BBC Radio 4

    The Revd Richard Coles: Good in Vestments

    Presenter of Saturday Live

    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.


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