Is wearing robes missional?

I was recently given a really cool gift — the pulpit gown of the great preacher Ernest T. Campbell, once pastor of the Riverside Church in New York. Campbell died a few years ago, and thus is probably one of last of the great “pulpit princes.” Here’s a link to a sermon manuscript– and this sermon could easily be preached this Sunday and no one would know it’s forty years old!

So I was and am thrilled to be given this robe, and I’m getting it back from the cleaners today (oh, baby, did it need that!).

I wonder, though, should a missional preacher wear a robe to preach in worship? In the Reformed tradition the pulpit robe is usually a Geneva gown, just like academic robes, and just like judicial robes. It leads me ask to what does this robe symbolize, and what symbolic function does it serve in the worship service?

On the positive side, a robe like this symbolizes the office of preaching, and particularly in the Reformed tradition the office of teaching elder. Perhaps wearing this robe functions to distinguish the office of preaching, so that the congregation focuses not on the person preaching but on the theological significance of what is happening: God is speaking to (even creating) the church through the proclamation of the Word.

On the other hand, the robe symbolizes the clergy — and in its worst forms clericalism — and perhaps even links us to judges and professors. At the very least, it symbolizes the separation between those who are ordained “professional” ministers, and those who aren’t. Perhaps, then, the robe functions to distance the congregation from their own priesthood, their calling as interpreters of the Word, and their own agency as ministers of the gospel and preachers of the Good News.

So I don’t know… what do you think? Do clerical robes have a place in missional worship? Or is it time to hang up the robes?

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