the pulpit or in the aisles?

Lakeview PCIn the case of Lakeview it was made clear to me my host both let me know that my comfort was important to them, but that it sure would make a lot of people happy to see a pastor in a robe. But I didn’t think that that is what Lakeview most needed. The future of the church is not dependent on recovering a higher liturgy. The future is dependent on connecting with the people and the community.

What I realized about how I go about my decision to robe or not has less to do with the particular tradition of that particular church and more to do with how my choice to robe or not helps them experience the presence of the Sacred on Sunday and connect to their community.

Robing up in the pulpit is really a human tradition. It is an important tradition, but nowhere in the Bible do I see a clear commandment that wearing clerical collars or flowing robes is morally and spiritually mandatory. No, what is mandatory is finding ways to connect with our fellow brothers and sisters. What is mandatory is a worship that has integrity, is respectful, is rich in meaning and helps people connect with God. What is mandatory is finding ways to love God and neighbor.

I believe the future of the presbytery and the future of our congregations will be dependent on sorting through our traditions and deciding what goes on the list of important human traditions and what goes on the list of God’s “must haves”.

Robing or not robing is not all that important. What is important is connecting with God and connecting with neighbor. What is important is not placing any barrier in our worship that separates us from God. A robe can be a barrier, but so can nakedness!

It’s not about robes. It’s about whether what we wear or don’t wear invites us to sacred connection.

3 thoughts on “To Robe or Not to Robe

  1. Brian, I loved this discussion. So true. Hope you are having a great, fulfilling summer… out of the smoke. Carol

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. We had this issue in my last church. I like the robes, smells, bells, and midget races (acolytes) … most of the time. It reminds me we have a tradition that is the Presbyterian Church that has held up against time. The Robes hide signify the office and validate scholarship of the minister’s service to the congregation and he blends in with the choir, so that we concentrate on The Word and not what he’s wearing. And it reminds me we aren’t ConEvangelicals or Baptists..

    Our minister refused to wear one, except for special occasion – funeral or baptism – even though we requested for him to do so during the normal church year. It was a symptom of a larger problem where the minister started doing things his way, most of Session didn’t understand what was okay and what was not. He even started a “praise” service outside of Sunday and lied to Session about serving communion during it.

    I left 5 yo, and haven’t been back to church at all. The minister left the church and is working outside of the presbytery.

    So, I do believe that it’s proper to wear the robes according to the congregation’s tradition. It is a testament to our long tradition. We’re not going to Hell for not wearing them. But I wonder now at someone who won’t wear them.


    1. Hi Todd, Thank you for sharing your experience. The big question I see emerging is how much do we honor the integrity of our tradition and how much do we adapt in order to better connect with our neighbors and community. I think every congregation has to find their own way through that.


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