The Church Visible

I usually have some fun with my final columns of the year before summer, so today I’m going to tackle a summer-y issue: Dress in church. Let’s get started:

#1: How we dress communicates.  Any parent of a teenager knows this – but it’s no less true of adults.  We describe who we think we are (or want to be) by how we choose to dress.  So it’s not true that what we choose to wear doesn’t matter. It matters to others, and it matters to us. But –

#2: Style is aimed at a particular group.  We misread the code when we misunderstand who the intended “target” of the language of dress is.  If a young person wants to communicate membership in a group to his or her peers, and a business executive wants to communicate seriousness of purpose to his or her peers, they’d naturally dress differently from one another.  They’d be different, but each might be appropriately dressed for the intended audience. It’s a mistake to think that a message intended for one group is also meant as a message for another.

#3: The code of meanings varies according to age and culture.  We’re all creatures of our own upbringing.  I might see someone and think his or her dress is eccentric.  All that says is that it would be true of me if I were to wear that style; but when another wears it, I can’t assume that it means what it would mean if I wore it.

#4: This goes for levels of “formality” too.  Especially across cultural lines, “formality” (as in, “appropriate for church”) can mean very different things.  We shouldn’t assume, if someone wears something that would be “too informal” if I wore it, that informality is the person’s intended meaning.  Unless we know the cultural language, we can’t tell.

#5: “Modesty” is in the eye of the beholder.  St. Paul says, To the pure, all things are pure. [Letter to Titus, 1:15]  Comments about modesty in dress often say more about the person making the comment than they do about the other person.  Modesty varies by age-group, by culture or ethnic group, and according to the intended audience (see above). Taking offense (or being distracted) says more about us than it does about others’ dress, even if we’d prefer to think otherwise.  As the sages tell us, we see the world (and others’ attire) not as it is, but as we are.

#6: How we dress for church matters to others.  Granted all the foregoing, we do communicate with one another when we worship together, and we need to be aware of that.  The “audience” of our choice of dress is, at church, the communion with whom we share discipleship. So we should do our best to communicate our respect for them, and for the dignity of what we are, by God’s grace, allowed to do together.  But we also need to remember that God calls people different from us – different in age, culture, sensibilities, taste, ethnicity, personal history, sense of style, and more – and give them room to be their best selves, not insisting they be “like us” in order to meet with our approval.

#7: How we dress for church matters to our souls.  Our faith tells us God loves us more than we can imagine.  What we choose to wear to church should send that same message.  We should dress to honor the embodiment of God’s love that we are, choosing a style that makes us feel worthy, dignified, and uniquely precious to God and to ourselves.  What we choose to wear to church sends a message to our souls, so it should be a message that resonates with what is best in us. It may be formal or casual, trendy or staid – but it should speak to us of how immensely God loves us, and make us feel worthy of that love.

#8: Ministers have special obligations.  Ministers’ dress “speaks” for the whole church and the ministry they represent, not for the individual.  That’s why we have a dress code for ministers, and a prohibition on wearing anything that seems partisan (e.g, political buttons or pins or ties).

So think about how you dress for church – yourself.  But (unless you’re training little children or supervising ministers) respect the choices of others as their way to show off their love for the person God so loves – themselves.  Until next week, peace.

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