Liturgical Modesty - wherein I rant.

Found an interesting article at the Washington Post today.  I took the opportunity to go on a little rant.  Please, weigh in with comments if you have anything to add!

Churches grapple with clothing and what’s appropriate

as summer heats up

As Ann Cabiness stood in the Communion line at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church on Sunday morning, two things were on her mind: connecting with God and getting out of the humid sanctuary before someone mentioned her skimpy tank top and tight, knee-length running pants.  {Problem right there: if your clothes are distracting you from "connecting with God", from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, then you are not dressed appropriately.}

“I know I’m inappropriate, but I’m trying to save time. I know I’m in the wrong. My mother would not approve,” the 30-year-old said sheepishly as she made a beeline from Mass at the Bethesda church to the gym. “But would it be better that I not come?”  {Seriously, how long does it take to bring a bag and change clothes in the restroom after Mass?  I've changed clothes so many times before and after Mass when we as a family have had activities around Mass time.  It takes less than 10 minutes, especially in the summer when you aren't layering and you're probably just slipping sandals on instead of socks and sneakers.  Now, if you're going to or coming from work and you honestly don't have time to change, that's one thing.  But to the gym on a Sunday morning?  Starting your workout ten minutes later isn't going to kill you.}

Summer in our sweltering region forces a theological question: How does God feel about exposed shoulders in a house of worship? Or toes? Or some glimpse of thigh?  {Yet, the rest of the article doesn't address anything remotely connected to the theological...}

With temperatures in the 80s by 7:30 a.m. services, this is the season for church bulletin items like the one in Our Lady’s: “Dignity & Decorum: Please try not to wear beach shorts, tank tops, and flip-flops to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Thank you.”  {As a side note, the church has every right to post this, just as restaurants have the right to post "No shirt, no shoes, no service" signs."}

In general, casual has pummeled formal everywhere in America, from airplanes to offices. But places of worship — where debates on modesty are not confined to the summer months — may be the final frontier for questions about what constitutes overly risque. And those questions have recently sprung to new life.

A popular campaign aimed at young evangelical women called “Modest is Hottest” has triggered backlash by devout younger women who see the slogan as sexist. When the Bible calls for “modesty,” they argue, it refers to displays of things like wealth and is describing the depth of one’s spirit, not their neckline. Teaching women that their value rises if they have more clothes on is objectifying, a torrent of essays have argued.  {My emphasis.  In truth, the value of a person can never change, and certainly a woman's value is not changed when she's lounging around the house in sweatpants and a tank top.  I occasionally clean my room in gym shorts and a cami - doesn't mean I'm less of a person.  BUT - and I repeat, BUT - when I wear a minidress with a plunging neckline, I show that I don't really care about myself and my own dignity.  Like it or not, men are tempted in ways that we women are not.  And while a good Catholic man will NEVER objectify a woman or somehow consider her less of a person, a man recognizes when a woman takes herself and her own dignity seriously.  When I wear modest clothing, I show that I care about the way that I am seen, I care about my own value.  A diamond set in gold is a strong contrast to a diamond set in tin.  The diamond itself is still of the same value, but the piece as a whole becomes far more beautiful.}

“A woman’s breasts and buttocks and thighs all proclaim the glory of the Lord,” said Sharon Hodde Miller, a doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School whose critique of “modest is hottest” in the online evangelical magazine Christianity Today was one of the best-read of recent years. “Modesty is an orientation of the heart, first and foremost. It begins with putting God first. To look at an outfit and say if it’s modest or immodest, I’m not sure you can do that.”  {Lightbulb moment:  yes you can.  The underlying problem here is the denial of objective truth...but beyond that:  modesty is rooted in a deeper mindset of the soul.  But as humans, we know that the interior always, always manifests itself in the exterior.  What we say and do mirrors what is in our hearts.  What we wear mirrors how we think. If we do put God first, if we do have an orientation of the heart towards modesty, than that will be mirrored in how we act and how we dress.}

Some critics say the drive for looser, longer fabric has political tones, a “modesty nostalgia” for a happier, more fully clothed America that some feel never was. But advocates for less skin in the sanctuary see modest attire as transformational — part of the process of moving into a spiritual head space.  {And that is exactly the case!}

Particularly today as institutional religion bleeds members, many churches — even some theologically conservative ones — advertise that dress is “come as you are.”

“We don’t want clothes to ever be a barrier. That’s one reason we don’t talk about it,” said the Rev. Don Davidson of First Baptist Church of Alexandria.

Some even argue that informal clothing signals not a new lack of respect for institutional religion but a new genuineness and familiarity.   {Informal clothing does not signify "new genuineness and familiarity".  That directly contradicts the gym girl from earlier in the article - it signifies a "don't care" or an absolute-minimum mentality.  I'm pretty sure that a business person who shows up for an interview dressed sloppily, in a t-shirt and ratty jeans, would not project a "genuineness and familiarity" with the company.}

Grass-roots pew patrolling, on the other hand, is as alive as ever.

