Ask A Priest (Bishop’s Vestments)
Q: Bishop Barker recently visited our parish and now I’m curious about his vestments and other objects associated with being a bishop. Can you explain their significance?
A: That’s a great question, and one that is of special interest to me because I served on the Transition Committee that was charged with procuring those very vestments and objects for Bishop Barker. The ministry of the bishop is to connect all of the parishes in the diocese, to connect all of the dioceses to one another, and to maintain a connection between the church of today and the early church established by the apostles. The bishop’s vestments help symbolize his ministry (both men and women serve the church as bishops, but since your question was about Bishop Barker, I will use male pronouns in my answer).
The pointed hat that the bishop wears is called a mitre. Bishops have been wearing mitres for about 1,000 years, so they are very recognizable symbols of the office of bishop. The mitre is shaped like a flame, reminding us of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the upper room on Pentecost, when the church was born. We believe that bishops represent an unbroken lineage (sometimes called succession) all the way back to the first apostles, so the flame-like hat reminds us of that special spiritual ancestry.
The cape that the bishop sometimes wears is called a cope. Historically, copes are reminiscent of overcoats worn during Roman times. The bishop typically only wears a cope when he is participating in a non-Eucharistic liturgy (a church service without Holy Communion), but it may also be worn in the first part of a Eucharistic service or when performing services that only he can do, such as ordination or confirmation.
The stole is a long piece of fabric that priests (and bishops) wear around their necks and deacons wear across their chests. They are symbols of obedience to Christ.
The alb is the white garment that goes under all the other vestments. If you are a chalice bearer in your parish, you may wear and alb yourself sometimes. Albs are symbols of our baptism and reminders that we are all equal in Christ. Above everything else, the bishop is first and foremost a baptized Christian. The alb is a reminder that our identity is found in baptism, not ordination.
When the bishop visited your church he probably carried a large staff with him, called a crozier. The crozier, which has a curved top, looks like a traditional shepherd’s staff and is symbolic of the bishop’s ministry as pastor (shepherd).
Bishop Barker wears a ring on his right hand with the seal of the Diocese of Nebraska. It is an ancient tradition—probably dating back to the Middle Ages—that a bishop receive a ring at his or her ordination. The ring is a symbol of the bishop’s faithfulness to the Church and to Christ. In rare occasions when the bishop must seal a document in wax, he can use his ring.
The bishop has other special garments symbolic of his ministry (like a chimere, rochet, and tippet), but he doesn’t typically wear them on parish visits (at least not that I’ve seen).
Rev. Liz Easton
A deacon wearing a stole (deacons wear the stole across one shoulder, priests around both)
Bishop Barker’s crozier
Several bishops wearing their copes
Bishop Barker in his mitre
A Bishop’s Ring