Wednesday, January 11, 2017


I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.    
                                       Alice Walker

When I am an old woman I will wear purple, with a red hat
That doesn’t suit me . . .
But maybe I ought to practice a little now
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
                                       Jenny Joseph

We Episcopalians find many details to fret over. I wonder if the fretting is a self-protecting device to distract us from a big picture that might be too wonderful for us to bear.

One thing we are particularly prone to fretting over is colors. For example, there is the color purple. Episcopal bishops wear purple clergy shirts. Some wear a darker shade called blue-purple; others wear a lighter version called rose-purple. Some say the two shades distinguish the high church from the low church. Others say they label the liberals and the conservatives. I could never find a consensus, so I wear both, alternately, mostly to assure that people will know I do in fact change my shirt daily.

Recently I have come across a sartorial scruple that strikes me as unhelpful. I have encountered both clergy and laity who feel that they cannot wear purple or that they cannot wear purple in my presence. They are under the impression purple scarves, blouses, skirts, socks, etc. are liturgically verboten.

I want to go on record, just for here in Nevada, that this Bishop does not see how God’s Kingdom Mission is advanced by such fussiness over purple. Purple clerical shirts help color code our clergy so we can tell the bishops from the priests and deacons, but with regard to any other item of clothing, the episcopacy cannot claim a monopoly on a band of the color spectrum. So, Nevada brothers and sisters, please, in the spirit of Alice Walker and Jenny Joseph, wear purple to your heart’s content.

While we are on the subject of purple, let us speak of Advent. It used to be normative to use purple appointments in churches during the Advent season. In recent years, some churches have replaced the purple with blue. Strong opinions have arisen dividing the Purple Party from the Blue Party over this difference. I wish to say emphatically and with the deepest of convictions, it doesn’t matter. True, there is no real precedent for this use of blue. Blue, I am told, was the color used by the Medieval English Church EXCEPT during Advent and Lent.  Saying that blue is somehow less penitential than purple is as subjective as the interpretations of different shades of bishop clergy shirts. The argument has been persuasively advanced that this use of blue is a ploy by liturgical suppliers, “whose names must not be spoken,” to sell more frontals. But, so what?

For a little perspective, the practice of using liturgical colors to help set the spiritual tone of the season – like the different opening acclamations, collects, proper prefaces, and dismissals actually prescribed by the Prayer Book – goes all the way back to the 4th Century. But different churches have used different colors in different times. See,
The liturgical color scheme is written in water colors, not stone. Moreover, it is a matter of custom and practice, not a rule guiding our liturgy.

Blue is not “less penitential.” Royal blue is associated with royalty so in Advent it suggests the coming of the King. Bright blue is associated with the sky or Heaven where the Angels proclaim the incarnation. It is also associated with Mary, the “Queen of Heaven,” and so the Church waits with Mary for the birth. But the Purple Party has a perspective too. Purple also represents royalty and the coming of the King as well as penitence. So, there is truly no right or wrong about the choice of color for Advent.

Another confusion arises over the liturgical colors on the bishops visit or at baptism. The answer is that the regular color of the day is appropriate. Galley, The Ceremonies of the Eucharist, p. 174.

But here’s my one actual concern: Episcopalians would be shocked to hear themselves called “fanatics,” but I once heard fanaticism defined as becoming so obsessed with the means that one forgets the ends. I might use the word “idolatry,” worshiping the creature instead of the Creator.  We sometimes fret too much over details – “getting it right” – without thinking of the meaning the colors and other liturgical symbols are intended to express. The soul is not expanded by fussiness over details but rather by immersion in the spirit of the liturgy. True, in ignorance of the spirit of the liturgy, we are apt to get the details wrong. But then the problem is not transgression of a rule of etiquette to which the more scrupulous say “tsk tsk” but rather a deafness to God’s call.

I hope our people will learn the liturgy, not so they can be perfectionist and “get it right” more often than others – but so they can soak it in and let the ancient symbols of the faith grow their spirits and embolden their hearts for God’s mission in our suffering world.

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