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.


Angela said...

If we really believe in 'The Priesthood of ALL Believers' then it is important that our ministers do NOT wear 'different' vestments from the rest of us.
I confess to being rather irritated by the lady at a recent week of prayer for Christian Unity service who asked me why my husband 'hadn't bothered' to wear his robes, as she understood the priest had informed ALL the visiting clergy that they should be robed for the procession. I somehow feel our Anglican/RC brethren would be very miffed if WE told THEM that they should NOT come in robes [not that the clergy 'process' when it is the Baptists turn to host the united service anyway] as if NOT wearing robes means that in some way you are not properly qualified to minister.
Like you, I am deeply concerned about this whole 'status' and appearance thing - and what it says about our theology of ministry.
Thanks for a very helpful article!

Catriona said...

Good post, and I agree with most of it.


As one of those evidently compromised Baptist ministers who sometimes does wear a dog-collar am I allowed to comment?

For the record, I began training as an almost foot-stamping anti-dog-collar person and most of the time would not wish to wear one.


I once observed a newly arrived (Baptist) minister conduct a funeral in a normal suit - the undertakers had no clue who was who and approached the wrong person - embarrassment all round.

It may be different for men than for women. A lot of (but by no means all) female Baptist ministers do wear dog-collars for some things such as funerals, weddings and hospital visits.

My justification is
1) it gives confidence to mourners/family/non-church people that is is 'kosher'
2) it does make it easy for people to spot who is 'in charge'
3) I have lots of wonderful opportunities to talk with and pray with people when I'm 'disguised as a vicar' that I simply wouldn't have in civvies
4) sometimes, for funerals especially, it helps me stop being 'Catriona' and be 'minister' - to be more than just me but to fulfil a vicariousness of 'church'

I think there's also a cultural element to it - in darkest Dibley it is expected that for certain occasions one will appear vicar-like. Traditions can be - and are - challenged but there are times and places; I'm not sure a church full of grieving relatives is such a place.

Oh, in relation to Angela's comment on processionals - there are still a lot of these events that say 'male clergy to robe' which makes me feels like borrowing the full regalia out of spite. Well it's that or attire that would get one struck off presumably... ;-)

Stephen Lingwood said...

Amen to that Glen. (Also helpful cos I'm preaching on this subject next week)

tim f said...

Not sure about the idea of incense in worship.

Glen Marshall said...

Tim, why not? It smells great.

tim f said...

The idea just feels like* trying to manufacture some kind of emotional experience which will sub for or act as a man-made stepping stone to (not sure which is worse) an encounter with God.

I accept we do that in other ways sometimes (for example, when the music crescendos during the big chorus in "contemporary" worship songs, or even worse moves up a key). This seems a particularly cynical way of doing that though; as if the people leading worship are trying to achieve an effect rather than expressing ourselves, listening to God and seeing what happens.

I can see the counter-argument - it's just an aid to worship/an attempt to inspire people to express themselves to God/that way lies Puritanism, etc. That is possible, but for me it's just a little too much like the Christian equivalent of devotional sufi - too concerned with the experience itself rather than with Who the experience is of.

I would definitely have a problem with it if it was used regularly. If it was occasional and it was made explicit why it was being used, I'd be less uncomfortable.

* see how I avoided using "stinks of" there.

Glen Marshall said...

Perhaps you should blind fold yourself and stick ear plugs in .... just in case!

Would you be agin all use of smell in worship? If not then why this one? You sure it's not cos of its RC associations?

We are bodily beings, sensual beings not just heads on legs and potentially anyone of our senses can help us connect / respond to God. It's hard to see how sense of smell is likely to be more false or manipulative than any other sense.

tim f said...

It's only an intuition and your argument is fairly compelling. My reservations may well be because of its Catholic associations. But argue that that isn't because of narrow sectarianism, rather because of the way that incense has been traditionally used in Catholic services. You may well argue that there's nothing wrong with using images to prompt a response of worship, but would you have a problem with a Baptist church that used a statue of the virgin Mary as a visual aid to worship? If not, you're a lot more relaxed about this kind of stuff than me 'cause that'd freak me out.

tim f said...

But *I'd* argue, 2nd sentence

Catriona said...

The Mary statues thing is an intriguing one. Whilst I wouldn't want them as a permanent feature (not sure what the point would be) I do recall finding a pieta (Mary and dead Jesus) (not sure of spelling either)made a compelling and powerful visual aid for a Good Friday service - even more profund than watching video clips from Jesus films.

And though I am reluctant to admit it, I have an alabaster-type Mary statue my brother gave me donkey's years ago on the grounds 'its religious, you're religious.' I can't say it features in my devotional life but it sure as anything doesn't freak me out.

Glen Marshall said...

I'm with Catriona on the Mary thing.

Our fear of idolatry and the way we have defined ourselves over against all things Catholic, has caused us to overreact against imagery. In the same way our fear of mariolatry and hagiolatry has led to an unhelpful negclect of significant figures in the gospels and church history.

I reckon a strong case can be made for the reinstatement of such people, not least Mary, in the telling of our story and as an aid to reflection on what it means to follow Christ.

paul holmes said...

Good article, Glen. In our own Baptist Union I wonder if my perception is correct that a greater proportion of women ministers seem to prefer clerical attire to male ones. If so, maybe someone can correct me, but if so, is there something significant about this?

Glen Marshall said...

Not sure if it's true but I reckon it probably is - see Catriona's comment above. This probably has a lot to do with the struggle that many women have to be recognised a ministers. Every little helps.

Gary Birch said...

As the aforementioned 'lovely Gary on page 3', might I give a come back to the original article?

