Why I Preach in a Geneva Gown

yours truly, thusly robed
When a soldier, sailor, marine or airman goes to war against the enemies of his flag he wears a uniform.  When I ascend the pulpit and go to war against the world, the flesh and the devil I like to do the same.

My congregation at First Church of God enjoys the robe.  If I were to become pastor of another congregation I would respect the feelings of the congregation and dress accordingly.

The church affiliation of my ordination, the Church of God (Anderson), is "Low Church." I imagine few of us follow a liturgical calendar or center our worship services around Holy Communion/Eucharist rather than the sermon, etc. Though we embraced the holiness aspect of the Wesleyan Methodist movement we, in contrast with the Anglican priest, John Wesley, were birthed in Pietism & Anabaptism and not something akin to a sacramentalist group such as the Church of England. 


Horace Shepherd in a Geneva gown
 Consequently, with the possible exception of our African American brethren, we typically eschew a Geneva gown ("ministerial robe") for regular worship services. Clerical garb is usually reserved for weddings and "special" holiday services.  (In contrast, Horace Shepherd [1926—2008] would sweat so profusely during his hour-long sermons that he had his Geneva gown dry-cleaned each week.)

Below is a clip of the late Benjamin F. Reid (1937—1999) of First Church of God in Los Angeles preaching in a Geneva gown, clerical collar and a pectoral cross.




AS AN ASIDE: Did you know that some early reformation movement Church of God preachers wore clerical collars as well?  It's true! Eugene Alonzo Reardon (1874—1946) who went on to pastor Park Place, was one.  His son, the late Robert Harmon Reardon, former president of Anderson University, wrote a book, The Early Morning Light (ANDERSON, IN: Warner Press, 1979), in which he shared hilariously:
...you can imagine the scene when Father, with his clerical collar, vest, and black suit, looking every inch like a Roman priest, and my lovely young mother, two children in tow and without a wedding ring, would board the streetcar in the Polish-Catholic neighborhood.  (9) 
Samuel G. Hines in a clerical collar and pectoral cross
Daniel Otis Teasley in a clerical collar

And did you know that the clerical collar and the Geneva gown are of Protestant origin, not Catholic?  The Geneva gown takes its beginnings from academia; we still speak of graduates in "cap and gown" to this day.  I'm not saying we should wear clerical collars because some early movement leaders did; I'm saying we should not despise clerical collars by adding (incorrectly), "We've never done it that way before."  Yes, we have done it that way before.

Anyway, back to my article.  To use Paul's language, ηυχομην γαρ ("For I could wish") that would change. I could wish our ministers wore ministerial robes as a regular part of "regular" Sunday worship services. I'm not being legalistic and demanding such a change for every clergyman; it isn't sinful not to wear one and Scripture makes no mention of a minister's attire.  To paraphrase Paul:
Do not let him who wears a robe despise him who does not wear one. Do not let him who does not wear a robe  judge him who does, for God has accepted him. (Romans 14:3)
  Yes, this is a personal preference and not a biblical requirement. I like the Geneva gown; it connects me to the great Wesleyan tradition of yesteryear.  However, I believe I can make a plausible case for our clerics to consider wearing them weekly (if their congregations wouldn't throw the pastors out if the ministers did). In an irenic spirit I offer you the following for your consideration.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones in a Geneva gown
The late Calvinistic Methodist, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899—1981), had this to say about ministerial robes in his book Preaching & Preachers:
...I believe it is good and right for a preacher to wear a [Geneva] gown in the pulpit...The gown to me is a sign of the call, a sign of the fact that a man has been 'set apart' to do this work. It is no more than that, but it is that. Of course, I must hastily add that while I believe in wearing a gown in the pulpit I do not believe in wearing a hood on the gown! The wearing of a hood calls attention to the man and his ability, not to his call. It is not a sign of office but a sign of the man's scholastic achievements; so one has a B.D. gown, another a D.D. gown, another an M.A. and so on. That is but confusion; but above all it distracts attention from the spiritual authority of the preacher. Wear a gown but never a hood! (Pg. 160)
Lloyd-Jones' assessment reminds me of Elijah placing his prophet's cloak over the shoulders of Elisha (1 Kings 19.19), thus indicating Elisha's call and his succession of Elijah's ministry.  This "mantle of ministry" is symbolically very powerful.

I like a ministerial robe because it obliterates the man, in a sense. It takes the congregation's attention off his fashion and helps place it on his delivered word.  The robe, in essence, says, "This messenger (in and of himself) is of no importance; listen to his message given by the Holy Spirit's authority!"

John Wesley in a Geneva gown and a clerical collar
In an age when evangelical Christianity is chasing fads and commercialized slickness I believe a robe could help our ministers remind their congregations—and themselves—of the sobriety and solemnity of preaching the Word with integrity and authority. Allegedly conservative pulpits are treating the Word with such anti-intellectual superficiality these days (yes, I'm painting with a broad brush) and my hope is that some dressing up could help the preachers remember The Glory they are supposed to be preaching. The robe doesn't do that automatically, of course: mainline denominational pastors have been abusing the Bible for decades while so robed. However, it could help those of us not used to wearing ecclesiastical garments regularly see the seriousness of the sacred calling and the needed anointing of the task.

Some may object that it makes the preacher look too formal. Is there anything so bad about that? After all, is there anything more serious than declaring the oracles of God? Doesn't conventional wisdom teach that it's better to be over-dressed than under-dressed in social situations? Truthfully, couldn't a Geneva gown be more respectful and decorous than an expensive suit?

If "formal" is such a perceived problem then where is the middle ground between "stuffiness" and "slovenliness"? A business suit? A sports jacket with a button-down dress shirt (without a tie but a visible undershirt collar) and khakis? I am far more offended by televangelists who wear flashy (possibly Italian) suits.  Couldn't ministerial robes just make things easier?

Others may think that wearing professional clerical garb misses the point of "missional" or "incarnational" preaching; that is, preachers should dress like their listeners to build rapport with the audience. Because our American society has become more casual the trend is to dress down these days. I freely admit that this view holds some sympathy with me. In fact, if I can't wear a robe then I'd want to wear khakis and pull-over shirts.  Dress up or dress down is my desire.  However, a little formality could help distinguish us from the society.  Is it a bad thing for preachers to look different than the casual clothes androgynous mannequins at the mall display? Isn't it noble to be counter-cultural and not fadish? Timeless and not trendy? What's wrong with a little "other-worldliness" that a robe offers?

In short, I'm simply saying a robe may go a long way in reminding both cleric and congregant
Charles Wesley in a Geneva gown
and a clerical collar
in the Church of God (Anderson) that God's Word is to be handled with reverence and preached with authority. That's all.


***Important***  On a practical level the preaching robe helps me dress for Sunday!  Since I am a never-married man who doesn't have a wife to help as fashion consultant it just makes it easier for me.  (Never underestimate the influence of a good wife who may ask, "You're not going to wear that to church today, are you?")

I have worn my robe in different Churches of God.  Most have said nothing at all.  People just haven't mentioned it.  I have had some people to speak favorably of it. 

I leave this for your kind consideration. If it is useful for your ministry then ponder it further.  If it is not then mentally discard it.

UPDATE: Recently I found this Presbyterian church website article from their pastoral leadership describing why they were changing clothing style and were going to begin wearing Geneva gowns.  It is an interesting and tactful explanation.  Click here to read the article.

Here is a YouTube clip from a pastor, Michael Brown, who explains why he wears one: