The advent of the use of the 'GENEVA GOWN' in public worship

August 30, 1983

D. G. Laird

Since I have been the Minister of Ellesmere United Church we have concentrated upon the Sunday morning worship experience as central to the life of our congregation.

Prior to my ministry at Ellesmere the congregation was involved in a program which involved a variety of ministers from different denominations leading worship services. The congregation experienced worship in the style of various Protestant denominations as well as Anglican and Roman Catholic.

Recently we issued to the congregation a questionnaire asking for personal views on all aspects of worship, including questions relating to our practices of Holy Communion.

One morning I wanted to tell the Congregation why I wear what I wear every Sunday morning--a black 'Geneva' gown and my Bachelor of Divinity hood.

My gown was given to me by James Miller, Marilyn's Father, when I was ordained in 1968. I really didn't know much about the reasons for the gown at that time apart from the fact that everyone else wore one like, although a few of my colleagues had chosen a colour other than black.

I didn't have a simple explanation to give to the congregation. I wasn't even sure why it was called a 'Geneva' gown. Dictionaries and Encyclopedias were not of much help. Their answers were so general.

I decided to focus my 1983 study leave on this question.


Prior to the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church, which at that time was the only Church in Europe, prescribed the garments clergy were to wear depending upon their different positions within the Church and the particular functions they were performing. A Priest had different vestments than a Bishop or a Deacon. And his garments varied if he were officiating at Holy Communion, or Marriage, or was being ordained. I am sure that the exact appearance of the garments were different in different countries. But the garments were named in common and used for similar functions.

All of this changed with the Reformation.


The Reformation began when Martin Luther formulated his complaints about abuses within his Church and nailed them in the form of 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The year 1517 was to be, in a way, the date of the birth of all non-Roman Churches in Europe and the West.

Martin Luther was the first Reformer of the Reformation, but there were many others as well. Each town which was reformed had its own clerical leader who was the Reformer.

Martin Luther and his successor Philip Melanchthon were prominent in Germany. Ullrich Zwingli and his successor Heinrich Bullinger were the reformers of Zurich, Switzerland. John Calvin and his successor Theodore Beza were the reformers of Geneva, Switzerland. Among the many other prominent Reformers were Martin Bucer of Strasbourg and John Knox of Scotland. All of these men played their part in the question of clergy vestments.


It was not Martin Luther who first attacked the practice of clergy wearing ornate vestments. Andreas Karlstadt was a compatriot of Luther's--a professor at the University of Wittenberg, who had awarded the Doctorate to Martin Luther and spoke at Luther's side during the great debates at the Universities which followed Luther's challenge to the Church.

While Luther hid from the Pope's representatives in the Wartburg Castle, Karlstadt proceeded with radical changes in the worship service at the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Christmas Day 1521, Andreas Karlstadt performed a "Mass" like nothing ever seen before in Germany. He had rewritten the Mass in a simplified version which he proceeded to utter in German. For the congregation this would have been their first experience hearing the Mass in their own language. For the first time he gave the bread and wine into the very hands of the people.

Karlstadt rejected the traditional clergy vestments and adopted instead his 'regular clothes'. Because he was a Professor he wore his black academic gown. Roland Bainton described this remarkable event as "officiating without vestments in a plain black robe".

When Luther heard what Karlstadt had done he was furious. Luther believed in reform but not in revolution. He felt that changes should be proceeded with in an orderly fashion and with full approval of the representatives of the people. Karlstadt had no approval at all for his action.

The black gown, which Karlstadt had initiated, appeared with various local modifications all over Europe. Luther himself wore the black gown three years later.


The ornamentation of the Church and the clergy and some of the practices within the Church were called, in the Reformation period, "Adiaphora", meaning 'nonessentials'. Some things were essential to the correct practice of Christianity. These were evident from the record of the early Church in the New Testament. Many practices had been added during the centuries of the Roman Catholic Church. Human traditions had entered in, which were not essential.

However there were great arguments as to what was essential and what were 'Adiaphora'. And even where there was agreement as to what were called 'Adiaphora' there was further disagreement as to how to handle these 'nonessentials'. Some felt that if they were nonessential they should be disposed of immediately. Others felt if they were nonessential there was not much harm in them. Other maintained that it was all right for the local magistrates or rulers to regulate these matters.


Luther considered that the freedom of the Christian conscience must be maintained. The externals of worship were not very important to him. It was important that the masses of people have the proper respect for authority, for they were prone to uprising and revolution. The Church should humbly petition the secular authorities,(Emperor, Prince or Lord) to make the changes in an orderly fashion and with proper process. It was not wrong to continue the use of externals like vestments, as long as there was no worshipping of the objects themselves. Karlstadt was, in Luther's eyes, impudent and insubordinate in his relationships with the secular authorities. He was trying to establish a new legalism, even in the area of the humble Christian life.

Karlstadt considered Luther's vestment (his "cowl") an example of "suspect holiness". He maintained that there is an effect to other people from the clothes a person wears. It is possible to deceive simple people with costly clothes. If a fool wears velvet he is considered noble and intelligent. Christ's life was simple. The Christian should follow Christ's example by living a simple life. Preaching in simple clothes does not, in Karlstadt's view, give offence to the Word of God. Nor could you bring anyone to God through costly display. The Christian should bring simplicity into all aspects of his life. Jesus was a carpenter. Blisters on the hands were more honourable than gold rings.


It is the height of irony that Andreas Karlstadt, who first wore the academic gown in place of clergy vestments, was later to become dissatisfied with this change. He came to believe that academics were as far removed from the people as the clergy. He then rejected the concept of university degrees and titles. He rejected the academic gown in favour of peasants' garb and took up a farming vocation. He wanted to be called simply "Brother Andreas".

But by this time even Luther had adopted the black academic gown.


Each newly established "reformed" Church on the continent had to face the issue of clergy vestments. The solutions varied.

After the first enthusiasm for the reformed ideas, there was often a period of retreat and compromise. Particularly when the new Church attempted to be inclusive of all the people of the land many of the old practices had to be retained with the new.

The compromises succeeded only to a point. There were those who were so offended by the compromise that they could not remain within the newly-established Church. The rulers were concerned to establish and maintain an orderly Church. Often they solicited the support of a Reformer who was requested to agree publicly to the compromise.

A good example of this happened in Germany. After the death of Martin Luther, his place as reformer was taken by Philip Melanchthon. In 1548 the Emperor Charles V tried to reunite Catholics and Protestants. His consultation for this purpose was called the Augsburg Interim (1548). The Emperor's purpose was to "secure agreement in essential matters and let the government dictate in nonessentials, or adiaphora...".

Malanchthon believed "one should endure human traditions, for the sake of peace, love and order, if they do not obscure faith, nor give an offense, nor destroy one's sense of true doctrine". The result of this consultation was that a cassock and surplice became the required clergy dress, as a compromise between the 'purist' protestant position and the Roman Catholic position.


There was no country where the issue of clergy vestments became more controversial than in England.

The Reformation in England was totally unlike that in any other country, as was the approach to Vestments.

The reason for this was the bizarre events in the life of Henry the Eighth, and in the lives of his wives and children.

In the reign of his daughter Elizabeth a controversy threatened to tear the Church apart--over Clergy Vestments. It was called the Vestiarian Controversy.


Henry VIII had no desire to follow Martin Luther's example of breaking the Church with Rome over the question of reforms. In fact, Henry earned the title of "Defender of the Faith" from the Pope for his public condemnation of Martin Luther.

But Henry wanted a son. When his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, bore him only a daughter, Mary (who was to reign as Mary I--1553-1558), he petitioned the Pope for a divorce from Catherine. The Pope refused. So Henry influenced the Parliament to pass legislation which reduced the Pope to the status in England of any other 'foreign Bishop'.

Henry took for himself (with Parliament's help) the title of "Supreme Head in earth of the Church of England".

He proceeded to have his marriage to Catherine annulled by Parliament so as to legitimate his marriage to Anne Boleyn and the birth of their daughter Elizabeth (who was to reign as Elizabeth I--1558 to 1603).

Still without a son, Henry had Anne beheaded and married Jane Seymour. Finally, a son! But Edward was a sickly lad.


After Henry died in 1547 his son Edward succeeded. Edward became King at the age of nine! Naturally, the administration fell to his advisor, Somerset, who, like the young King, was a Protestant.

There was a new welcome in England for reformation thinking. Prominent Protestant theologians were invited from the Continent to take up residence and teach in the English Universities.

A new order of worship was established to allow and prescribe changes in the form of worship.

