Vestment Controversy

A less prolix discussion on Vestments can be read here. This piece is polemically boring (purtian bashing) until the second-half (smaller font) where vestments and erastianism is touched upon. I am in the midst of a revision, but the important part is the black gown spirit of Protestantism, below…

The Vestment Controversy was truly unfortunate. Initially, it was raised John Hooper, a Henrician exile, who spent time in Zurich where Zwingli earlier entertained the Anabaptists’ iconclastic reign of terror. Hooper found offense to wearing a surplice and cope during ordination. The controversy was temporarily settled by the Lutheran argument of ‘adiaphora’ or ‘things indifferent’. The King’s Privy council generously allowed ministers their individual conscience on the matter. During the same reign of Edward IV, Cramner also reformed the Mass, allowing Bucer (another Swiss reformer) to rewrite it, purging the canon of its so-called sacredotal elements. Yet as soon as some closure was reached on the question of the sacrament, men like Hooper pressed the abolition of vestments, renewing quarrels.

Middle Way Disaster:This method of giving some liberty in controversial matters of ceremony by calling such ‘indifferent’ was perhaps responsible or at least reflected what would be known as the ‘middle way’ of Anglicanism. Dodging proper canonical order perhaps was not wise. What was edifying to one man was superstition to another. Adiaphora and leaving controversy for individual judgment certainly was the origin of numerous, even contradictory rites, within the church of England that men like Hooper took opportunity of, resulting in a disastrous policy?

Liberty granted to English Protestants returning from Marian exile would not satisfy the second generation of Reformers coming from Geneva/Frankfurt. This generation would be led by men like John Knox (as well as Thomas Cartwright in England), who not only introduced Presbyterianism to Scotland but also the full-force of the RPW into the Queen’s Realm, intellectually picking up where Hooper left off but causing greater disorder with calls for active resistance. Open disregard of uniformity acts issued by the crown would mark the difference for second generation reformers who believed they were “obeying God not man”.

Interestingly, the abolition of vestments began as a call for greater simplicity in worship– not a 2nd commandment injunction per sey. The bible was put at odds with the church, and even men like Ridley likened Hooper’s earlier agruments to Anabaptist enthusiasm. A matter apparently as narrow as vestments exploded into a deeper conflict over the power of the crown in the Church, i.e., the Erastian order, and where the crown would not alter worship to suit alleged biblical authority the church was quickly denounced as blasphemous, papist, and tyrannical, deserving violent rebellion. Calvin wrote Hooper telling him such matters were not worth the peace of the Church.  Bucer, along Calvin’s line of advice, called the controversy, “a ground of contention more damaging than anyone has been able to explain.”

Unfortunately, by 1566, the debate took on an impossible tone of vestments being either abject idolatry or a necessary dignity with no middle ground for diplomacy. The English Presbyterian and Seperatist parties drew stark lines. Separatist took their practice of worship underground, holding illegal conventicles and calling themselves the ‘true church’ apart from due authority. These usurptations flowed from a logic borne by John Knox’s theories of active resistance found in his First Blast and Appellation, written in 1558. These doctrines would become foundational to the rise of Presbyterianism in Scotland, culminating in Scotland’s National Covenant and Prayer Book War in 1640.

the Theonomic State: It is not surprising that vestments would provide ‘staging grounds’ for revolutionizing Constantine’s state-church.  Vestments had their origins with Constantine’s establishment of the Church as an Imperial office:

“With the public recognition of the Church in the fourth century all the bishops found themselves enjoying the status of senior imperial officials. They soon came to be preceded, liek their elder colleagues, by lights and incense when they made their official way to church. Like them, too, they wore the dress of the Roman upper classes, made obligatory for imperial officials by Theodosius I. Over the linea, the undergarment, they wore the tunica, and on top of that the casula. These garments developed into the alb, the deacon’s tunicle, and the chasuble. But in the fourth century the clergy were indistinguishable in their dress from any decently attired Roman official. (p. 32, the Orthodox Liturgy)

As the magisterial reformation gave way to ‘free church protestantism’, vestments became contentious symbols of church establishment– therefore drawing ire from anti-monarchists and parlimentarians. It was targeted as much by zeal as by democratic upsurge. However, for Erastians (in my book– a brand of theonomists) the vestment represented the ancient harmony of church and state and was worthy of defense. The arguments in preserving vesting boiled down to the peace of the Christian kingdom. When James I said “no bishop, no crown”, he understood the what was at stake– vestments symbolized England’s church-state alliance, thus the entire Erastian system.

