Vestments (huh) - what are they good for?
I was not the only one who looked askance at Mrs. Schori’s vestments at the National Cathedral last Saturday. Not only hers, of course – I was almost equally scornful of the garb of her assistants – but hers was the starring role, so naturally she got the most attention. As the Episcopal News Service wrote, “Jefferts Schori's vestments were designed and made by Victor Challenor and the Rev. Paul Woodrum of Challwood Studio in
On the final day, as the last delegates were signing the document,
pointed toward the sun on the back of the Convention president's chair. Observing that painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising sun from a setting sun, he went on to say: "I have often ... in the course of the session ... looked at that sun behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know it is a rising and not a setting sun." Franklin
But I don’t intend to quibble over the correct interpretation. What I’ve started thinking about is what is the point of vestments in general, and these in particular. Since it was discussed openly on Fr. Jake’s blog, obviously it’s no secret that Woodrum and Challenor are a gay couple. Now, the ‘gay priest living with a partner” train left the station a long time ago, so I’m not surprised by that. What I find remarkable is that THIS is who Schori chose to make her vestments, and I’m sure it was deliberately done. She must have had to work pretty hard to find someone who could successfully combine so many “progressive” policy points. I suspect that Challwood Studio could have designed ANYTHING and Schori would have worn it, since the point is WHO not WHAT.
Of course, one can play dumb and claim that there is no “message” beyond what anyone can see by looking at the vestments themselves. The designers were the best for the job, Schori loves their work, etc., and I’m just being paranoid. I just don’t buy that argument.
To me, hiring the designer of this is a message all on its own.
If Pope Benedict XVI had worn at his installation the vestments of Pope Pius X plus the Triple Tiara, nobody would have believed the
As to the vestments themselves, I’m not surprised, as so many were, that there were no Christian symbols on them. They’re not about Christianity – a look at this collection, which contains other Challwood designs, shows that an absence of Christian symbolism is pretty much the norm among modern designers. Some of these designs are rather pretty, but they’re attractive in a purely “wall art” kind of way.
In a discussion of liturgical dance, a poster on MCJ wrote “If you take a liturgical dance out of context and perform it next to a secular dance -- say something choreographed by Martha Graham (whom lots of liturgical dancers love to emulate) -- can you tell which piece is which?” By that standard, applied to textile art, nearly all the pieces on this page fail. The abstract bands of colour, the butterflies, they’re nice, but there’s no reason on earth to strap them on a priest’s back.
By comparison, look at this site of art quilts (I picked that because it’s the textile art I know most about) and ask yourself why any of them couldn’t just as easily be found among the liturgical hangings in the ECVA exhibit.
So what now is the point of liturgical vestments, in a church that no longer has anything to say about God? Modernists like Schori are too proud to just take over what was there before – it requires humility to accept what the ages have given us, and submit ourselves to the same customs that have shaped those who came before. A true modernist will want to demonstrate that he is not just the new caretaker, but the undisputed master. So what is old is cast out, to make sure that there is no bridge back from the Brave New World. And maybe there’s also that dark pleasure in deforming what has been valued by others that I’ve sensed before. As Belloq said to Indiana Jones, “Dr. Jones. Again you see there is nothing you can possess that I cannot take away.”