"Take thou authority to preach the Word of God": the preaching gown and the High Church tradition

The clergymen of the city and neighbourhood, though very well inclined to promote High Church principles, privileges, and prerogatives, had never committed themselves to tendencies which are somewhat too loosely called Puseyite practices. They all preached in their black gowns, as their fathers had done before them.

Such was the description given by Anthony Trollope in Barchester Towers of the High Church clergy of Barsetshire.  That reference to preaching in black gowns captures a feature of Anglican life and the High Church tradition almost entirely lost during the late 19th century.  Dr. Sacheverell's famous 1709 sermon 'The Perils of False Brethren, Both in Church, and State' was delivered in a black preaching gown, as were the sermons of Parson Jonathan Boucher in the parish of Queen Anne, Maryland, and Keble's Assize Sermon and Newman's Plain and Parochial Sermons.  And it was, of course, the established custom of numerous High Church parsons in their ordinary parishes, not unlike those of the fictional Barsetshire, from Restoration until well into the 19th century.

Two years before Keble preached his Assize Sermon, James Bassnett Mills wrote a traditional High Church apologia, An Apology for the Church of England: In Reply to the Cavils and Objections of Those Who Dissent From Her Communion.  In it, he defended the "plain and simple" vestments of Anglican clergy, "the Surplice is a plain white robe, the preaching gown is a plain black one".  Noting the patristic origins of the surplice, and how appropriate it is for the liturgy, he then reflected on the use of the black gown:

With respect to the Black gown, (worn only in the pulpit), we cannot but that it has been very appropriately chosen, because it not only represents a deadness to the world, as well as a sorrowful humiliation in the presence of God, but is also expressive of that grief and mourning which the Preacher's Office in the pulpit requires him to display for the wicked and sinful lives of men, whom in that place (i.e. the pulpit) he calls to conversion and repentance.

The "Preacher's Office".  The use of the term speaks of the seriousness with which the High Church tradition took the duty of preaching, a seriousness manifested in the preaching gown.  A century later, Percy Dearmer would look back and lament its loss:

The innovation of preaching in a surplice, once the cause of bitter party antagonism, has been for two generations pretty generally established ... That was a pity, I think; for, though the surplice is as lawful as the gown, the use of the surplice gives less variety and ‘point’; and it has helped in the deterioration of our preaching; for it is much easier to preach in a gown, and the face and hands (important aids to a good preacher) are freer and better seen. But then we must confess that for oratory, cassock, gown, and tippet only—without hood or bands—are best, though the hood is mentioned in the Prayer Book of 1549, and thus comes under the Ornaments Rubric - Robes and the Choir Habit (1933).

Dearmer echoes the statement from a century earlier: the gown embodies a "point", that preaching is an 'office' to be approached with seriousness in the Church's life and ministry.

Is this post, then, arguing for a restoration of the preaching gown?  Not necessarily (although it is worth noting that the Canons of the Church of Ireland state, "any member of the clergy shall be at liberty to wear a plain black gown while preaching").  Custom and uniformity - solid High Church virtues - might suggest that an attempt to restore this practice would be lacking in prudence.  What the practice of the black preaching gown does, however, suggest in contemporary circumstances is the need to restore a vibrant preaching culture, recognising that this is an integral part of the High Church tradition, a defining duty of the priest, and central to the life of the parish. As Christopher Wordsworth, a bearer of the High Church tradition, declared, preaching is a normative expression of the "ministerial work of remission":

Thus, then, the Ministers of Christ are rightly said to remit sins, because they awaken men from the sleep of sin, and dispose them to repentance by setting before them the terrors of the Lord for the guilty, and the promises of life eternal to the faithful, and by proclaiming in God's Name free pardon to all who repent and believe, through "the blood of Jesus Christ His Son which deanseth from all sin," (1 John i. 7,) and by preaching that Word which God, Who alone can remit sins by His own power, has appointed and commanded to be preached for the remission of sins.

Restoring the preaching gown might be impractical but this classical Anglican practice, rather than being condescendingly dismissed, does call us to restore the seriousness of the preaching office in the life of the parish and the ministry of the priest.

(The first illustration is from a deck of cards illustrating the Sacheverell affair: here Dr. Sacheverell - in black gown - prepares to enter the pulpit to preach his famous sermon.  The second is the pulpit in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, from which Keble preached the Assize Sermon on 14th July 1833.)


  1. So...is the preacher supposed to pull off the surplice right over the head right in the middle of the church, and then don the black gown, or does it go on over the surplice, or what? Isn't that a bit disruptive, all that fabric whooshing and swooshing mid-liturgy?

    1. I think it is the case that in many older parish churches, the clergy vestry was adjacent to the pulpit. Thus, at the conclusion of Mattins, the parson entered the vestry, removed the surplace and donned the gown. I notice in Parson Woodforde's diaries that his usual Sunday entry is "read prayers and preached", which sounds like two actions rather than one, perhaps reflecting something of this theme. To be clear, I am not calling for a restoration of the practice, but, rather, that it is taken seriously as an expression of the high calling of the preaching office.

    2. Considering the Romans before Vatican II would occasionally change all the colors mid-liturgy, I suppose a holy halt and trip to the sacristy for a reset wasn't something considered all that disruptive like it might be today. Would the preacher have done the same for the Communion preaching?

    3. I believe the custom is a bit complicated.

      Many High Church sorts would (if they were both preaching and saying the service) indeed continue in surplice throughout. Though many others, a lower churchman especially and those who resented the surplice, relinquished the surplice at the first opportunity.

      However the real point is that in many cases the preacher was not the one who said the service. For example, in many parishes, the curate and clerk might have said the service with the Rector moving to preach and thus wearing his gown throughout. Likewise, if a clergyman was there as the preacher then the ordinary clergy of the parish or church would conduct the service in their surplices, the preacher in his gown.

      Interestingly, the High Church tendency was to wear always the university gown (BA or, usually, MA (Oxon/Cantab/Dubl)) whereas the lower churchmen tended to wear the "priest's" or "preaching" gown (sometimes called the Geneva gown).

    4. William, many thanks for your comment. I am not entirely convinced that High Church parsons routinely wore the surplice while preaching, considering the significant popular criticism in the 1840s of the practice being adopted.

      I do agree, of course, that in churches with more than one cleric the situation was as you described it. This does not take into account, however, those parishes (almost certainly a majority) served by only one cleric.

      That is a great point about the High Church tendency to wear the university gown: most fitting!


    5. Clint, a good question re: Communion Sundays. I will have to examine the sources further, but my instinct is to say yes. Preaching in the surplice was very controversial indeed in the 1840s and beyond. I find it difficult to see how it would have been controversial if it had been a common practice on Communion Sundays.

  2. I know this is an old post, but regarding the use of the University gown instead of the "Geneva" Gown, what would DD holders have worn? The MA due to it being the common "undress" version? I can't imagine them wearing the red doctoral gowns. I assume in PECUSA with all the university gowns being black, that would have mattered less, right?

    1. Isaac, many thanks for your comment. All good questions! It certainly was the case that gowns used for preaching were always black: I am not aware of any reference to red gowns. That said, I am now wondering if it was the custom for bishops to change into the gown for preaching, as opposed to remaining in rochet and chimere.


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