Erastianism before Elizabeth? I believe Erastianism deserve a second look. Erastianism was not invented in England. The first Erastian church goes back as far as Constantine, and theological contributions to Erastianism are more attributed to Theodore Balsamon and Justinian than Hugo Grotius. Erastianism has a very Byzantine development. Moreover, Christianity owes a great debt to Erastian type systems given the great ecumenical councils of the church were all summoned by the Roman Emperor, and at times settled by his intercession. In fact, the Nicene Creed was sealed by Constantine who threw in lot to the Trinitarian party in order to end the controversy. Byzantine Emperors main concern was typically the peace of the realm which the Church ensured via the cura of souls. But sometimes Byzantine emporers fancied themselves theologians, Kings in the line of David, sharing in the sacredotal office as a quasi-priest, offering wisdom, gifts, and blessings to the church. The Eastern Emporers held the following traditional perogratives summed by the Nine Articles of the Council of Stoudios 1380  (p. 307, Emperor and Priest). English Erastianism surely borrowed from the prior example of state-church:

  • The emperor had the right to veto the election of an arch-bishop who did not please him.
  • He could modify as he saw fit the heirarchy of episcopal sees, make transfers of bishops and, sign of the times, grant bishoprics as benefices.
  • He ratified appointments to the chief ecclesiastical offices, that is to the upper ranks of the patriarchal administration.
  • He ensured that the boundaries of the dioceses, as established by him, were respected.
  • He would free from all patriarchal censure, and if an archon and member of the senate infringed on canon, the patriarch would impose a punishment only through his intermediary, who would represent his role as defender of the Church and the canons.
  • He could retain in Constantinople or send back to their diocese bishops who had come or been summoned to Constantinople on important business without the patriarch having a right to object.
  • He might demand from every new bishop a promise of loyalty to his person and the empire.
  • He could require all the bishops to approve and sign the synodal acts.
  • The bishops were obliged to take note of these articles and should not propose for election to an episcopal see anyone who was not a friend of the emperor.


Involved here was an elaborate mesh of checks and balances. The Patriarch was elected by the Emperor but from a pool of nominees determined by a metropolitan synod.  Metropolitan sees were really independent of the Emperor and often would be well-springs of criticism. The Emperor’s immunity from patriarchal censure was based upon divine right– soveriegnty was the result of God’s election not man-made constitutions. Yet in order for power to gain legitimacy or ratification, it required submission to law. Yet power was not always so bound, could abrogate law in, say, emergencies or for the higher good, e.g., it possesed an economy.  The relation between church and state were much more fluid than in the West, and the Emperor’s office contained a hint of Priesthood.

Elizabethian Erastianism was not novelty but harkened back to these earlier Byzantine models. If the Pope, or primacy of Peter, no longer possessed unilateral the right or legitimacy to call a Western Council, then, as Luther himself admitted, this same function fell upon the Prince to bring peace. Thus, a move toward the Eastern pattern resulted.

However, the Erastian approach to church/state was not entirely unusual for the West despite the fragmented Germanic Principalities which constituted so-called Empire. Gelasianism was more of a compromise between church and state (i.e., a balance of powers) than clear victory of ecclesial over civil. Even under Gelasianism the King was far from divorced from influence in the Church. The Concordant of Worms, 1122 AD, outlined practical application of Gelsianism (see below). It did not forbid the monarch from presenting nominees from the church or distributing ‘benefices’. Although not specifically listed under the terms of Worms (below), the the Emporer also had a traditional power to declare synods at times of great doctrinal contorversy or clerical disorder (such as the Great Schism of the Anti-Popes, 1415 AD), and this right is assumed in the Concord:

  • The elections of the bishops (in Catholic nations) would be done in the ‘presence’ of the monarch.
  • In the case of disputed elections the King may decide between the parties after consulting the provincial episcopate.
  • The King shall recieve a pledge of loyalty from the Bishop, giving the bishop his (civil) regalia and sceptre.
  • The bishop or abbot elect shall perform all the duties that go with the holding of the regalia (his civil functions).


The concept of church-state was not necessarily one sphere ruling the other (though the Gelsian model ideally sought an absolute rule of eternal over temporal). Both the West and Eastern Patriarchs crowned and consecrated the Emperors. Both handed the sovereign the sword. Rather what was typical of civil and ecclesial  powers (even in the West) was their homeostasis. Eastern theologians argued the King ruled not just the temporal order but the body too, and, in so far as the church was composed of the physical and earthly, the Emporer had an stake in church affairs. He could not be seperated from the divine anymore than the church could be removed from temporal. This easily went the other way with bishops in both East and West weilding civil powers, usually in relation to land benefices or civil activities related to alms– hospitals, orphanages, hostels, asylums, etc.. (at least this was the point of departure toward princely duties)

In contrast, the modern Free church was marked by an extreme pessimism regarding the Crown’s capacity, wisdom, or right  rule the ‘elect’ or ‘baptized” bodies. The disorder that led to disestablishment was infected with a radical, even Gnostic seperation of flesh and spirit when treating the two realms. The Byzantine, Erastian, and even Gelsian models of church-state (in practice) had very blurred boundaries and functions. Prior to the Free Church’s separatism, differences between church and state spheres were perhaps more theoretical than practical. As noted above, the theocratic systems which emerged were more the result of compromise, tradition, and long contest than clear biblical mandate. Rather than anticipating ‘seperation of church state’, the West more or less followed the Byzantine example. When the English became a national church (erastian), they were returning to an older and well-established pattern. I believe when discussing theonomic or theocratic systems, Erastianism deserves its place. The institution which vestments thus symbolized pointed to 1,200 years of Christian practice and was, albeit occassional messy, more representative of Christianity than the newfangled ‘free church’ model as demanded by Independency.