Charisma Wooten, a singer and actor, had been a parishioner and lay leader at Refreshing Spring Church of God in Christ in Riverdale for more than 30 years when she was told moments before taking the pulpit for a Scripture reading one baking July Sunday a couple of years ago that she couldn’t because she didn’t have on pantyhose. Wooten said she was wearing a dress that nearly hit the floor, but Church of God in Christ is a formal denomination where ushers wear gloves and the handbook says that “dressing in a sensually provocative manner produces inclinations to evil desires.”

Another summer Sunday, Wooten was wearing a sleeveless black-and-white polka-dot dress and “my little matching shoes and hat,” when the pastor’s wife said sweetly: “Honey, aren’t you cold?” It took Wooten three days to realize she was likely being politely asked to cover her shoulders.

Wooten says she generally brushes it off when she’s been scolded for her church clothes, but the pantyhose incident led her to send a mass e-mail decrying the misplaced focus on rules and dogma.  {There are two different questions here, modesty and dressing appropriately.  The "pantyhose incident" was a question of appropriate dress to the situation.  The next paragraph directs it to modesty.}

“You can follow all these rules men set up and be on your way to hell,” she said.  {Modesty is not "rules set up by men".  I'm sick of women's liberation that basically says to heck with men, we're going to do whatever we want.  That kind of feminism isn't going for equality of the sexes, but for domination of women.  Modesty is universal - I know I had problems when I worked at a zoo during summer and had to see the most ridiculous immodest clothing.}


Concepts of appropriate dress are, of course, a mix of denominational, regional, racial and ethnic components, and they are sometimes specific in unpredictable ways. Black churches are generally known for formal, modest and elaborate style, even in summer. Catholics stereotypically are dressed simply for Mass — full suits and hats are less common, as are plunging necklines.

Rainey Ray Segars, 26, grew up with a Southern Baptist pastor-father in Tennessee, where shorts were common around church but strapless dresses were not. At 24, she moved with her new youth-pastor-husband to Illinois and found out on the first warm week since their move that jeans and Packers jerseys were fine at church activities but shorts were not.

After coming to a choir practice in shorts, a congregant “sent by a group of offended people” told Segars that she had caused someone to be lustfully distracted — “That it was my fault,” Segars remembered.

“I said, ‘I’m interested to know if that person will seek out help for themselves,’ ’’ Segars said. “I don’t agree that a woman is to blame for lust someone feels towards her. My thought was to start a dialogue.”  {I disagree.  Leading another person into sin by a deliberate action is a sin.  Putting on clothing that you know has a high probability of causing someone to sin would, I think, be worthy of blame.}

Did she?

“It was like: ‘Yeah, that’s all fine, but please don’t wear shorts,’ ” she remembered.

The congregation she’s part of now, Segars said, includes a huge range of dress and cover.

“I think it shows a loveliness and a comfort: ‘I came just as I am, just looking to be known.’ It communicates a safety I think is really beautiful,” she said.  {I can't...I just can't start commenting on this.}

Conversations (and condemnations) on the issue of modest clothing and summer worship seem to focus on women. {Because the modesty that is asked of women is to protect what is most beautiful and precious, and is particular to women!  There is a difference between men and women, people!}  Monsignor Ed Filardi said he put the notice in the bulletin at Our Lady of Lourdes at the request of women reacting to the clothing of other women. Personally, he said, he doesn’t see a real problem, though after services Sunday morning one usher engaged the priest on the topic.

You’re coming to see the Lord,” said Len Thompson, 65, recently retired from the Navy, and one of two men out of about 80 wearing a jacket at Mass. “What if I was going to see the Obamas? It seems skewed.”

Foundry United Methodist Church in Dupont has many gay men as members, and last Sunday many men present wore dress shorts and polo shirts.

“I’m not sure if my shins are distracting anyone in here,” one 39-year-old man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said with a smile.

Discussions about possible sins of immodesty inevitably lead to discussions about another sin: judging.  {I'm restraining myself from another rant.  "Don't judge me" is basically a synonym for "let me do whatever I want and get out of my way" and is nothing more than an excuse for license.}

“Jesus is most strong when he speaks about judging people,” said Johnnie Moore, youth pastor at the evangelical Liberty University, noting students have come to his services in pajamas.  {Um...pretty sure that this evangelical ought to have his New Testament more memorized than that.  As I recall, Jesus drove out the merchants from the temple with a knotted whip...which was both very strong and also a judgment by one who had the right to judge.}  That said, he feels religious and secular Americans are joining forces over concern about an oversexualized youth culture. “Generally speaking, you shouldn’t come to church as you would to a club,” he said.

Northwest Washington image consultant Ketura Persellin has written about appropriate clothing for worship, down to the size of bag, jangly jewelry and skirt length. This is a woman who cares about clothes. But as her preteen children are getting older, Persellin finds herself less tolerant of clothing chatter at her synagogue, Adas Israel.

“I don’t want people talking about my kids like that,” she said. “I’ve definitely been trying to get down from my high horse.”

{It's a little irritating how they constantly mix the topics of what is modest, with what is appropriate for church.  Modesty ought to be a part of every day of our lives; what is appropriate for worship of the Divine is a different question.}