England received her first "Book of Common Prayer" in 1549. The Mass, now called for the first time "Holy Communion", was to be spoken in English rather than Latin. The Altar was replaced by a Table. The refomrs which Andreas Karlstadt had introduced upon his own initiative in Wittenberg in 1521 were now being adopted in England in 1549.

The Priest, when officiating at Holy Communion, was to "put upon hym the vesture appointed for that ministration, that is to saye, a white Albe plain, with a vestment or Cope".


Martin Bucer, the Reformer of Strasbourg, was now resident in Cambridge where he taught at the University. He was asked for his opinion on the changes required by the Prayer Book. Bucer, along with many of the continental reformers was puzzled as to the importance in England of the matter of clergy vestments. This had never been such a controversial issue anywhere else in Europe. Bucer's comments are significant:
I should prefer that these vestments might be abolished, not because I believe that there is anything about them which in itself is wicked so that godly men could not use them with a clear conscience, but because I observe that owing to a chronic shortage of suitable teachers in the churches they are a source of superstitious belief to very many people: and also because they have now been seized upon as ground of contention more damaging than anyone has been able to explain. Moreover it is consistent with our profession of the Cross of Christ that we should aspire to the simplicity of Christ the Saviour and the Apostles in all external matters, including the outward dress of ministers: that we should testify by every means that we have nothing in common with any Anti-Christ and least of all with the Roman: and finally that we guard our Christian liberty in all things and make no secret about it.
The second "Book of Common Prayer" was issued in 1552. It included even more departures from traditional practices than its predecessor. There was no reference at all to prescribed dress for clergy at Holy Communion.


When the academic gown is called "Geneva" this does not refer merely to the Swiss city of Geneva. True, the reforms which John Calvin had made in the life of the city of Geneva through his measures to apply the Bible to all aspects of individual and corporate life meant that Geneva was a model for a reformed city throughout Europe.

But 'Geneva' had become a byword for the protestant reformation by this time. Even though Martin Bucer of Strasbourg and Heinrich Bullinger of Zurich may have had more impact upon the events in England, it was still the experiences and practices in Geneva which were the pinnacle of the new Church.

In England, 'Geneva' meant "anti-Rome" and Reform.


Edware VI died of TB in 1553 at the age of sixteen. The new monarch, Queen Mary I (daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon) was staunchly Roman Catholic.

Her intention was to undo as quickly as possible the 'evil' breach with Rome which her father had created and to turn back the reforms of the reign of her half-brother, Edward.

Bishops, Priests and lay people who had been too closely involved in the past reforms must now flee for their lives to the continent.

In 'exile' English Churches were established in many of the protestant cities of the continent. At first they relied on the second Prayer Book for their order of worship, but they were also influenced by the more radical approaches of their host cities. During this period a new English Bible was produced 'in exile' and was called the "Geneva Bible".

Mary's reign became increasingly bloody. Her inquisitions of the reform-minded led to a number of cruel martyrdoms, in the setting of the University cities.

Mary wanted to establish England as a Roman Catholic nation through her offspring. More than once she felt she was pregnant, only to be disappointed. Finally, when she thought she was carrying a baby, she died of the effects of a large tumour.


Elizabeth I now came to the throne of England. She was Protestant, a fact which overjoyed the reform-minded in England and those 'in exile' on the continent. Now, they felt, was the moment to establish England as a 'biblical state' with the reforms in cities like Geneva as a model.

They were soon disappointed by Elizabeth who had definite plans of her own. She faced the problem of reinstituting the "Church in England" which her father, Henry VIII, had founded and reinstating herself as its Head.

Elizabeth faced pressures from the 'Puritan' elements who had returned from the continent as well as from the Roman Catholics among her clergy. Out of these diverse elements she needed to create a Church. Through the next critical decades she proved herself more than a match for those who wanted to import the continental model of reformed Church, as well as for those who wanted to reestablish the subservience of the English Church to Rome.

One of the many handicaps she laboured under was the view of some clergy that it was not proper for a woman to be the head of a Church. This feeling was not only held by many of the Roman Catholics but was shared by 'radical puritans' like John Knox. The term "Puritan" appeared during these times, first as a term of derision applied to those who believed that decisions should be based only upon "the pure Word of God". It was two decades before those labelled "Puritan" bore the title with pride.