The Black Regiment: Against the colorful and majestic vestments of the old Erastian church, nonconforming clergy adopted black robes. The Reformation origins of black gowns belong to the Lutherans, first introduced them under Andreas Karlstadt in 1521. Disgruntled by the  hierarchy between laity and clergy, Karlstadt wore an ordinary academic cassock. Not only did this underline the teaching role (shepherdic) of the minister but at the time it was treated as everyday garb, demonstrating an equality between lay and minister that emphasizing the general priesthood. Luther disagreed with Karlstadt’s rejection of vestments as breach of clerical collegiality and church authority. However, the black cossack “stuck” and in 1930 the Augsberg Confession gave it a normative status, making robe along with surplice a standard for the German church. Later this would be known as the “Genevan Garb“, representing the ordained and teaching/academic authority (shepherdic function) of the minister. However, Karlstadt was not satisified and was compelled to further push ‘dialectic’, next doning farmer clothes to press the need for radical egalitarianism in the Church.

The term “Black Regiment” comes from Royalists who disliked the American Revolution, calling those Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Baptists ministers the “the Black Regiment” due to their robes. Indeed, the black cossack became synomynous with anti-prelacy and even secular republicanism. But even before whiggism, black cassocks became synomynous with non-conformity.

What was interesting about black robes was their liturgical significance. According to the old calendar black robes were worn during pentitential occasions, such as Good Friday, Ember Days, and “requiems”.  Black was the color of death and burial/graves. The last three days of Holy (Painful) Week (Obedience Thursday, Good Friday, and Tomb Saturday) are called the “Tenebræ” meaning ‘darkness’.  In light of the Reformation’s emphasis on repentance and atonement, typifying Reformed liturgies and discipline, the sobriety of ‘black’ was indeed an appropriate color for the Protestant cause.

Despite the ahisticorical rejection of ‘church-state’ by modern-day Protestants, I retain a fond appreciation of the simplicity and sobriety of the black cassock, especially the penitential and preparatory spirit of the Reformation. The black regiment represents the good I take from the dross of Puritanism. Ironically, black robes, though originally intended to make the minister ‘ordinary’ or even ‘folksy’, are today considered very liturgical. Those who don the cassocks in worship now are treated as very “high church”.  But these are only hold-outs. Karlstadt would surely be very happy with the egalitarianism of non-denominational bodies today. Karlstadt anticipated an ecclesial spirit which was more akin to Anabaptism than Lutheranism. Yet another sign that the Anabaptist spirit has eclipsed the older Magesterial intent of Protestantism.

With regard to the BCP, protestant penitentialism introduced our long exhortation, prayer of humble access, words of comfort, the offeratory of congregational sacrfice, decalogue, confession, and litany of supplication. Much of the BCP was therefore cast in this pentitential spirit– a legacy we should not abandon but a healthy distinction, for our good.

3 responses to “Vestment Controversy

  1. Pingback: Oath of the King’s Supremacy « Anglican Rose

  2. I just found this post, so I’m sorry for the delayed reply. I wanted to state that Karlstadt is associated with the Anabaptists, specifically Thomas Muntzer. The reason Luther came back to Wittenberg from hiding was to put down Karlstadt and the others whom he called “the heavenly prophets” in his Treatise against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments. The Genevan gown was found in Lutheran churches only after the Enlightenment and the Prussian Union in 1817. Google Arthur Carl Piepkorn’s “The Survival of the Historic Vestments in the Lutheran Church”; there’s a complete version online detailing the universal presence of the alb and stole and often the chasuble among all confessional Lutherans. It’s called a Genevan gown, not a Wittenberg or Dresden gown, for a reason.


    • This is good to know Adam. I’ve always felt Lutheranism was much closer to Anglicanism in ethos and doctrine than many Anglicans care to admit. If you can suggest any more books for reading, please add them here! Anything that proves Luther’s catholicism or correspondence with Anglicans would be great. For me, it’s obvious when reading the Apology (Melanchthon) and even Luther’s treatises on the sacrament. I am glad you posted this, and feel there is a natural dialogue to be had with Lutherans, Methodists, and some Presbyterians before Roman Catholics or Orthodox.


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