The Clergy Fashion Wars

I am about to wade into very dangerous territory with this post--I am going to talk about women's fashion.

Deacon Greg Kandra has a post today on his Deacon's Bench blog about The Clergy Collection, a new line of clothing for female priests and ministers put out by a London fashion outfit called the House of Ilona.

I will say up front that I am the least qualified person on the planet to judge these pieces from a fashion perspective.  I am seriously color-blind--I can't match my own socks most of the time.  To the extent I have a notion of two pieces of clothing "matching," such as a shirt and a pair of pants, it is a product of someone (usually my sisters) telling me particular colors match, as opposed to some innate sense of my own.  So, no one should take my fashion analysis remotely seriously.  Having said that, these outfits seem perfectly lovely and appropriate to me.  It seems to me if you remove the collar, these outfits would at home in a normal office setting.  It's not like these are mini-skirts or outfits that looks like the proverbial "little black dress"--which are fine for what they are but not in a professional setting, which being a pastor certainly is.  Though, I'm not sure I would endorse this frilly number on the right, but that's just me.

What really interests me about Deacon Greg's piece is the framing--evidently he received a number of complaints about the very notion of this kind of clergy attire.  The people who wrote in described the clothing as "heretical," "scandalous," and "blasphemous."  Kandra appears to interpret this reaction as being a reaction to the notion of Protestants priests/ministers wearing a clerical collar, and goes into a lengthy discussion of the history of clerical garb.  He points out, correctly, that the tab collar has just as long a lineage in the Protestant world as it does in the Catholic world.

Framed the way Deacon Greg does, I suppose I understand why someone would take offense at this clothing line.  If you truly believed that only Catholic priests wear the tab collar, then I see how you might see these outfits as deliberately provocative acts, in much the same way as drag queens dressing up as nuns would be offensive to some folks.  The problem here is that I have a hard time believing that people were actually confused on this point.  It is not like Episcopalian or Lutheran pastors are completely absent the general culture--you can see them out and about, on television, etc.  I assumed everyone knew that they wear the collar on some occasions.

I think Deacon Greg is giving his interlocutors too much of the benefit of the doubt.
I suspect that his interlocutors view they notion of clergy clothing that looks feminine as the scandal, not the fact that they have a collar on.  On one level, this reaction is predictable.  Look, I get it--you don't think women should be priests/clergy.  You think the whole thing is an Abomination Unto the Lord.  Fine.  But it is not clear to me why these specific outfits would be a trigger--it is not as if people were unaware that other denominations ordained women until the Clergy Collection was launched.

As background, let's begin with one defense of the ban on women's ordination, taken from the writings of Evangelical turned Anglican turned Catholic Fr. Dwight Longenecker:

The Blessed Virgin Mary shares in Christ’s redemptive work as a co-Redeemer, but she does so as a woman and fully as a woman. She does so as a mother, and fully as a mother. Christ, the great high priest does so as a man, and in his case fully as a man as a Son. The sexuality of both are not accidental, but a crucial part of who they are and the way the effect salvation.

This lead us therefore, to the role of the priest within the liturgy. The priest is alter Christus. He plays the part of Christ and Christ works through the priest in the action of the Eucharistic sacrifice. As a man his sexuality matters because he brings to this action of redemption the fact that he is not only a human, but like Christ, he is a man. Women participate in the redemptive sacrifice as did the Blessed Virgin–as women and as mothers. For a woman to be a priest is therefore as impossible as it would be for a man to be a mother.

I will note that the first sentence---"[t]he Blessed Virgin Mary shares in Christ's redemptive work as co-Redeemer"---is enormously problematic theologically, to the point of probably being (in my opinion) affirmatively heretical.  But, that's a different post, so let's put that to the side.  Let's also put aside all objections to the problematic gender essentialism of this line of argument and take it at face value.  In a nutshell, Fr. Longenecker is arguing that women are women and men are men, and that this difference is tied up necessarily in the notion of ordination.  In other words, women shouldn't, and on some level can't, pretend to be men, as they would have to do in order to be ordained.

If you think the problem is women "pretending" on some level to be men, then clergy clothing like the Clergy Collection is much more appropriate than an outfit like this.

That outfit is far more (perhaps stereotypically) "masculine," and would arguably support the proposition that female clergy are playing dress up.  The Clergy Collection outfits are basically a normal female outfit that add on the collar as a professional ID badge.  There is no question that the person wearing these outfits is a woman.  It would seem to be better, from the Fr. Longenecker perspective, to have women establishing clear identities as women than traffic in the confused middle of androgyny.

Again, I get that people don't think women should be Catholic priests.  But, as a traditionalist Catholic, what do you care that the Episcopalians have a woman as a priest?  The traditional Catholic position is that all Anglican ordinations, male or female, are invalid.  There is no such thing as a "real" Anglican priest anyway, according to this view.  So, what difference does it make that there is a woman who leads a Episcopalian congregation, who happens to wear clothing with elements of a clergy style?  What's scandalous about that?

Remember, Catholics are not "complementarians" in the Evangelical sense.  Not even the most conservative Catholic (at least, as far as I know) is taking the position that a woman cannot, for example, be the head of a committee in a parish or lead a Bible study of mixed genders.  No, we are told, the only thing a woman cannot do in the Catholic Church is be an ordained minister.  If you don't believe that other Protestant churches have valid ordinations anyway, there is no reason from a Catholic perspective to be opposed to female Protestant clergy.

Yet, people freak out, and it is hard not to see it as misogyny.  Fr. Longenecker's explanation of why women cannot be priests is a variation on the old "separate but equal" formula.  As our own history has taught us, if you insist on "separate" you rarely end up with "equal," and you find often that "not equal" was the real point of "separate" in the first place.  People object to these outfits because they are designed for women who view themselves as both women and full equals in the church and in ministry.  That for them is the scandal.  And, that is the problem.


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