In 1559 a new Prayer book was introduced, based upon the 1552 Book of Common Prayer with some important differences. In the area of Vestments the reforms of the 1552 Prayer Book were turned back in favour of those of the 1549 Prayer Book. The Puritans felt this was a step back from the necessary reform and that they had been betrayed. The "Cope" was to be worn at the Lord's Supper and the "Surplice" at all other "ministrations".


It is amusing to read about the "Varieties, novelties, and diversities" in the practice of worship which angered Elizabeth:
...some ministers said the service in the chancel, others in the nave; some led worship from the pulpit, others from a chancel seat. Some kept the order of the Book of Common prayer, others "intermeddled" metrical Psalms; some read the service in a surplice, others without one. The Communion table was variously placed, either "altar-like distant from the wall a yard" or facing north and south in the midst of the chancel, or even in the nave of the church. Sometimes it was a trestle with a table top, usually it was a table. Occasionally it had a carpet on it, often it bore none. Communion was administered by some clergy with a surplice and cope, by some with only a surplice, by others wearing neither vestment. Some clergy used unleavened, and others leavened bread. There was an equal variety in the postures for the reception of Communion--some knelt, some sat, some stood. As for the Sacrament of Baptism some ministers administered it with surplice, some without; some used a font, others used a basin; and some used the signation with the cross, while others refused to use it.
Elizabeth began to exercise her authority as Head of the Church. She considered the Bishops to be her 'superior officers' and Archbishop Matthew Parker their representative.

Parker drew up some instructions for the clergy, which Elizabeth showed her political adroitness by not signing. These instructions were called "Advertisements" and were published in 1566.


Instructions were given for what each member of the clergy was to wear on each occasion.

Puritans who had returned from the continent with a sense of the freedom of the Christian conscience were outraged. All the clergy were called in to be shown the new dress code. At least one instance is recorded of a mannequin being dressed in clerical garb and the clergy being asked to look carefully at it and assent.

Queen Elizabeth and her 'Officer', Archbishop Parker, won this test of strength. They succeeded in establishing a 'middle way' between the extremes of Puritanism and Catholicism. The battle was won but the war continued on into the next century.

It was a costly victory. Many of the Puritans were at first angry at the harshness of the new regulations and their enforcement. They faced loss of position and living if they did not comply. Some complied under protest. Some were unable to bring themselves to comply and so exited from the Church of England and in many cases founded "free" Churches.

The Vestiarian Controversy ended but the debate over the issues did not.


I had no idea of the complexity of the history of clergy vestments. I realize that I have not attempted to portray all the variety of Roman vestments which were used at the time of the Reformation.

I am not so interested in the garments themselves as in the reasons for and against their use.

It has to do with what one feels is essential to the Christian experience. It has also to do with the role of tradition and with biblical authority.

Extreme positions are easily discounted. Most of us would be against ornamentation in the Church which is distracting from faith or which is worshipped in place of God. But each of us might have a different idea what was significant and what was merely distracting.

I find it interesting that to the major Protestant Reformers the question of ornamentation was not a major consideration. They were more concerned with the doctrinal issues. Yet they showed a certain amount of ambivalence on the subject of clergy vestments. Martin Bucer, for example, didn't feel that they were important, but also felt that they shouldn't be necessary.

Karlstadt's position, that clergy should wear peasants' garb so as not to make a cleavage between clergy and lay, is at least consistent, if too extreme.

The Vestiarian Controversy in England seems to have highlighted Clergy Vestments as a focus for other grievances. There were larger issues behind the smaller issue of Vestments. For example, was it right for a monarch to exert such authority over the Church? Was this a proper separation of Church and State? Was it right for Elizabeth to consider the Bishops to be her 'superior officers'?

There are many questions which intrigue me about clergy vestments, which I have not yet taken the time to research. For example: Where did the academic gowns come from in the first place? Were they not also an adaptation of a clergy garment? What about the issue of university hoods over gowns? Other matters would be interesting: preaching tabs, stoles, hats, bands, and scarves.

Since doing this research I look at my 'Geneva' gown in a new light. I realize that it was never intended to be a 'vestment' but was really an 'anti-vestment'. It represented the absence of vestment. Karlstadt meant it to be 'ordinary clothes' and to minimize the gap between clergy and lay. Its nickname, 'Geneva', meant that it was a symbol of the continental reformation.

Updated to September 8, 2003

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