If you look around the inside of an Episcopal Church, you can easily glance over some things for which people have bled and died over. Everything from placements of the altar, to the candles on the altar, to the garb of the clergy, there have been some interesting battles fought in the Christian church.

Take the surplice.

You may not even know what a surplice is. Sounds like a beverage you might get at the Spectrum gas station in Hamilton. A surplice is the white, poncho-looking garment that covers a cassock. What’s a cassock, you ask? That’s the long black vestment a priest wears at services other than Holy Eucharist (the white alb and colored stole and chasuble are eucharistic vestments worn on Sundays). I wear a cassock and surplice at services like Lessons and Carols, funerals with no Eucharist, and Stations of the Cross. The choir wears a cassock and surplice on Sunday mornings. It can also be referred to as a “cotta.”


Today, I was reading a bit of history from the Daily Office website (www.missionstclare.com) on the day we remember William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633 to 1645. These were among the days of the English Civil War, which was a largely political and religious skirmish. On one side, you had the traditionalist Anglicans who’s style of worship remained largely Roman Catholic-looking. Clergy wore cassocks and surplices at Morning and Evening Prayer, which was the regular custom. On the other side, you had the Puritans, who wanted to do away with surplices because they weren’t mentioned in the Bible (neither is the word “Bible,” mind you) and because the Roman Catholics wore them, and Puritans hated the Romans. Puritans would interrupt services officiated by clergy wearing surplices and it was reported that a group broke into Oxford Chapel, stole all the surplices, and did the equivalent of flushing them down the toilet.

Those Puritans…if they weren’t so tightly wound, I would almost respect them for their hutzpah!

William Laud did his best to punish these hooligans and was known for jailing both poor and wealthy offenders. We remember him because without him, our poor choir might be mere cassock-wearers! The historian on the Daily Office website, James Kiefer writes:

“In 1637 an attempt was made to introduce the Book of Common Prayer into general use in Scotland, and it immediately caused rioting. In February of 1638, Scottish leaders signed the National Covenant, by which they pledged themselves to uphold the Puritan position by force, and by the end of the year they had voted to depose and excommunicate every bishop in Scotland. The unrest spread to England, and in 1640 Laud was arrested on a charge of high treason. He was kept in the Tower for four years, and tried in 1644, at the age of seventy-one. He was found guilty, not because there was any evidence of his guilt, but because the House of Commons was determined that he should die. On the scaffold he prayed: “The Lord receive my soul, and have mercy on me, and bless this kingdom with peace and charity, that there may not be this effusion of Christian blood amongst them.”


While the surplice wasn’t the cause of Laud’s death, his defending of the tradition of wearing the surplice certainly contributed. And you thought it was just a white sheet the choir was wearing!

The surplice was originally worn over the cassock as an extra layer to keep cold clergy warm in the days before HVAC units. Now I can see why the Puritans were so mad! Why were they the only “frozen chosen?”

So next time you wear a surplice or see someone wearing one, you have a conversation-starter. But don’t start with, “Hey, did you know that someone once stole all of those out of Oxford Chapel and shoved in a dung-hole?”

Jeff+For more info on vestments, click here.