Much has been made of the wearing of stoles of late, particularly rainbow stoles worn as a statement concerning the ordination of gays and lesbians. There has been criticism and support. In this highly charged climate it might be helpful to consider the wearing of stoles and by whom over the history of the Church. Most of this information comes from a delightful site called “nerd country.” If the information is wrong please blame the folks at nerd country or me if I have failed to interpret them correctly.
“The word stole derives via the Latin” as a word borrowed (as often happened) stola, from the “Greek . In its ancient form, it is the language of classical ancient Greek literature and the New Testament of στολη (stolē), "garment", originally "array" or "equipment". (The word is used eight times in the New Testament in each case referring to "a loose outer garment for men extending to the feet, worn by kings, priests, and persons of rank.")
The stole was originally a kind of shawl that covered the shoulders and fell down in front of the body; on women they were often very large indeed. (My note: the stola therefore was originally a garment for women. What might that say about “clergy?”). After being adopted by the Church of Rome about the seventh century (the stole having also been adopted in other locals prior to this), the stole became gradually narrower and so richly ornamented that it developed into a mark of dignity. Nowadays, the stole is usually wider and can be made from a wide variety of material.
There are many theories as to the "ancestry" of the stole. Some say it came from the tallit. A tallit (taleth or talet in Sephardic Hebrew and Ladino) (tallis in Ashkenazic Hebrew and Yiddish) is a Jewish prayer shawl worn in the synagogue on Shabbat and holidays, and while reciting morning prayers (Shacharit), as well as afternoon (Mincha) and evening prayers (Ma'ariv) by many Sephardic Jews. The tallit has special meaning because it is very similar to the present usage (as in the minister puts it on when he or she leads in prayer) but this theory is no longer regarded much today. More popular is the theory that the stole originated from a kind of liturgical napkin called an orarium. In fact, in many places the stole is called the orarium. Therefore it is linked to the napkin used by Jesus of Nazareth in washing the feet of his disciples, and is a fitting symbol of the yoke of Christ, the yoke of service. (the word stola is not used in the John 13 to describe the cloth Jesus used to wash the feet of the disciples.)
The most likely origin for the stole, however, is to be connected with the scarf of office among Imperial officials in the Roman Empire. As members of the clergy became members of the Roman administration, they were granted certain honors, one specifically being a designator of rank within the imperial (and ecclesiastical) hierarchy. The various configurations of the stole grew out of this usage. The original intent then was to designate a person as belonging to a particular organization and to denote their rank within their group, a function which the stole continues to perform today. Thus, unlike other liturgical garments which were originally worn by every cleric or layman, the stole was a garment which was specifically restricted to particular classes of people based on occupation.
(The above is mostly from the nerd community with some editing. The following is my comment.)
In other words the stole is NOT a symbol of humility or a follower of Christ. It is a symbol of one’s place and office in the Roman Empire and the Church. It is a symbol of separation between laity and clergy. One could argue then as is often done, that a stole should be worn only by ordained clergy. (Deacons in the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions wear a stole in a different configuration, over the left shoulder, across the chest and the back to the right side of the body.)
In the early Church, however, those who read, preached and celebrated the sacraments wore everyday clothes like everyone else attending worship. It was only as Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire that clergy began to wear stoles as a sign of office.
One could argue therefore that the wearing of stoles by clergy is a statement about the Church, that there is not true equality in the Church between those called to serve as Ministers of Word and Sacrament and the so called “laity.” If we Presbyterians truly believe that the laos, the people includes all Christians pastors either should not wear stoles or all Christians should.
As to the wearing of stoles as a political or religious statement by one or more groups in the Church the stole should not be worn by as a symbol of difference but rather as a symbol of unity. That, I believe is one of the intended messages of those who wear rainbow colored stoles at meetings when the issue of ordination of gays and lesbians is to be voted upon. All should wear the stole or none unless of course we believe that Ministers of Word and Sacrament are somehow more important or to be elevated above other members of the Church. I hope we are past the Roman days at least in the Presbyterian Church. If not I will gladly stop wearing a stole.