I always knew I’d wear black. My first inkling came when I was 18 and an intern at a Pentecostal church. I attended a short course on recovery ministries, and a local Salvation Army preacher was there, too, in black shirt and collar. This fact surprised us all. He explained that most ministers in his tradition wore ordinary clothes, but he found that his decision to wear clericals resulted in immediate recognition in his context at the Mission. He was “Reverend” or “Father” or “Pastor” — whatever someone wanted to call him when they came to seek help. The form of address didn’t matter. Sometimes they called him by name.
The clothes said enough:
I am here for you. I believe God has given us into each other’s care. I will speak in God’s name to you and receive you for what you are, God’s beloved child. Here you may find help and grace.
When I became an Anglican a few years later, our parish priest wore black, and he was as true a guide to the spiritual life as anyone I have met. He would probably be embarrassed to hear me speak of him that way, but what I know is that he showed us kindness and hospitality, constancy in prayer, devotion to the parish, and commitment to the whole life of the Church. Its teaching mattered to him. Its feasts were occasions for joy and its fasts times for self-examination. There was much he taught us by example. This too is what I mean when I say that he wore black.
Another part of it, for me, is related to patterns of work and service in our cultures. I wore black when I worked backstage at theatres, performing an important but unseen role. I have worn black as a concert musician and choral singer, blending into a larger whole. I wore black when I served others at table: welcoming them and taking their orders, treating them with all the kindness and respect I could muster (not regarding their behavior), catering to their needs and sometimes to their peculiarities. I rejoiced in their victories; I comforted them in their sorrows. I knew what made them laugh. Occasionally, and only after a long time, I felt I understood them. I learned more about attentiveness and ministry by being a waiter than I learned in a dozen or more courses, including those with names like “Life and Service.” Wearing black has always reminded me of these things and felt like a show of solidarity with those who work in service. “Who is greater,” Jesus asks in Luke 22:27,
The one who is at table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at table? But I am among you as one who serves.
I know that black clericals speak other words. I have, like many priests, endured strangers calling me pedophile. Others have met my gaze and quickly looked or hurried away. For those who have been abused by the Church, my clothes may be a reminder of unspeakable torments, just as the Church’s familial language is a thorn in the side of those abused by kin. My clothes are not innocent. They are a sign and mark of my holy calling, but also a symbol of varied ecclesial sins.
There comes a time in the Christian life when a vocation ceases to be only about the meaning we give it. Those remain important, of course. Sometimes you must assert the primacy of God’s call, which you have heard and discerned in the depths of your heart, because others will destroy that call, and you, if you do not speak the truth loud and clear. You must articulate your own solidarities, too: what your choices are meant to mean to others and with others. But eventually you learn that following the Lord means going outside the city, where he was pushed onto the cross and became a curse. He suffered for the sins of others. And so you can accept taunts, misunderstandings, and traumas not your own. The people you encounter would have those if you wore a tie, too, or a t-shirt, chinos or jeans. All our signs are tainted.
I have always been attracted to the idea that wearing black is a penitential sign. It does not say, Look, I am holy, but Here goes a sinner, saved by grace. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). I wish I were so dead to sin, and alive to God, in the image of the Crucified. My clothes remind me of this baptismal intention each morning. It is not a somber thought: it means walking in newness of life, rather than in fear of judgment. To live in the Spirit is to seek its fruits: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There is no law against such things” (Gal. 5:22-23).
I confess that the practical ease of wearing black has some attraction. I would like to lead a simple life. “Life is more than food, and the body more than clothing” (Luke 12:23), Wearing the same thing every day reminds me of this fact. A few different kinds of collars grace the top of my dresser — the result of early experimentation — but I have settled into what suits me. Occasionally, finding a good jacket can be a problem, and decent black trousers made with natural fibers are surprisingly difficult to find at an affordable price in this country. But I spend far less time and money on my wardrobe than I would in nearly any other circumstance. This is good for me. As a child of poor parents, I like clothes in the same way I like food and drink and a warm bed. Some habits keep the demons at bay.
Why do I wear black? I have my reasons, but it was never really a question in my mind.
The apparel of a bishop, priest, or deacon shall be suitable to his office; and, save for purposes of recreation and other justifiable reasons, shall be such as to be a sign and mark of his holy calling and ministry as well to others as to those committed to his spiritual charge. (Canons of the Church of England, C 27)
The Rev. Dr. Zachary Guiliano is chaplain and career development research fellow in early medieval history at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.
Evangelicals in the C. of E., as well as “Virginia churchmen” in the Episcopal Church, historically wore gray clericals rather than black. It was almost the universal custom in both churches until the late 1970s.
“My clothes are not innocent. They are a sign and mark of my holy calling, but also a symbol of varied ecclesial sins.” On the one hand, this is a powerful statement. But does it really make sense to think of clothing as guilty? If Christianity perpetuates collective guilt – your clothes are guilty because of what someone else did – then isn’t Christianity’s this-worldly payout ultimately one of casting stones on the basis of collective identity?
I think one can over-cook this topic. When I see the clerical collar in the Publix it just says, it’s Sunday afternoon and here is a guy (or woman) working hard at something. Like a cop or a fireman. Clergy in our small village in France were simply known as clergy because they were known! They had tucked in. Maybe the problem is one of lack of community and of a single Christian body tucked into that service, such that in the line at the bakery, it matters very little if Father has a black shirt on (or a gray… Read more »
Well, one does have to reckon with the end of Christendom and now the pandemic’s effects: we are not known.
Fwiw, I wrote this essay because I was successively asked about my clothes by a curious waiter in a pub, by two Roman Catholic colleagues, by students of various confessions (and none), by staff in my college, etc. Our re-emergence into public life has prompted a variety of personal thoughts, too.
That is doubtless true depending on where one is planted. I get the sense that Christianity is more and more an oddity in the British Isles. I believe less than 8% of the English population claim to belong to the church of England, and only 1% attend. 60% of the French say they are ‘Catholic’ and 15% say they are practicing. Having lived in the UK and in France, I find the former less likely to attend church or find Christianity intellectually serious. There seems to be a slow burn for people walking away. One hopes this can turn around.… Read more »
Clothes are guilty in many ways. Clothes are made by sweated labour, and as we learned this past year, many cottons by literal slaves in China and SE Asia. Various fibres and dyes are produced in ways that destroy the natural environment. Fast fashion contributes to landfills in ever increasing amounts. And this is before we have reached the topic of vanity. Nothing we wear is free of association with actions, cultures, or symbolic structures. But there’s a reason I brought up child abuse. If a child is abused by a priest or even (only!) demeaned, there will be an… Read more »
I do not understand how something without volition can be guilty (in this case, clothes). Nor do I understand how it can be innocent. These descriptor are category mistakes. Appealing to structures of any kind (symbolic, racial, etc.) sidesteps the fact that guilt is only a meaningful concept where choice is present. Is the sweatshop slave guilty? If so, are they guilty in the same way as the first world purchaser, or the first world designer, etc.? Looking to assign blame might actually be the wrong tack here. It’s not always helpful to know who to blame, and I’m not… Read more »
By ‘clothes’ being guilty, I mean of course (in this example) that they often stand at the center of a network of sin: from the moment their materials are harvested to their production, to their wear, to when they change hands, to the moment they are discarded or destroyed. Obviously, the slave is not guilty in the same way as the slave master or the designer or the purchaser. But you likely know I am saying this. Surely we can assign blame in many cases. Surely we can be guilty of sin though we are ignorant of precisely how we… Read more »
“Baby’s in black/And I’m feeling blue” (The Beatles, 1964)
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