On Cassocks and Celebrity; and to #NewRevs a blessing

For the Christian Church in the West it is once again the season of Petertide: the celebration of the apostles Peter and Paul (29 June), one of the principal times in the Church year for making deacons and ordaining priests. We gather the harvest of colleges and courses, giving thanks for the ability, transformation and grace seen in those to be set apart for public ministry. We celebrate and focus on God’s provision, trying not to be lured into making ourselves the centrepiece. We recall the extraordinary fact that the leaders of the Church are drawn from the wounded and fallible, just as God’s chosen people and Christ’s apostles were themselves needy and problematic.

And how else can grace shine, except out of weakness? How can eloquence be measured or vision marvelled at if not heard and seen in those who, without God’s grace, would miss the mark, squint and stumble in the world’s dark morass? It is perhaps this sense of humanity being salvaged for divine usefulness that imbues ordination services (and the parties afterwards) with such immense joy. For the newly-ordained themselves (or #NewRevs as we are invited to call them), Petertide is a time of understandable and undiluted happiness, usually the culmination of years of struggle with discernment and faith. It is also an exciting moment of departure as they begin the rest of their lives with no certainties ahead of them except an immediate training parish and eventual death.

So there is absolutely no need to subvert our celebration of ordained ministry by celebritising ordained ministers. I am fearful that there is some evidence of this in the pictures of ordinations published by the church press, especially on their front covers. Now, this subject divides us as surely as Marmite and Shine, Jesus, Shine. Some undoubtedly welcome the fashion for showing clergy in cassocks running exuberantly through the hills or leaping into the air like A-level students on results’ day, as if ordination were (as one twitter wit has put it) a ritualised form of midlife crisis. It is even true that the hearts of some are strangely warmed by shots of new deacons buddy-punching their ordaining bishop, but for others such sights are painful, and no amount of Anglican compromise can help us to a common mind.

These are largely questions of opinion and taste. I myself have never enjoyed the sight of anyone frolicking in a cassock. I think we’re wise to preserve the beauty of holiness, lest it lose its capacity to nourish and heal us. Yes, I see that a picture of choristers abseiling for charity or enjoying a snowball fight is made all the more vivid if they are wearing robes. I understand that the costume frames the story, and that my objections can be capricious, pompous and humourless, a disproportionate level of emotion to be aroused by a simple black coat.

But then it’s not a simple black coat, but a sacral tribal garment deeply embedded in the theology and psychology of those who do or don’t make use of it. Church choirs are closely wedded to theirs, and would rather change the doctrine of the Trinity than the precise shade of maroon in which they’re vested. Some cathedrals are well-known for the colour of their cassocks: Durham purple, Salisbury green, Lincoln blue. Many go for red, often trespassing on the crimson scarlet that is ideally the preserve of Royal Foundations.

The cut of the cassock also reveals much, as it were. Low and broad churchmen traditionally favoured the double-breasted ‘Sarum bag’ tied with a leather belt, like Elijah. Those who opt for these will rarely be too bothered by their ecclesial appearance. Swathes of stocking or trouser-leg will frequently be visible beneath the hem. They may even be worn, however scandalously, with brown shoes.

At the other end of the spectrum is the full thirty-nine-button single-breasted soutane. This is, or was, the preserve of the Romish, and is often ornamented with super-cuffs and over-sleeves, or augmented with a cape. It tends to have a heavy hem with a kind of bristly draught-excluder round the bottom, the type (as we used to say) that beats as it sweeps as it cleans. Those proud of their figure prefer the five-pleat rear view. The rest of us make do with three. The number of buttons is no doubt the result of a gradual settling of practice. In Anglican circles, they are said to represent the Prayer Book’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, though if a button were removed for each rejected Article, the sort of clergy likely to wear the soutane would be reaching for the leather belts of their more Protestant colleagues. (More piously, the buttons are thought to refer to the number of lashes one is able to endure without dying. If the dog collar is a symbol of slavery to Christ, the cassock is a reminder of persecution.)