Firstly the Clergy on the Catwalk thing at CRE. Mainly I did it for a bit of fun really. I wouldn't be seen wearing any of those gowns or whatever they're called in normal life. I heard a call for help, along with an enticer of £50, and answered the call. Now, you may think that's very bad of me, but I'm trying to raise as much money as I can for a mission trip to Bulgaria, and the £50 helped!
It did also give me a bit more of an appreciation of the different denominations and their ways of doing things, which I will not be deflamatory about. In leading worship, I say wear whatever seems appropriate to you and your situation.

As for wearing a collar... I do this very very rarely. In 4 years I've worn it once at a wedding, once in hospital, once to make a point in a sermon about how unhelpful they CAN be (Not always ARE), and now as my role of part-time, voluntary chaplain at Exeter Airport. I agree in many places it can cause a 20 meter no-go area around you, but in other cases it helps people see who they can come and talk to, and that is what I have found in the chaplaincy work.
So, I'm neither 100% for clerical garb (and titles for that matter), nor 100% against. There's a time and place, as long as they're not our status symbols where we find our security and importance!

Glen Marshall said...

Lovely Gary

Thanks for chipping in. Great to get a bit of the back story.

All the best for the mission trip (and the modeling career!)

Brian said...

I also was once fervently against wearing a collar until I started visiting hospitals and discovered how amny people wnted to talk to to me with one and completely ignored me without one, this icluded the nurses. It also caused absolute embarassment to a Bishop of Manchester when I turned up at the induction of an Anglican minister to give a welcome as chairman of the Churches Together Group and was ignored as I was not noted as a minister due to my "lack of garb". In future I avoided such problems by always dressing as expected, even to turning up for a school assembly once, so that the children could see I was a "real" minister. Their perception, not mine.
I also agree that generally it can cause confusion at funerals, although I do not wear my collar normally, except if the funeral is for people outside of any connection with the church.
It could be argued that Jesus fulfillled people's expectation of Him, can we do any different?

Glen Marshall said...

Thanks for the comment Brian.

I recognise that sometimes there can be practical benefits to wearing a collar. Still not convinced it's worth it though. The wider impact of colluding with and reinforcing (however unintentionally) a hierarchical, priestly view of ministry is, in my opinion, too high a price to pay.

As for Jesus fulfilling people's expectations, perhaps that could be argued, I just don't think it would be a very good argument. Nearly all the evidence seems to me to prove the opposite.

Alexandra said...

Thanks for this post, Glen. I have been thinking about this for a little while now, being a young, woman, Baptist minister. (I agree fully with the being called 'Pastor' so-and-so. Hate that! It seems to be much more likely for that to happen to men than women though!)

The issue for me is that I am often not taken seriously because of a) being young b) being a woman minister. This can happen in interfaith situations, or even local church minister's meetings etc. These arenas are vastly dominated by middle-aged men, so they often might not even notice that I am there! I have wondered if where a collar would make them think differently? I would want them to respect me as a human and a person first, but if they seem to not notice me at all, perhaps the only other thing is to 'see' me differently!

I think that it also depends on what your context is. I live in an area that has a very large Asian population. As a woman, I don't have access to conversations or places that my male counterparts might. But if I was to wear a dog collar then I think that I would be more welcomed (to a certain extent) because of the faith community that I represent.

Do you think that it might be different for women who are often not recognised? Do you think that there is something to be said for women in traditionally male-dominated areas drawing attention to the fact that they are there by wearing a collar?

I am still thinking through these things, and I think that your concerns are valid, I'm just not sure if I have reached my own conclusion yet.

(Interestingly, although the Salvation Army do not have clerical dress, they do have official shirts that they wear to certain public and civil meetings etc. How is our dog collar different to that?)

Glen Marshall said...

Alexandra, good questions.

I was once young, no really, but never felt the need. I have however never been a woman so I hesitate to pontificate on that one. My inclination though is to recognise that this may well be a particular issue for women in the light of the very real pain that the church has caused to all those women who have been denied the chance to pursue a God-given call and those who have paid the price of pursuing that call in the face of such opposition. However, on balance, I reckon I can't quite justify using a wrong to right a wrong. Even a minor wrong to right a major wrong.

I reckon the Sally Army thing is a bit different. They all get to dress up. My objection is not so much the wearing of uniforms but the reservation of particular trappings for a special clerical caste.

Alexandra said...

Yes, I see what you're saying. Maybe we could get a Baptist uniform?!

Perhaps it would be helpful to know how you would define "trappings" and "special clerical caste"..?

Eamonn said...

I'm in favour of leaving things as sober and plain as is appropriate or possible, depending on the cultural context. But I also feel that there is merit in the church being visible to the rest of the world, and if this means wearing a collar in public, I think we should do so. As a part-time non-stipendiary Anglican, I don't always wear my collar when I'm going about my non-church activities, but I usually wear a small lapel gold cross.

Anonymous said...

hello! My first ever Nah Than comment.

I too hate platform parties. Do you have them at BUGB Assembly?

Glad to see Spring Harvest did away with PPs this year (first time ever I think) In fact, when I did that "text, wait a moment, stand up, wave" fun thing with Steve Holmes this year at Skegness he was sitting away up the back - and he's an Important Leadership Team Person at Spring Harvest.

Regarding dress. I had to carry a wee business card to get into hospitals as scary Staff Nurses simply refused to believe that a young(ish) woman was doing a pastoral visit. They expected me to have grey hair, a dog collar and to be wearing muted shades of brown, olive green and grey, not purple docs. I'm not entitled to be a dog collar wearer here but even if I was I just couldn't do it anyway - blend in unless or until you need to be identified for legit purpose.


Glen Marshall said...

Thanks for dropping by Lynn. I really do reckon it's still harder for women (see a number of the comments above.)

BUGB still does platform parties, not slavishly and often from practical choreographic reasons.

Purple docs eh? An attempt to be episcopal?