Friday, 13 February 2009
Baptists, Status and Clerical Trappings
What is it with Baptists, clerical garb, dog collars, the title reverend and our fascination with the trappings of priestly office?
I was moved to write by two pictures in last week’s Baptist Times. One showed a Baptist minister taking part in an ecclesiastical haute couture fashion show and another at an ecumenical act of worship, wildly underdressed in comparison with the lovely Gary on page three, but still in a special vicar get-up. Surely something’s gone wrong.
Now, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not some kind of traditionalist free church reactionary. I’m all for being nice to the C of E. Some of my best friends are vicars. I approve of written liturgy – up to a point. I would vote in favour of the weekly celebration of the eucharist (see, I even called it eucharist). I really like the idea of incense in worship - just love that smell.
Nor do I have a problem with symbolism, we are fools if we think we can do church without it, so let’s make sure we know what we are doing and that we do it well. I like the idea of more colour, drama and theatre in church - we worship God as whole beings, bodily beings, sensuous beings, so if it’s colour we’re after let’s all dress up - party frocks for everyone!
Also, while we are at it, let’s recognise the low church versions of this kind of ministerial one-upmanship. These are often to be found at conferences and more widely in Pentecostal, New Church and too many Baptist circles. You know the kind of thing, consider for instance the platform party, “We might dress like you but we’re stuck up here like lemons all through the service because we’re special”. Preachers should step forward from the congregation rather than rising from the line up of dignitaries or emerging from the vestry for that matter. Consider also the fondness for using the word, “pastor” as a title. No one calls my wife “teacher Kathy” or my son “engineer Steve”, so please, just call me “Glen”.
It’s not that I’m questioning the conscious motivation of some of my friends. (Unconscious motivation is a different matter.) I do worry though about the unintended messages we transmit about the ecclesiastical caste system. Ministers have an important representative role with regard to the church and they are unquestionably seen in such a way by those beyond the church. So do we really want our titles and our dress code to reinforce stereotypes about establishment and the love of status? Surely we should be doing all we can to subvert the tendency towards hierarchy and deference. Apparently dog collars and the title, reverend, “help us slide under the red tape when visiting hospitals” (though in 25 years of ministry I’ve never found it necessary) but they also put us at a distance from, in a different category to, the very people for whom we are seeking to care. It’s not worth it.
I thought we were supposed to be nonconformists. Offering a different way of doing community to the still class-ridden, status-hungry society around us and standing out against those parts of the church who seek to introduce such worldly posturing into the body of Christ.
I worry above all though about the underlying theology. At heart the problem is that playing these ecclesiastical status games runs counter to the ethos of Jesus, the teaching of Jesus and the incarnation itself which is all about God setting aside privilege and position and becoming one of us. So as well as being unhelpful and misleading, it’s just not right.
My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist times as a whole click here.