Fashion, turn to the left
Fashion, turn to the right
Oo, fashion[1]

I’ve been taking a few weeks off to go to a theological conference and rest up. It’s been a tough time, particularly following the martyrdom of Father Jacques Hamel in France. I had intended to begin blogging through St John Cassian’s Conference 10 on prayer.  This morning, however, I read a really interesting post by Daniel Newman, shared with me by an Anglican friend, about clerical dress and I wanted to develop his thoughts over a couple of days.

Before I begin, let me make one concession: to many the subject of clerical clothing could not seem more esoteric, irrelevant or plain boring. If that is you, let me assure you that you are not alone. I also think you are wrong. The way we discuss the clothing that an ordained person (by whatever title we use) wears often reveals the assumptions and theology that underpin our doctrine of ordination, ministry, and even the church. It may seem trivial, therefore, but it is actually a useful proxy for examining our instinctive responses to some bigger questions.

With that said, let’s look at Daniel’s article. (If you’re reading this, I hope you don’t mind me calling you Daniel – you seem very friendly so I thought it was OK).

Thoughts for the ‘Mankini wing of the church’[2]

Daniel writes to explain ‘why even low church evangelicals should not be too hasty to scrap clerical dress.’ First it is argued that we should not accept standard objections to distinctive clothing for the clergy:

  • It is a mistake to imagine that clerical clothing acts as a cultural barrier to sharing the gospel or representing Christ in our communities since all forms of clothing erect barriers and open opportunities.
    Clothes act as tribal markers.
    A minister’s choice of clothes can give people the message that the gospel is not for them or hinder them from approaching him for pastoral care or with questions about God because they suspect the motives of someone dressed like a second-hand car salesman, support a rival sports team, have no affinity for rugby players, or feel alienated from someone of a different class or subculture.

    Further, ‘casual attire gives the impression, even unconsciously, that we can simply breeze into God’s presence, rather than the fact that God is holy and we can only stand before him because of Christ’s death.
  • While protestants generally affirm the ‘priesthood of all believers’, ‘we do not believe in the presbyterate of all believerspresbyters [ministers, elders, or priests depending on your wing of the church] do not take this office upon themselves but are ordained for the local churches by men with authority.
    Thus, it is suggested, the implicit argument that there is no distinction between lay and ordained members of the church is wrong and provides no justification for abolishing the visible signs of ordained ministry.

Daniel then uses this point to advance a positive argument for clerical clothing.

  • Presbyters (to use Daniel’s terminology) hold an office which is conferred by the church, to perform duties which are the property of the church. Moreover, dressing officeholders in a distinctive way is a proper and helpful signifier and representation of this reality.
    Robes at the time of divine service and a collar as part of street dress signify to the man wearing them, the congregation, and onlookers that he is not acting in a private capacity, but as someone who is exercising an office entrusted to him by the church – as one who has been lawfully called and sent…
    To slightly modify something I once heard, when I wear my surplice, I am 2000 years old
  • Finally, Daniel has found that ‘wearing a clerical collar has given me the opportunity to answer questions about the faith, show practical help to someone in need, counsel someone who had separated from his wife, and share the gospel.

Over the next couple of days I want to offer some reflections on these arguments from the position of a free-church pastor operating in a tradition in which distinctive clerical clothing is almost unheard of (one of my tutors once reacted in something approaching disbelief when it was suggested that a student might wear a collar).

Where Daniel is Right

It seems to me that Daniel’s basic theological arguments are right. His point that while we believe in the priesthood of all believers we do not believe in the eldership of all believers echoes a well-established argument from as far abroad as Ware’s The Orthodox Church. The contrary argument is essentially one against ordination altogether, a suggestion that appears either explicitly or implicitly with some regularity in low-church circles. Such an argument seems to me to have little or no foundation in Scripture or the broader tradition of the church.

Moreover, Daniel is right to identify the (positive) depersonalising effect of a uniform. In our previous careers my wife and I were barristers. As a criminal barrister my wife regularly wore a wig and gown in court (together with a dark suit). She was dressed in more or less the same way as the rest of the barristers whatever their age, gender, race or background. She was an officer of the court. I cannot overstate how important that uniform was at times – a 23 year old, beautiful, blond woman descending to the cells to deal with those (usually men) accused of sometimes terrible things carried the weight of the institution of the court behind her. She was not a lovely young girl to be dismissed or patronised; she was their brief, to be respected and listened to.

A real weakness of low, free and Charismatic church life is that it has too often lost that sense that its ordained leaders’ authority comes not from how well, or accessibly, they present but from the Word preached; not from their personal charisma but from God’s appointing through His church. This trend is exacerbated by the absence of a uniform in which all ministers are equal and which marks the source of their authority as God, working through the church.

Missional Church or Embarrassed Brother?

In addition to the points made by Daniel, I find myself asking whether my own tradition’s rejection of the visible Christian symbols and uniforms is really the result of legitimate theological and missional concerns or embarrassment with the historic church and traditional Christianity.

In the evangelical wing of the church there has been an increasing tendency to adopt the forms and styles of the culture around us. I have embraced this trend myself – dressing in a casual shirt, or even t-shirts, using contemporary music in worship, eschewing ‘religious’ titles and so on. This has historically been justified on the basis both that it makes us more accessible to the culture around us and that it eschews a theological distinction between minister and congregation.

Nevertheless there is a real and tangible cost to blending in. We are in the middle of an existential battle on two fronts. At home Christianity is increasingly unwelcome in public discourse and life. The stories and symbols of the ancient faith that once silently spoke of God to all are gradually disappearing from the public sphere. At the same time we are under a brutal and deadly assault from those whose own religious commitment entails the destruction or subjugation of ours. None of this is new historically,[3] but it is new in the West. When we make our churches look like any other building, when our pastors and priests look like anyone else, we cooperate with both of these forces: we are removing the visual and symbolic reminders that there is a Christians church and at her head there is a Christ who calls them to repentance and acceptance.

Moreover, as I have searched in my own heart at least, I have often detected a desire to distance myself and my ecclesial tribe from the historic Christian church – to think and project the message: ‘look at us, we are not irrelevant, or stuffy, or boring, or traditional like them; we are just like you.’ Such an impulse is the aversion a ‘cool’ sibling feels around his ‘uncool’ older brother or perhaps a teenage son’s embarrassment at his mother. Yet it seems peculiarly unjustifiable when that older brother is attacked for being part of the family. For myself I wonder if it has begun to take on overtones of betrayal and cowardice as well as pride and disrespect. I want to acknowledge that it is an act of courage to be publicly identifiable as a Christian minister and our High Church brothers should not be forced to stand alone in the face of such hostility.

This is not necessarily to argue for the return of a dog-collar to low-church circles. There may well be powerful theological and practical objections, some of which we will consider later in the week. Nevertheless we should find a way of embracing Christian symbols particularly in the public dress of our leaders and representatives.

[1] David Bowie, Fashion

[2] The reference to mankinis stems from an comment by Giles Fraser, subsequently cited in passing by Charlie Skrine of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate.

[3] Read Ware’s The Orthodox Church for a glimpse into the suffering of our Eastern brothers and sisters under Islamic theocracy and communism.