Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.[1]

In my last post I began to examine some of the arguments for ordained Christian ministers dressing distinctively, using this article by Daniel Newman as a starting point. If you haven’t read my original post or Daniel’s, you might want to check one of them out as the rest of this might not make much sense.

Before we begin, in the interests of full disclosure I should say that as I write this I’m not dressed in black. In fact I’m not wearing any form of distinctively clerical clothing, preferring a shirt and tie. That might seem surprising given the arguments I made previously in favour of clerical collars and the like. In this post I am going to try and address some of the reasons why I have come to the decision that I have.

Fashion Changes

As a preliminary point we should note one thing. There is no such thing as a stable form of clerical dress. It has always varied from time to time, and region to region. The dog-collar is a relatively recent (and Western) interpretation of how priests should present themselves in public, while the precise formulation of the robes worn by ministers in church has also changed with (and in response to) tradition and fashion. The point is that there is no right and wrong description of exactly what we should wear, save for where it is prescribed by the relevant church authorities. With that said, there are good and bad reasons for our choices.

As we address questions of form and symbol within the church, I think it is helpful to have three questions in mind:

  • What is consistent with the principles of worship laid down for us by Scripture and Tradition?
  • What will best enable the worshipping community for whom we are responsible to worship, and come to participate in the life of, God?
  • What will enable those outside our worshipping community to encounter God?

Direction of Contextualisation

Contextualisation has been something of a buzzword in theological circles for many years. For the uninitiated (count yourselves among the blessed) it is a (relatively) new word for a very old idea – when you talk to, and meet with, people you should try and do it in a way that they understand. As St Paul puts it, ‘I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.’[2]

At first glance this sounds uncontroversial. Yet as soon as you start to ask specific questions it becomes much harder. To take an ancient example, the Eastern wing of the church traditionally translated its liturgy into the vernacular of the people among whom it was ministering, even when that meant basically inventing a written language to make that possible.[3] The argument was that it should be accessible to the people. By contrast, the Western church preserved the Mass in Latin. The argument was that to translate it necessarily lost some of the meaning. Neither argument is obviously wrong, although we might prefer one emphasis over the other.

What is perhaps less well thought through is the direction of our contextualisation. In most of the conversations in which I have been involved on this subject it is assumed that we should contextualise to the society within which our worshipping community is located. I believe that this is only partly true.

As ministers, theologians and liturgists we have three persons or groups in mind as we pastor. First, and most importantly, we serve God. Everything we do should be for his praise, for his pleasure and in his power. Our second concern is our flock – the people over whose souls we have care. Among people they should be our priority for they are Christ’s bride and the ones for whom we are accountable. Third, we help to equip and lead churches that are engaged (or should be engaged) in evangelism, focussing on the world around us. When we address questions such as clothing, symbols, architecture, and so on each of these audiences (for want of a better word) should be considered and considered in a particular order.

God: Our First Priority

First, God. At its most basic level what we do should be determined by what God says and who he is. We discern these things first through Scripture, the authoritative and true word of God and absolutely reliable record of apostolic teaching and practice. Second, through the way the Spirit has led the church in its Tradition and practice throughout history. I differ on this from some (perhaps many) of my Baptist brothers but I believe that where the church has consistently and universally affirmed something we are bound by it. Obviously this begs some questions but for the most part it is actually very stable.

Let us apply this question to the matter at hand:

  • The Scripture shows that God desired that elders be appointed in the churches through the laying on of hands.[4]
  • Scripture does not prescribe any particular dress for those leaders, although it is inconceivable that they would not be expected to follow the same instructions given to their flock, for example to dress ‘modestly, with decency and propriety.’[5]
  • Tradition shows that at various times the clothing prescribed for clergy changed so as to reflect these values in the culture then prevailing but also to point the worshipping community beyond themselves to God.[6]

Internal Contextualisation

This is a point that is not as well covered in contemporary discussions. As leaders our first human-facing priority is to lead the people in worship through the word and sacraments. Where we are dealing with a question such as this, where there is no clear ‘right’ answer, we must ask what will enable us to minister within our own church community. As we consider these questions we should bear in mind that what we do, and how we appear, is often more formative of what those in our congregations believe and how they behave than what we say.

If you are from a High Church background in which full clerical dress is an expected part of the liturgical life of the church it is important not to depart too radically or quickly from that even if you believe it will be evangelistically effective. Similarly, in my own context where there has never been a pastor of my church who wore any form of clerical dress it is important that I do not suddenly begin wearing a collar or cassock. To do so would be to cause my flock to stumble and thus betray my first priority and responsibility as their pastor. This does not mean that I should not challenge them by considering the evangelistic needs of our broader community. But it does mean that they come first.

I am loathe to apply this directly to the intra-Anglican position that Daniel discussed since I have very little feel for the precise dynamics involved. Nevertheless I would urge caution. I have explained previously why I believe the attempt to abolish the distinction between clergy and laity that often underpins this discussion is a mistake. Reversing that process too quickly, however, is also a mistake and will likely cause unnecessary hurt and pain to some of those under our care. Evolution is better than revolution.

External Contextualisation

This is the last thing we need to consider (although it often seems to jump to the front). I felt that Daniel’s analysis here was good but needed qualification. It is true that every type of clothing communicates a message, opening some doors and closing others. Nevertheless not every piece of clothing communicates the same message. It depends on context what type of dress (symbol, building etc) best embodies the message that we desire to communicate.

In the short time I have been ministering in a relatively prosperous Surrey village, I have come across several people who have been hurt by those in church in the past. I can quite imagine a situation in which it was not helpful to wear a traditional dog-collar because it recalled too many negative connotations for those outside the church.

By contrast I can equally cite examples of where it would have been easier for me to minister had I been wearing a collar and perhaps it would even have brought an opportunity for restoration and forgiveness for those who have carried anger and pain for years.

With all of that said, I wonder whether that is really that significant an issue for most people most of the time. Interestingly I know people whose lives have been marred (in their own minds) by contact with relatively informal churches as well as very formal ones. If we are sharing our lives with people, if our churches are open, accessible and competently organised, if we perform the liturgy (in whatever form) well then I suspect that they will not be put off if we dress differently from them.[7] The argument from external contextualisation, therefore, is real but, I suspect, not as strong as is often made out for those ministering in Britain.


Over my last two posts I have been arguing for the distinction between the clergy and laity to be reflected in the symbols and clothing of ordained ministers in whatever tradition they presently work. I have conceded that this does not necessarily mean we have to wear traditional dog-collars. But we should try to develop something that is acceptable within our worshipping contexts. Such an option should be modest (ie no actual mankinis), humble (ie not super-flashy suits or expensive jewellery), decent (back to the mankinis), and proper (I think this means smart – in whatever way is entailed in context). Ultimately it should also point people beyond this world to the One we worship (ie not simply dressing the same as everyone else). Following these principles should allow us to evolve our practice in a way that cares for those in our charge while also moving towards a position that we feel is more theologically acceptable.

[1] Johnny Cash, Man in Black

[2] 1 Corinthians 9:22

[3] See, for example, the example of Saints Cyril and Methodius 

[4] See, for example, 1 Timothy and Titus.

[5] 1 Timothy 2:9.

[6] Oden, Pastoral Theology, p.

[7] Ian Paul’s description of a packed liberal High Anglican service is worth pondering here.