There is incidentally a wonderful irony of double-cream delightfulness that this increasingly obsessive interest in clerical clothing (to which I gleefully contribute) should be happening just as Synod rescinds the requirement to officiate at church services only in garments hitherto stipulated by canon. The message is mixed, but clear: pole-vault, pancake-toss and piglet-chase in cassocks for the photo-opp; then change back into unthreatening tracksuits for worship. We live in interesting times.

And there’s more. This concerns not only a perceived glamorising of clergy but deals more importantly with their place among the whole people of God. My fear is that after decades of insisting that ‘going into the church’ refers to baptism and not ordination; after reports like All Are Called, and ceaseless vigilance against clericalisation and the infantilising of the laity, we do now seem to be in danger (I put it no more forcefully) of yielding to a culture in which the clergy take pride of place, with a duty to court celebrity as successfully as they can, aided by the technology in every pocket and handbag that makes us all a film director, broadcaster, publisher — even an occasional essayist.

I am not speaking of that entirely proper concern to use all available resources in the task of telling the good news. I do suspect, moreover, that the gospel is better communicated in the slow quiet drip of conversation than by the sudden viral whoosh of a telly vicar juggling for Jesus or doing unspeakable things on Britain’s Got Talent. And the fact that, if I were a juggler and invited onto The One Show, I would be there before you could say Sue Lawley, only makes matters worse. When we who are worried can see our own susceptibility to what worries us, our worries grow.

As does our concentration on the numbers of the ordained: another worry. On the one hand, it is thrilling that a call has been recognised, discernment fruitful, selection successful, and formation begun in another new deacon or priest. And I, who adore being a priest, pray that all the ordained will be fulfilled and blessed as I have been. But surely the important statistic (if there is one) is the number of baptisms, or of those otherwise participating in the Church’s life within the community. A concentration on the folk in fancy dress has just a slight whiff of the Roman Empire in decline. It’s as if we’re shouting “The numbers are up!” because we fear our number’s up.

I’m not the only one to think like this. But neither would I want us to flee from the catwalk only to reinvent the heroic, solitary, all-enduring slum-priest in battered biretta and egg-stained soutane. Last week a blog post invited us https://aleteia.org/2017/06/25/a-cassock-work-clothes-not-a-dress-uniform/amp/ to wear salt-stained cassocks (salty on the front from tears; on the back from hard labour). And for all its trowelled-on piety and deeply purple prose, this portrait of the cassock as death-shroud will speak eloquently to many.

But this too is a road I cannot take. I went through most of my deacon’s year wearing my old Mirfield cassock. It was sewn up the side to turn it into a habit, with a high collar that meant I didn’t need to wear a clerical shirt. I thought I was the last word in radical poverty and monkish chic. I probably just looked weird, and achieved no more for the gospel than if I had worn a sensible black shirt and dog collar, with a plastic suit from Tesco (competitively priced and machine washable). It is not, admittedly, the sort of uniform from which strips can be torn to improvise bandages, as the Aleteia blog recommends in a hyperbolic flourish. But bandages are happily available in all pharmacists; they are clinically clean, and won’t spread disease. So there’s absolutely no need for the clergy to start shredding their clothes and wandering the streets like Tom o’ Bedlam. Dress and behaviour that are simple, sensible, and unexceptionable will do very nicely indeed.

And that, perhaps, is all I want to say. It is wonderful that men and women respond to the Lord’s call to labour in his harvest-field in all sorts of ministries, including the ordained; and we rejoice in the gifts given to them, to be perfected by grace. There is no need for anyone to disappear down alleyways of nostalgia and mediaevalism, or to fashion a culture of celebrity. The faithful daily walk of prayer, study, labour and the building-up of community is more than enough for any of us. It is our proper business and will be joy and health to us and to the world around us.

I conclude with the best description of a Christian life I’ve come across. It is on a plaque in Southwark Cathedral, erected in the early 19th century in memory of the Revd William Winkworth, who was said to be ‘Pious without Ostentation, Zealous with Discretion, Active in the Cause of Distress, Humble and Laborious in the Ministry of the Word. He fell asleep in Jesus, a Debtor to Grace.’ None of us could hope or pray for more, in cassock or track-suit. As we all rejoice with the newly- and almost-ordained, we wish you many years of such joyful and fruitful service. God bless you, and those among whom you will live and work.


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