Project Canterbury

Discerning the Lord's Body
The Rationale of a Catholic Democracy

By Frederic Hastings Smyth, Ph.D.
Superior of the Society of the Catholic Commonwealth

Louisville, Kentucky: The Cloister Press, 1946.

Appendix IV. Ecclesiastical Vestments and Catholic Democracy

The principal traditional vestment worn by the celebrating Priest at Mass is the Chasuble. This vestment, whose name (from the late Latin Casula, meaning "little house") shows its origin, was, in the Church's early days, simply the customary garment of any ordinary male citizen of the ancient Western world. Essentially it is a circular piece of material with a hole cut in its center so that it can be put over the head and thus fall in folds about the shoulders. If it is large enough it may even reach to the ground and thus envelop the entire figure of the wearer.

It should be noted that the Chasuble is not derived from the exclusive garment of a Roman Patrician or aristocrat. It is not derived from a toga. It is therefore not the garment of economic or social class privilege. Originally it might well have been worn by slaves and freedmen, by professional people or by tradesmen. It corresponds, in its obviously utilitarian quality, to the simple poncho of the Americas.

Both Priest and people should remember this when the Chasuble is worn at the Altar. It is in the tradition of the common people who first heard Our Lord gladly; and those who first gathered at His Altar tended to be drawn from among the poor and the underprivileged. It is the garment of this class of people which the Priest, as representative of the Divine Community, still wears.

Today this garment is often made of finest stuff and is beautifully worked and embroidered. Through its form it still remains the symbol of the Church's continuity with an original movement among the lower economic classes of the Roman Empire towards a Divine Revolution which threatened the very existence of the contemporary economic and political ruling class, the class which wore the toga. At the same time, through its beauty of adornment and the glory of its gold and silver thread, it now has a prophetic reference. It still carries its ancient threat against social and economic injustice; but it refers this threat to the future as well. It asserts that this garment shall be made rich and splendid for all men everywhere. It asserts that the garments of the poor and the underprivileged shall share in the same rich beauty and abundance here set forth. It prophesies that the common people shall share justly in these things even though it require an economic revolution to accomplish it, even though those who are now unjustly clothed with the modern equivalent of the toga, and who therefore resist the adornment of the Chasuble for the exploited men and women upon whom they fatten and grow rich, must for their part be unclothed and overthrown. It is significant that after the Reformation period in England [202/203] another garment called the Surplice came into almost universal use as the vestment of the Priest at Mass. This garment too has its history. Its name is derived from the late Latin super pellicium. It means literally something worn over a fur coat. In the medieval church in northern climes the church buildings were often cold. The monks who served them needed warm clothing and their habits were often equipped with fur capes and hoods. They therefore had need of a decent white linen garment for wear in choir, but one which could be put on without removing their furs. To meet this need, that voluminous garment which came to be known as the sur-pellisse, the Surplice, was devised.

The origin of the Surplice is entirely analogous to the origin of those peculiarly full-cut flannel trousers known as "Oxford slacks." The men of the Oxford colleges, shortly after the first world war, were wont to play golf during the afternoon attired in full-cut knee breeches known as "plus fours." When these men returned from athletics to tea, it was both bothersome and time consuming to change from plus fours to conventional trousers. Yet convention decreed that plus fours could not appear around the tea tables. Some bright youth got the idea of having flannel trousers cut so amply that they might be pulled on over the golfing togs. Thus the problem was solved to the great satisfaction of everyone.

In but a little time the full-cut Oxford slacks came to be worn as a kind of highly fashionable attire in their own right. But these flannel garments, like the Surplice, are the garments of a privileged class of people. Those who work in mines and factories have relatively little time for golf in their early afternoons, nor are they bothered by the problem of being forbidden by convention to appear later at tea while dressed in full-cut knee breeches. So Oxford slacks came for a time to be a symbol of leisurely upper-class life, and their fashion endured long after their functional need had passed with the passing of the prior fashion of plus fours. Likewise, Anglican Priests no longer need wear fur capes in their comfortably heated church buildings, but they still regularly don the garments of their forbears in class privilege who first invented the flowing Surplice.

Because the Surplice has its origin in the special needs of a peculiar ecclesiastical group, it is in no sense symbolically the garment of the common man, but rather that of a privileged, a protected and a highly specialized class. It is almost uncanny to see by what unerringly keen historical instinct the Anglican Communion, itself notoriously the church of an upper and a privileged economic class, has seized upon this flowing white garment of privilege and class separation as the symbol of its peculiar ethos. When the Anglican Priest dons his Surplice, he does not identify himself representatively with the common man, nor with the movement of the Christian masses towards the economic justice of the Kingdom of God. Instead, he [203/204] puts on a garment not merely analogous to the toga, but one which looks in fact very much like one. Thus he symbolically separates himself haughtily from common outsiders, while he confirms his own well-fenced and comfortable flock in all the smooth complacencies of its economic privilege and aloofness.

As if the use of the Surplice at Mass were not a sufficient affront to all decent people who understand the symbols of historical development, many Bishops of the Anglican Communion also refuse to vest themselves as democratic representatives of the common people of the Church. The proper democratic Liturgical dress of a Catholic Bishop (as well as for a Priest upon certain occasions) has an origin like that of the Chasuble. It is a simple, full-cut cape, now called a Cope. Originally it had a hood attached at the neck which could be pulled up to protect the head. It was the ancient common man's protection against storms and cold. To this day its Latin name is still the Pluviale, the "rain coat." But Anglican Bishops prefer in many instances to wear a curious clothing combination known as the Rochet and Chimere. This Episcopal habit is strictly speaking not a Liturgical vestment at all. It is a kind of clothing which, in medieval times, had come to be worn by Bishops when they sat in the politically undemocratic House of Lords, or when they attended Court functions either of a social or state character. Thus, by his dress in church, the typical Anglican Bishop now adds his own symbolic witness to that of the Priest's Surplice, to the effect that he is not a representative of the common man, that he scorns the everyday garments of the working class and that he is an undemocratic ruler, preferring to identify himself with the ruling class of aristocracy and economic privilege.

Let the common people of the Church ponder these tilings when they see their Priests in Surplices and their Bishops in Rochet and Chimere. For these outer symbols of history do not emerge purely by meaningless accident. They are instead the true expressions of the very genius of an upper class-conscious Church. And whether individual Bishops and Priests personally understand these tilings or not, when they refuse to wear the Cope and Chasuble they identify themselves with a privilege and a class reaction which is still to be overthrown by democratic Christians. When they reject the Cope and Chasuble of the ancient Catholic Democracy, they refuse to wear representatively the garments of the common people everywhere. When the people see these things let them be warned that "their" Bishops and Priests have got democratically out of hand.

Let the Bishops and Priests of the Anglican Communion change their privileged class-conscious garments for the ancient democratic clothing of the people's Catholic Church. But let them do this for the right reasons. Let them do it not for reasons of modem pomp and circumstance, nor yet for reasons of mere aesthetic satisfaction. [204/205] Let them again don the Cope and the Chasuble as an act of democratic humility. Let them eschew the prelacy of royal or abbatial dress. Let them proclaim openly and to every eye that they are the servants not only of God, but of Our Lord's Redeemed People. Let them dutifully wear that People's representative clothing, to serve and to exalt, and not to oppress, the common man.

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