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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Well I'll be frocked...

"I say beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes."
--Henry David Thoreau, Walden 

"Clothes maketh the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."
--Mark Twain 

To frock up or not to frock up,
That is the question.

Can anyone help me with this conundrum? The norm amongst Unitarian ministers  in the UK is to 'frock up' in some sort of clerical vestments, and I've been willing, even eager, to fit in with the new context I find myself in out of respect to accepted local practices. When in Rome...

Heck, as a former actor, I actually LIKE dressing-up and costume and all that. You do weeks of rehearsal on a character, but it never comes together (at least for me) until the first costume run, wherein the clothes you wear begin to determine how you move, how you hold yourself, and so begin to work from the outside in, giving shape to what had so far been an unfinished portrait. Any man who doesn't normally wear a tie will just feel rather different when he slips one on. It's hard to know how to handle yourself in a board-room if you're wearing board-shorts. You know what I mean.

even being hacked to pieces, nothing says 'butch' quite like leather
Partly out of necessity, my default choice so far has been to use a borrowed academic gown. But it also suits me (phnar, phnar) because it's a relatively lo-fi option, thrown over a conservative suit. More hi-fi options abound around me--everything from the black-suit-and-dog-collar through to rather glam tailor-made cassocks (in seasonal colours), modest stoles with our "flaming chalice" branding on them, and blingy stoles with a collector's lot of all the world's religious symbols from the ankh to the yin-yang. To each his, or her, own.

Have we left anyone out?
 The borrowed academic gown (with optional institutional hoodie) is, I have learned, a trace symbol of Unitarian reaction against the established C of E set, usually posh, Oxbridge educated. There was a time when to be a member of a dissenting church meant you could not attend such institutions of higher learning, and suffered other class-based oppression as well, some of it physically painful. In short, it's a brisk two-fingers up to the ruling elite, as if to say "See? We're just as smart as you."

Would sir like to see something more off the shoulder?
 Which strikes me as rather pathetic now that I think about it--defining yourself by what you're opposed to rather than what you affirm. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for class-consciousness of the oppressed, but this protesting-too-much has the whiff of an inferiority complex about it. And we have nothing to feel inferior about. On the contrary, Unitarianism is not for sissies.

On the other hand, I've always thought of us as 'low' church rather than 'high' church. No smells, no bells, no iconography, no expensive vestments, and thus no sense that the pastor in the pulpit (him or her up at the holy end) was any different in kind from you in the pew. Put robes, collars, stoles on him or her and suddenly there's class again, a sense that the minister has been inducted into some highly selective gnostic priesthood that allows the wearing of special clothes. Not at all like you in the pew.
Now that's just GAW-jus...

When I think of the ministers who've most influenced me, I see guys in a blue blazer and tie, perhaps with a little lapel-pin logo, looking for all the world like your 10th grade English teacher. It wasn't what they wore, but what they said from the pulpit and did in the community that generated whatever moral authority they had. Mark Allstrom in a blazer and his disreputable black jeans. Roger Frith, blue blazer and khakis. Robbie Walsh, his quietly understated grey hop-sack suit. Jo Lane and her retro-yet-tasteful op-shop dresses and scarves.

You know...like these guys.
The more I frock up to lead services, the more I feel like I'm playing a part, that this isn't really me somehow. I caught a glimpse of myself the other day in the vestry, and there I was-- a sort of horribly miscast yankee Mr. Chips flapping about the playing fields of Harrow, a target for pity and pitched jaffas.

If he's so smart, why isn't he driving a Lexus?
What is all this frocking up, but an attempt to co-opt an ecclesial authority we've never claimed to possess? Were I to wear the dog-collar-and-black-suit ensemble, I would be indistinguishable on the street from a Catholic priest, and God bless them and all, but I really don't want to be mistaken for one. Why would a Unitarian even want to be? If you want to look like a priest, then be a priest. Or a vicar or whatever. Whence comes a drive to slip easily into an appearance of authority, unless you're deepest fear is that you ain't actually got it? And if that's what you fear, no amount of dressing up will ever convince you, deep down.

The difference is, he makes this look good.
Maybe it's all the years spent preaching in the no-nonsense, DTE, GSOH Adelaide church, but I think we're trying just too hard here, and being more true to the antiquarian letter of our past than to its essential spirit--egalitarian, non-conformist, de-mystifying religion in the post-enlightenment world. Class envy runs deep though, so I doubt it will change just because some blow-in newbie mounts a case against the urge to frock up.

I accept that maybe this is just about me and my comfort zone, and that my reluctance to change may come off as intolerance. But I honestly think  I've given it a fair go, tried it on, and on reflection I just can't wear this stuff with integrity. And if you're going to stand up every week and speak your truth from your core, you'd best feel at peace with yourself.
While we're at it, why not go the whole pooch?


  1. Oh I can Imagine you in a frock... still, send photos.

    I think you should run with it where it works. The gown in today's modern society has a mixed effect. you will be taken seriously only by those who take seriously the institution of the church (and frankly that in many ways is rightfully waning). You will likely be ridiculed by those who, like yourself don't take the dress that seriously. In some ways that is useful. Your words and actions speak well of the institution and frankly it could do with a better name.

    It is the uniform of your profession. I wear a logo and colour pattern on my clothing whenever I have to represent my company. You wear a gown and scarf (which I think missed out atheists, agnostics and humanists, the bastards grrrr.. oh and Sikh). Still, I'd feel like a shill if I wore my uniform all the time and in all circumstances. There's clearly examples of where the institution has a role in affairs, then wear the dress. Otherwise use a warmer scarf and a jumper, it gets cold up there.

    If you get mistaken for a Catholic priest, tell them your opinion on Jesus and the pope. They'll remember that..

    -White Rabbit

  2. Rob, if you turned up at the little bush chapel in the Adelaide hills all "frocked up", it would be hard not to spend the entire service giggling (which would be great actually). For mine, I think that what you say is far more important than what you wear when you say it. Besides, I'm usually looking out the window anyway!


  3. OK, this is totally off the point - but the stole with the many symbols - where did you find that? We do many interfaith events and that would actually work really well for me! (And I do like your article!)

    Tamalyn Kralman