Project Canterbury

From The Works of the Rt. Rev. Charles C. Grafton (Volume 6),
edited by B. Talbot Rogers, New York: Longmans, Green, 1914, pp. 16-20

Plain Suggestions for a Reverent Celebration of the Holy Communion

by Bishop Charles Chapman Grafton


Chapter IV

The Vestments of the Celebrant

From an early date it has been the custom of the Christian Church for those set apart to minister in holy things to wear in divine service a distinctive dress. To distinguish the Holy Communion as the only service ordained by Christ Himself, an appropriate vestment has ever been worn by the priest officiating at the celebration of it. One fact proves this. There are several historical churches which have possessed a continuous life since the Nicene era, namely, the Latin, the Orthodox Greek, the Syrian, the Coptic, the Armenian, and the Nestorian. The two former have been parted for nearly a thousand years. The four latter have been parted from one another and from the two former ever since the Council of Chalcedon, in AD 451. Any point on which they are agreed must therefore go back to the middle of the fifth century, and, unless there be some record of its formal introduction, must be part of their consentaneous tradition from a still earlier time. They all do agree in the use of specific eucharistic vestments, There are also written rubrical directions in one of the oldest extant forms of Christian liturgies (the Apostolic Constitutions), directing the celebrant to put on this vestment. Thus the use of distinctive vestments for the Holy Communion is not, as is sometimes ignorantly supposed, an imitation of Rome, but is a Catholic and primitive custom. This eucharistic dress, which was not only recognised but enjoined by the Reformers (the rubric regulating its use being still in the English Prayer-Book), consists of three principal pieces, namely, an under and an upper garment and a stole.

The under garment is of linen, and is called, from its white colour, an alb. It is like a surplice, only with scantier folds and sleeves, and so better adapted than the surplice to be worn under another garment. Probably the present surplice is only the amplification of the alb, and they are one and the same garment; the alb growing into the more ample Anglican surplice, or shrinking into the Italian form, because used alone. The common sense of the matter is this: that one portion of this clerical dress, called a surplice when used alone, is worn in saying Morning and Evening Prayer; but when the highest act of Christian worship is performed it is but fit that the priest should be fully vested, that is, should wear the upper garment, or chasuble, over his under one, then called an alb. It is to be remembered, however, that this dress cannot fairly be forced into having further doctrinal significance than already belongs to the surplice. The surplice, or alb, is a vestment, as all the contentions of the English Puritans show, identified in the popular mind with the idea of priesthood, and the chasuble is no more a sacerdotal garb than it. It was the recognition of this fact that led to the Surplice Riots in London many years ago, when the academical black gown was discarded in the pulpit, and the clergy took to preaching in the surplice. If one may use the analogy of an earthly army and its terms, it has seemed to the Church more becoming that the priest should, when he comes to celebrate the one service ordained by Christ Himself, be in full uniform.

The alb has for practical purposes a movable collar, which is a small oblong piece of linen called an amice. It can be more often washed and changed than the alb, and its object is to protect the stole and chasuble from being soiled about the neck, and is put on in such a way as to fulfil this purpose.

The alb is usually made somewhat long, in order to be usable by all the clergy connected with or visiting a church. It is adjusted to the height of the individual wearing it by a girdle, which also is used to keep the stole in its place. The chasuble, or upper garment of the primitive form, is of a circular or oval shape, having no opening, save on in the centre for the head.

The origin of these two parts of the clerical vesture, the alb and the chasuble, has been much investigated by German and English writers of late years. Some assert that they are derived from the vestments of the Jewish priests, others that they are derived from the dress of the Roman citizen. The better opinion seems to be that the dress is of Eastern origin, and was the ordinary garb used by Our Lord and His apostles. Their own dress would, of course, be worn by the apostles into whatever part of the world they went; and would continue to be used, through the conservative spirit of the early Church, as the church vestments, amid the various changes of different national costumes. These vestments, having come down to use, help to mark the continuity of our Church with the Church of primitive times. They are part of our rightful inheritance as Christians and Catholics. They are sanctioned by the usage and order of the Reformers. They are by their primitive form and design a constant and visible protest against Romanism and its modern ways. Various symbolical meanings have been invented by wise and unwise minds respecting these vestments. It is as free for any one now as ever to give any spiritual meaning to any one of the garments as may be of help to himself. It is probable that the general style of dress is the same as the one worn by the Lord; it may remind us of Him as the one High Priest.

The material of the chasuble may be of linen or silk, but the latter is preferable., If our Church’s order of received worship allows the use of the black silk gown in the pulpit, there is no reason why a silk one of white or any other colour may not be worn in honour of our Lord at the altar.

As the chasuble is the special eucharistic vestment, it should not be worn at any other service.

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