Singing the Sarum blues

Purple and pink hatsA few days ago, I posted a ridiculous photo on Facebook (on your right), making a joke about how Advent was finally getting some retail love — including Gaudete Sunday. See there? Purple hats for Advent I, II, and IV. And a pink, or rose, hat for Advent III. Just like the Advent wreath!

Someone pointed out in the comments that I was wrong, since the proper color of Advent is blue, not purple. Perhaps this person was joking, perhaps not. But this time of year, it’s a conversation I’ll have several times, as people debate the proper color for the season. For the sake of convenience, I have decided to put some thoughts into a blog post, so I can link here. You, dear 7WD reader, are the beneficiary of my commenting laziness. Because. I will definitively answer the question: What is the correct liturgical color for Advent?

Or not. Because, you see, there isn’t one.

The Book of Common Prayer says not a word about liturgical color. While I believe some authorized liturgical materials from other Anglican Communion provinces specify color, there simply are no official colors in the Episcopal Church. You can use construction orange for the season after Pentecost and DayGlo green for Lent. And you’d be in conformity with the rubrics (though there are plenty of people who don’t care about this).

So with that said, how do we know what colors to use? Generally, Anglicans follow Western Christian (read: Roman) custom with liturgical colors. So this means:

  • White for happy feasts and festal seasons
  • Red for blood and fire — martyrs, the Holy Spirit, Passiontide, and sundries
  • Purple for penitential occasions
  • Green for the leftovers — the seasons after Pentecost and Epiphany; there is no such thing as “Ordinary Time” in the Episcopal Church

A couple of decades ago, or maybe longer, a bunch of vestment companies realized that blue had been a liturgical color back in the day, and they decided to declare the Advent would use blue, not purple. This would differentiate Advent from Lent whilst selling a bunch of vestments at the same time. As an aside, about this same time, some people decided Advent isn’t a penitential season, so this made good sense, to save purple for Lent. Never mind that Advent is, in fact, a penitential season, as demonstrated in the appointed collects. But I digress.

Anyway, I didn’t bother to look any of this up, because I’m trusting that actual liturgical scholars will correct my grotesque caricature of a history. I’m confident my main point will stand, even as I look like a rube for simplifying too much. The point is that blue for Advent is largely a modern invention and — at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist — I think ecclesiastical haberdashers are glad to have us thinking along the lines of Advent blue.

So every now and then, I’ll get into a conversation with someone who advocates using blue for Advent. I’ll ask them why they prefer this. When folks say that they like blue for purely aesthetic reasons, I have nothing further to add. If they say they like blue because they want to differentiate the season from Lent, I might disagree with their non-pentiential premise for the Advent season, but I can respect the reasoning of making Advent look different from Lent. Lord knows, Lent comes with some serious baggage.

But when people say that, as proper Anglicans, they favor Sarum usage, so they must use blue, I object. Strongly. You see, if they are going to use Sarum colors, the scheme would need to go like this, according to blessed Percy Dearmer, as reported by Taylor Marshall:

Every Sunday of the Year except in Lent
Passion & Palm Sundays
Good Friday

Only the Blessed Virgin (and NOT for saints who weren’t martyrs)

St Michael

Yellow & Green:

Advent and Lent (at a later date)

So. Since no one that I know is doing that, it’s more honest to just say you like blue for Advent and leave it at that. Unless you are trotting out a yellow set for the confessors.

While I’m on the subject of Advent colors, let’s talk about the colors of Advent wreaths. (These wreaths, by the way, might best be used as home devotions rather than add-ons to corporate worship.) For whatever reason, people love to use candles to match the colors of the vestments, more or less. This makes great sense in a home wreath, because there’s no vestment color in your kitchen. At church, it seems odd to me that we like a rose candle when it’s next to lovely rose silk vestments. Since we don’t use red candles on Pentecost or purple ones for Lent, why use colored candles in the wreath? I dunno. For me, I like white candles in an Advent wreath, but I’ve been accused of “ruining Advent” for holding this opinion.

Anyway, in the Roman rite, it was long been customary to use rose vestments on Advent III and Lent IV. So we have a rose candle along with purple ones for the other three weeks of Advent. But in the Sarum rite, this rose Sunday was unknown. So if you use blue candles mixed with a single rose candle, you are crossing the liturgical Ghostbuster streams. I don’t care; you can do what floats you boat. Let’s just acknowledge that we’re making stuff up (creating new traditions!) based on our personal preference.

So, in summary: You can use whatever colors you want for your vestments and your candles. Neither Jesus nor I will judge you, though I’m pretty sure the ghost of Percy Dearmer is going to haunt many of you. If you choose to follow in the streams of Roman or Sarum or Eborian usage, awesome. If you decide to make up a new scheme, fantastic. Just know that there’s not as much moral high ground on liturgical colors as it might seem to some folks.

As for me, I’ve used both blue and purple for Advent. They were both lovely, for different reasons. Whichever color we wear and use, we can do what’s important in this season: prepare our hearts and our lives to celebrate the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

13 Responses

  1. Steve Pankey says:

    Bishop Alexander, in a DMin course at Sewanee this summer, suggested that at one time black was the liturgical color of penitential seasons. Depending on the berries used to dye fabric black, they faded to purple in some areas and blue in others. I believe blue was more common in northern climes, ex. England, therefore the ambiguity in Anglican use.

  2. Evan D. Garner says:

    I was told that Salisbury Cathedral (home of the Sarum Rite) was the only place the Vatican allowed blue to be used for Advent. Some argue that because much of the Anglican liturgy pulls from Sarum we should be blue, but I disagree. Yes, if you worship at Salisbury Cathedral, make it blue. Otherwise, purple is appropriate.

