Dress sense for the clergy
by Angus Macdonald CLOTHES are on the agenda and not just the latest outrageous fashions now hitting the catwalks in Paris and London. The question of what clerics wear and whether they should even be concerned about their image has been catapulted to prominence by an Anglican bishop's attempt to smarten up his clergy.
Rt Rev Michael Whinney, an assistant Bishop of Birmingham, had asked an image consultant to give a talk to priests and parishioners on "the language of clothes", but abruptly cancelled it following intense media interest.
"I'm very sorry it has got out of hand," said the bishop this week. "It was meant to be a bit of fun, to help all of us in making some of the less solemn choices of life."
But the rumpus has raised the question of whether priests should be concerned with how they present themselves.
The reforms of the second
Vatican Council have fundamentally altered the "dress code" of the Church. No longer are clergy or religious required to dress according to an elaborate and complex set of regulations which stipulated, for example, special garb to be worn in the Eternal City or in the presence of a higher-ranked Churchman.
"Most nuns these days wear neat grey skirts from C&A, whereas before Vatican II it would have been full habit," says Alan Porter of Wippell's, the Londonbased clerical outfitters. Few religious still wear full-length dark habits with veil, and those who do are much more likely to be from Anglican orders, he says.
It is the other way around for priests, according to Mr Porter: "Although clerical dress generally is much more casual, there are very few Catholic priests who don't still wear black." The celebrated Mgr Alfred Gilbey, now in his 90s, still insists upon full frock coat, waistcoat and purple stole.
Anglicans are more variable, but the rule of thumb is still: "The higher Church they are, the blacker they'll be". Grey is for liberals, whilst shirts with a tinge of pink or green are not unknown amongst the more radical.
The higher offices of the Church have likewise seen reform. Paradoxically, it is Catholic bishops who today join their brother priests in the wearing of simple bloat shirts and jackets whilst Anglican bishops who once shunned purple and gold for fear of accusations of "popery" are now more likely to dress up. "For Catholic bishops, it is a deliberate effort to express collegiality with their brother priests," explains Mr Porter.
Cardinal Hume went one step further in his recent television series on northern saints when he appeared wearing a sweater and open-necked shirt drawing praise for his "relaxed" approach from priests and parishioners alike.
A consistent uniform is an essential part of the job, according to one youthful East Anglian priest, Fr Gary Dowsey: "People want priests to be identifiable, but they don't want them to look like tramps."
Jim McDonnell of the Catholic Communications Centre, who gives image advice to priests appearing on television, explained that the Church lays down guidelines for clerics appearing in the media: "They are expected to appear in clerical dress and that is how the media usually wants them."
But he adds: "In the end, what they have to say is more important than what they are wearing. Image without substance just doesn't work."