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.