Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"You're Wearing That?": On Church Dresscodes

This week, the Catholic weekly Our Sunday Visitor has a piece about priests enforcing dress codes at mass, including this gem:

One group at Holy Redeemer that has been especially careless about dress is Latino women, Father Pilcher said, especially when they come for weddings and quinceaneras.
“That’s a group I have to work on,” he told Our Sunday Visitor.

Brothers and sisters in Christ: If an entire cultural group seems to have different standards of dress from the ones you were raised with, and your response to that observation is to say in a media interview that you “have to work on” people of that culture, perhaps the work set before you is internal. Perhaps that work begins with reading the Wikipedia article on cultural imperialism, continues with some exploration of your own privilege, and concludes with a bit of soul-searching. Repentance might be in order.

That said, I think we are dealing with at least two different questions. One question is, “what should people wear to church?” Another question is, “what should clergy and lay-leaders do when worshippers wear something that is Not That?”

What people should wear to church is an issue which transcends time, place, and denomination. It happens to be cropping up in the Catholic press today, but it is not a Catholic Issue. Wherever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, someone is judging someone else’s outfit, be they Catholic, Evangelical, or UU.

Scriptural witness makes it clear that standards of modesty vary across time and culture. One culture's miniskirt is another culture's exposed ankles, which is another culture's unveiled head. These standards are culturally specific, not eternal or God-ordained, and are customarily policed by men with too much time on their hands, and lovely church ladies who wonder what happened to the good old days.

“But Feminist Pastor,” you may say, clutching your Extremely Tasteful Church Pearls, “Would you have me go to church naked, as I’m sure you do?”

“No,” I would reply, “Because I was raised in New England, and adhere to the culturally specific (see above) church dress norms thereof, Extremely Tasteful Church Pearls and all. Besides which, as a clergywoman I have the privilege of dressing in a black, sack-like robe which covers me from clavicle to mid-calf. I would encourage you to go to church wearing whatever helps you feel worshipful.”

(I also would encourage you, when you’re going to a religious setting other than your own, to try to dress in a way that’s respectful of the norms of the community you are visiting, but that’s more Miss Manners than Feminist Pastor. (Confession moment: I have arrived at more than one religious service and discovered I was dressed inappropriately for worship in that community.) )

But – and this is an entirely different question from what constitutes appropriate attire for church – what is a Christian response to “inappropriate dress”?

Judgment and shaming. Duh.

If we are going to answer our call to welcome strangers and rejects and outsiders, if we really believe that the Kingdom of God means everyone has a place at the table, we can’t expect everyone to wear, or even to own, Extremely Tasteful Church Pearls. Isn’t it great when teenagers bring their teenage rebellion, in all its sartorial glory, to church? Isn’t it great when rich folks and poor folks are welcomed at the same table? Isn’t it great when the church lives out its call to be a “house of prayer for all nations” – different cultures and all? Could we come to see challenges to our ideas about clothing as part of the blessing of diversity?

When someone arrives at church in an outfit that raises eyebrows, the church is called to welcome them with open arms, remembering that Jesus turns no one away.

When a pastor’s cultural dress norms are different from those of his or her congregation, it is the pastor’s job to come to understand the culture of the congregation under his or her care – not to condemn it.

When a congregation is in conflict over differing dress norms, whether it is because of age, class, or culture, the task before that church’s leadership is, I believe, to reframe that conflict in language that celebrates the all-too-rare gift of living together as a diverse congregation. The task is to celebrate those differences, recognizing God’s expansive love for all people, regardless of race or class, age or gender, tattoo-status or shirt-tightness. If God’s grace is big enough to welcome women in fur coats and men in Rolex watches, it is certainly big enough to welcome street people, rebellious youth, guys in ripped-up jeans, and scantily clad ladies.

As for modesty? Maybe we should get some of those ladies into clerical robes.

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