Paul R. Schilf, Ph.D.
When business consultants prepare for presentations, they dress in professional clothing that assures clients that their ideas can be trusted. Law enforcement officials dress in uniforms that communicate their roles. Judges wear robes to present their authority. What we wear in society and in the church makes a statement. This statement in the church, for the choir, is only one of functionality.
The Levitical priests, who assisted in the worship of the Old Testament church, wore robes to present themselves as leaders or assistants. These priestly garments served several functions. The historical liturgical function of these robes was to obliterate human distinction and force due attention on proper practice and procedure in worship. Furthermore, thousands of years of Christian tradition using robes help impart a sense of unified purpose to the choir. It is as if the robes support the choir to accomplish a particular task of worship and they perform this job in their “work clothes.” Robes enforce modesty; the body is fully covered, so there is no temptation to gaze on the choir member or falsely exalt human sexuality.
The Lutheran church choir offers service and provides assistance to the congregational body, by enriching the worship of the entire gathered assembly. In other words, the choir serves as the representative liturgical voice of the baptized. Naturally, the choir should wear the traditional garment of the baptized community. Through the tradition of the Christian church, newly baptized and confirmed members were clothed in a white tunic–like garment called an “alb.” This flowing, usually white, near floor–length garment represented new life the baptized was given in the sacrament. While the alb might be seen to be “clothes for the clergy” or the “robe the pastor wears, the alb is actually a garment of baptism, suitable for all baptized. When pastors or choir members wear these they wear them on behalf of the whole baptized assembly. Also, in some churches, those who serve as lectors, elders, intercessors, acolytes, and presiding ministers wear these robes.
Some church choirs wear stoles or collars around their necks. Historically stoles represent the yoke of discipleship that the church has traditionally placed on only the necks of ordained leadership as a sign as their servant role and specific calling to be the sole leader of liturgical worship. Some may perceive choir members in the gathered assembly wearing such stoles to be assuming a role that is not there. However, the style of the pastoral stole is usually quite unique from the collar or stole the church choir might wear. The pastoral stole wraps over both shoulders and hangs down the front of the clergy, thus symbolizing the yoke. At times, pectoral crosses are worn as ornamented dress of the clergy. These large crosses clearly establish and define the function of the pastor as the leader of the divine service.
The Lutheran church choir has a unique and significant role in Lutheran worship. It can fill that position with music ranging from the simplest to the most complex. What is of the utmost importance is that the choir, their director, the pastor, and the congregation understand the role of the choir in worship and that role contributes to the interest, effectiveness, meaningfulness, continuity, and reverence of the gathered corporate body. Care should be taken to see that choirs wear vestments and accessories that communicate the truth of their role in worship.
Finally, choir vestments or other clothing must not be a distraction to the Gospel or their role within the Divine Service. Article XV (Ecclesiastical Usages) of the Augsburg Confession puts it this way [cf. Confutatio Pontificia]:
Of Usages in the Church they teach that those ought to be observed which may be observed without sin, and which are profitable unto tranquility and good order in the Church, as particular holy–days, festivals, and the like. Nevertheless, concerning such things men are admonished that consciences are not to be burdened, as though such observance was necessary to salvation. They are admonished also that human traditions instituted to propitiate God, to merit grace, and to make satisfaction for sins, are opposed to the Gospel and the doctrine of faith. Wherefore vows and traditions concerning meats and days, etc., instituted to merit grace and to make satisfaction for sins, are useless and contrary to the Gospel.