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Heavenly Bodies - Vestments or Jeans in Church?


This week I saw pictures of Heavenly Bodies – an upcoming exhibition at the New York Metropolitan Museum (the Met) which will explore the link between secular fashion and the clerical ‘fashions’ of the Roman Catholic church. The pictures showed many links between the fashion industry and the church. In both places, the importance of the visual cannot be over-estimated. Both feature processions - one group of people watching another group of high status people. And the powerful people show their power with brightly coloured robes in expensive fabrics.

What's it all about? In more openly liturgical churches, the clerics of various ranks identify themselves with colourful stoles, chasubles and copes for different occasions and different liturgical seasons. A few minutes spent looking at a clerical outfitters website is enough to convince anyone that clergy ‘fashion’ is alive and well – and very beautiful.

I find myself more than ambivalent on this subject. Of course, I take exception to the showy, extravagant expense of the hierarchical churches and their multi-coloured vestments.

On the other hand, many of them really are very beautiful. In churches where they are used, vestments and other visual prompts remind me of the ideas instilled into me by my minister-father: being a priest or minister is a special holy calling. They encourage me to remember that, as a worshiper, I am more than the ears with which I hear the Word and the music. My eyes are a window to my soul. Beautiful things in church remind me that worship is about responding to God with my whole self. Having something beautiful to look at, something which lifts the spirits from the mundane, the prosaic, the everyday reminds me of the extravagant beauty of the New Jerusalem with its gold and precious stones and ‘the beauty of holiness’.

And then there's my non-conformist upbringing. The parades of solemn-looking and sometimes nervous men in dark business suits processing on to the ‘platforms’ of Adventist churches - were often uninspiring. A less colourful display, certainly, but were the men themselves necessarily less self-absorbed? Not necessarily, I think. What was there in the way they dressed which helped me to connect with them or their God? A new Adventist woman expressed it rather well for me years ago when she said, ‘When the men walk on to the platform in their dark suits, I do ask myself, ‘what has this parade got to do with me?’

At the time of the Reformation, Protestants withdrew colourful vestments and replaced them with black preaching gowns with white ‘collars’. Throughout his life, travelling the length and breadth of the UK, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was pictured in this simple garb. At a time when there were no media to enable his would-be hearers to identify him when he came into town, his garb was a tool in his Christian mission - a simple way of helping him to get in touch with people.

These days, there seems to be a fashion for CAYA dressing – ‘come as you are’. Pastors and their congregations ‘dress down’ in jeans and shirt sleeves. For me, that is also an important message. It’s an important antidote to the idea of ‘dressing up for church’. Church clothes - making ourselves special – can be seen as another sort of ‘show’.

There is always a degree of theatricality about church. Clearly, the visual language is important. How to decide? What suggestions do our readers have about dress in church for leaders and lay people? What works for your when it comes to your attention to God rather than to your fellow-worshipers and worship-leaders in church?


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