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The Revd Richard Coles: Good in Vestments

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Reverend Richard Coles Reverend Richard Coles 13:38, Monday, 6 June 2011

The Revd Richard Coles

I'm not sure when I first laid eyes on a pair of vimpas. I think it may have involved the late Bishop of Edmonton, who in spite of the rather dowdy sound of his See, was anything  but dowdy.

He belonged to the dressier end of the C of E and the chances are you do too if you know what a vimpa is. It's a sort of silk oven glove, worn by the servers who carry the pontificalia (translation: the bishop's mitre (hat) and crozier (crook) when the bishop doesn't need them).

Much of his kit dates back to the earliest days of the Church, when, newly respectable thanks to Constantine's Edict of Milan in the year 313, Christian functionaries adopted the dress of Roman magistrates.

After Schism, and Reformation and Vatican Councils they still endure, in one form or another, though you're quite likely to find those all but abandoned by Roman Catholic parishes, the maniple (translation: strip of embroidered cloth worn over the left arm) and the vimpa, surviving in the Anglo Catholic parishes of the C of E.

As you can imagine, maniples and vimpas are not really off-the-peg articles, and to obtain them you may have to go to one of the more traditional church outfitters, like those in the back streets behind Westminster Abbey. We visit one for Good In Vestments, and meet the people who provided the Archbishop of Canterbury's cope (translation: posh cloak) for the Royal Wedding.

I bought a biretta (translation: black priest's hat with pom pom) while I was there, and a bib stock with a ring-of-confidence (translation: little black shirt-front with a full clerical collar attached) at Sandown racecourse, temporarily hosting a Christian trade fair which offered a very different range of vestments and clerical wear. We met a woman designer who made the enthronement robes for the last Archbishop of Canterbury, robes which made a different statement, told a different story, from the more traditional versions.

That reflects our changing times, with women now in the priesthood and, in some places, the episcopate; with African Christians outnumbering all others; with happy clappiness and Pentecostal zeal changing the way we worship. 

Perhaps that raises a fundamental question: why wear them at all? Lots of Christians don't, although what they do wear inevitably starts to mean something. Soon enough those meanings also begin to shift and if orphreys (translation: embroidered braid) or morses (translation: special clasps for copes) become as obsolete as reticules and farthingales, then to continue to wear them is simply display, peacock priests strutting their stuff. Is that right? I would argue that vested in them we lose our individual identity, paltry little thing, in the greater meaning they signify, the meaning which makes all others look ragged and threadbare.

Well, I would say that, wouldn't I? That's me, by the way, in the picture above, wearing a maniple over my left arm.

The Reverend Richard Coles is Parish Priest, St Mary the Virgin, Finedon.


  • Comment number 1.

    My dad looked bad in vestments (and in a cassock) - all priests do.
    In fact organised religion is one big bad investment. The way this formalised lunacy has been allowed to continue is an emblem of an unchanging machine to make sheepy-people remain sheep like and the privileged remain in power.
    I would quote Diderot but he was a little too extreme, I'd just like to see everyone stop pretending that wearing fancy dress made them worth taking seriously, when the opposite is so patently obvious.

  • Comment number 2.

    I remember maniples,vimpas, burses, morses, amices, aparelled amices, but what about sanctuary slippers; does any where still use them? And what about the various grades of incense, which started at 'Mission' and rose by various quality descriptions via 'Cathedral' to the climax of 'Basilica' with 'Rosa Mystica' being the most pungent of all. Those were the days when religion could be fun.

  • Comment number 3.

    Sanctuary slippers I think are still used by the Armenian church at least.


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