  3. Scott Gunn says:

    Evan, for what it’s worth, on the eve of the English Reformation, I believe Sarum was the most common use in England, moreso than Ebor, Bangor, or Hereford, and certainly much more than the Roman. So Anglicans can, with solid backing, claim that Sarum is our true heritage. But, in practice, almost all of us are more influenced by the post-conciliar liturgical movement emanating from Rome than anything else. I don’t much care which way we lean, but I do think it’s important to know our real influences, be they historical or personal whim.

  4. Louis Weil says:

    Hi Scott. Actually, I do not want to get into this debate because I find it silly — but I’ll stick my oar in with a couple of observations. First of all there are many different traditions regarding the liturgical colors, so anyone who says one color or another is “the only correct color for … ” must not be aware of the diversity. The BCP certainly has never gotten into this issue, so whatever system may be chosen is operating at a secondary or even tertiary level. I think we can learn from the Orthodox tradition on this question: they use the best vestment for Easter and the great feasts — regardless of color; and then on down the line, and finally an old or worn vestment (whatever the color) for ‘ordinary’ celebrations — to use a current RC word. My own personal thought on the Advent issue is, if possible, to avoid the Lenten parallel — sorry to correct, but this is NOT a penitential season: the AAM published an article by me on this several years ago. On what do I base that? Cf. the frequent use of ‘Alleluia’ in the Advent hymns as a starter; but the early evolution of the calendar confirms that. The idea that it is penitential comes from a time when leaders who were imposing a ‘shape’ on the annual calendar extended Advent to six weeks to make it a parallel to Lent, and thus the penitential prism for Advent was born. In my half-century of teaching I have regularly called for a more accurate interpretation of the Advent season, but the Lenten association seems to hold on — funny, since we have pretty much lost what Lent is about!

  5. faith lang says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post which made me laugh early on a dark Monday morning!
    In particular, I liked “the ghost of Percy Dearmer”

  6. Geoff McLarney says:

    I’m told that at Bl. Percy’s own parish of St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill, the well-worn old yellow set is brought out of retirement when the feast of St Mary Magdalene falls on a Sunday.

    As for rose, the Western Rite Orthodox monastery in my region uses blue on Advent I, II, and IV while keeping Gaudete in rose, so if those who do so are “making it up” they’re in good company. What I don’t get is the retention of the violet and rose wreaths in churches where blue vestments have long been the norm. White would make more sense than mixing: if you’re going to match, match.

  7. relling says:

    Thanks for the narrative. I really didn’t know most of this. I am also empowered for the next time someone gets sniffy about the use of blue instead of purple during Advent.

    Is there a helpful, non-boring guide to Episcopal church history and custom?

  8. Lynne Bleich Weber says:

    Thanks for all the interesting information. Having no liturgical expertise other than an ecumenical seminary and regular parish ministry, I arrived at a parish that already had blue hangings, which are quite pretty and loved by the congregation, and saw no reason to change them! (How’s that for a reason?) Although familiar with the Sarum argument, I also think of the blue as Mary’s color, a color of expectation and hope for the coming birth. (Of course Mary’s liturgical color is white, but any way….) This doesn’t prevent us from beginning Advent with the Great Litany and a more stripped-down ethos that seems appropriate to the propers and the beginning of a new Church Year. So I guess it comes down to more “personal” and “local piety” for me. (Oh, and the candles match…blue…but I like the idea of white.)

  9. Barry McMurtrey says:

    Thank you, Fr. Scott, for an excellent article. I agree with you that this argument boils down to making up historical/liturgical arguments for aesthetic preferences. The fun memory it brings to me are the hours I once spent poring over late 19th C Anglican ritualist apologetics…a series which can best be described as “Percy Dearmer and his Detractors” in which they each took quite seriously the history and order of a whole range of liturgical colors and precedents (including brown). It was hilarious that so much ink and effort could be spent on this. While, I like think Advent is a season both penitential yet quite different from Lent, whatever defines good, old fashion sorrow, penance, and repentance is needed in our society now more than ever,. The days of Advent are first and foremost the season of worshiping Mammon….and the Church says nothing as stores nationally ask families to forgo the act of Thanksgiving with family at the table in order to buy discount on Thanksgiving Day itself. Shame on us all.

  10. I’ve no problem with whatever color, so long as you do not call it “Sarum blue” for Advent. This is just wrong , wrong, wrong.

  11. Stephanie Chase Bradbury says:

    You have relieved my mind greatly! My mother is from Germany and I grew up with red candles in my Advent wreath at home. In seminary I was distraught to discover we were expected to use purple and rose candles. They just don’t look like Advent to me. So at church I would use the “correct” liturgical colors of purple/rose candles, and at home I would guiltily (but happily) use my red candles. It was my secret sin. Since you’ve now explained that colors are not in the BCP, I may flaunt my red candles at home with abandon!

  12. Pegram Johnson III says:

    Friends and fellow admirers of The Parson’s Handbook, for its polemical style if not always its content:
    My seminary friend, now departed, the Rev’d Thom Garner from North Carolina, gave the definitive answer to questions liturgical:
    “The real liturgical reason why is ‘BECAUSE I WANT TO!'” which is behind the stated reason: “It is the ancient custom of the church, blah, blah blah, blah.”

  1. November 25, 2013

    […] Scott Gunn writes at Seven Whole Days: Singing the Sarum blues. […]

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