The use of colors in the Christian church to designate the seasons and holy days of the church year dates from the 4th century in Western Europe.
There was much variation from region to region in the choice and application of colors until the 12th century, when Pope Innocent III systematized the use of five colors: purple, white, black, red, and green, and a color scheme was further formalized for the Catholic Church by Pope Pius V in the Tridentine Missal of 1570.
Early Anglican churches abandoned the color scheme in reaction against medieval practices, and in fact the Anglican Prayer Books have never specified a color scheme.
In the 19th century, the Anglican churches began to restore the use of liturgical colors, and today nearly all Anglican/Episcopal churches follow color systems that resemble those observed by the Roman Catholic Church, but with some differences.
In many Anglican churches, blue is used during Advent rather than purple; and red, rather than white, is used during Holy Week. These variations in color originated in the Sarum Rite* in England.
“*Sarum Rite refers to the body of liturgical ritual, text, and music that was used at the Cathedral of Salisbury, England in the later middle ages. That liturgy became the standard for Catholic cathedrals, churches, chapels and colleges up to the time of the Reformation in the 16th century. It differed from the Roman Catholic Rite by having its own liturgical texts and musical melodies; by using some new colors, notably blue for Advent, the Lenten Array(unbleached muslin with black or crimson accents) and crimson during Passiontide; and by celebrating local feasts. The Sarum Rite was the original basis for the liturgy of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.”
The colors of the seasons (and sometimes of the day) are reflected in the Altar appointments and in the vestments worn by our priests.
Purple is the color of penitence and indicates sorrow. It is used during the season of Lent.
Green is the color of life and growth. Green is used during Epiphany and the Season following Pentecost, so you will see the altar and the priests clothed in green for much of the year. The season of Epiphany addresses the spreading of the Good News of Christ and the church’s mission in the world. This theme continues in the Season following Pentecost. Green represents our growth in the Christian way of life and thought.
Blue, like purple, is used as a symbol of penitence, but it is also the color of hope. Blue is used in many churches for Advent to distinguish it from Lent. As the color honoring the Virgin Mary, it reminds us that during Advent, the church waits with Mary for the birth of Jesus.
White is the color of purity and innocence, holiness, triumph and joy. You will see it used for occasions that commemorate Christ’s life on earth, such as Christmas, Easter and the Feast of the Epiphany. White is also appropriate for All Saint’s Day; for the feast days of Saints who were not martyred; and for weddings, baptisms and funerals.
Red represents the fire of the Holy Spirit and the blood of martyrdom. It is used, therefore, on the Day of Pentecost and on the feast days for Saints who were martyrs.Red is also the color of Christ’s passion, and so is used during Holy Week starting with Passion/Palm Sunday.
Black is the color of death and sorrow and is appropriate for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On Good Friday, the cross behind the altar is veiled in black.
There are some other colors that have liturgical significance, although we do not use them in our vestments.
Gold is used at Saint James in place of white for Christmas and Easter.
Rose is a “lighter” version of the penitential colors of purple and blue. Rose is used on the Third Sunday in Advent (“Gaudette”) and the Fourth Sunday in Lent (“Laetare”). Think of the rose-colored candle in the Advent Wreath.