Saturday, October 07, 2006

WR Pharisees and the "Dress Code"

Fr. Matthew Thurman has tackled the big daddy taboo and scandal facing all of Christendom at this historic juncture: the proper Western Rite "Dress Code."

A certain source with his own rumor mill Yahoo Group has made this an issue of late, focusing on the "standard" for beards on WR priests (the evangelization of the West apparently hanging in the balance).

Fr. Thurman finally stood up and gave the appropriate answer: We are a hierarchical Church; if you are a priest, obey your bishop.* He then passes on this uplifting information:
For the Western Rite, the dress code for the clergy was defined by our first Vicar General, Fr. Alexander Turner, and implemented by Metropolitan Antony (BASHIR) over 40 years ago and has remained unchanged. While on the grounds of one's parish, a priest may wear a Western style cassock and biretta. When a priest is off of the parish grounds, he is to dress in a Western clerical shirt/collar and a conservatively cut black suit. Cassock and biretta are not to be worn as regular street dress. Also, Byzantine dress (such as the Byzantine cassock, kamilavka, etc.) are prohibited as street dress for Western Rite clergy.
This last sentence is only common sense: the WRV absolutely forbids the mixing of Rites. (Interestingly, the former monastery of this discussion's source, St. Hilarion's in Austin, TX, wore Byzantine robes even while putatively "Western Rite.")

Fr. Thurman also related this valuable personal experience:
As someone who has dressed in both "western clericals" and "Byzantine cassock" while at seminary, I've notice that the "western clericals" were better received than the "Byzantine cassock." Those instances in the past when I've worn the "Byzantine cassock" in public, the general reception has been stares and whispers. In contrast, the response to "western clericals" typically involved the friendly greeting "hello, Father!" or curiosity questions about "what kind of minister" I was. Just in terms of a Christian witness to an increasingly secular world, my experience has been that western clerical are more accessible and less threatening than the Byzantine garb.
I had a similar discussion with a priest stricken with Convert Fanaticism SyndromeTM. After a Greek chef he'd never before met in a strange town would not give him a free meal because he was not wearing a Byzantine cassock (I'm not making this up!), he decided he had to wear the cassock everywhere. He brought into his parish another convert priest who discussed the importance of wearing the cassock, since it was "a readily identifiable form of clerical dress."

"Readily identifiable" for whom? The average American:
1. Has no idea what the Orthodox Church is;
2. Has never seen an Orthodox priest; and
3. Has no idea how unknown clergy in an unknown church dress on the street (and even less interest in learning).
The only "readily identifiable" clerical dress for clergy in Western society is the clerical collar. An American may well recognize the Byzantine garb as clerical dress but, without the pectoral cross, won't recognize it as Christian, much less Orthodox. He may even think the priest is a Muslim. (If you think I'm exaggerating, ask the Sikhs who were abused post-9/11 because they were mistaken for Muslims.) Either way, the average American will not feel inclined to open up and ask for prayer and guidance.

This is another strength of the Western Rite: it retains those cultural factors that already resonate with Western Christians. Familiar (but Orthodox) liturgical forms, familiar vestments, and familiar dress help make Orthodoxy look like what it is: a catholic Church for all people.

But that wouldn't be "unique," now, would it?

* - Lest I be accused of having a blind, "papal" allegiance to all Church authorities: yes, sin and heresy excepted. (Rolls eyes.)



Blogger Aristibule said...

Where have these discussions been popping up at? Beards?

I don't think anyone could (or should) fault the AWRV for dress code, they have a pretty particular one - more so than many Byzantines and other WRO (down to only specific styles of cassocks, a particular form of biretta, etc.) If they knew the particular historical tradition of the AWRV, it makes good sense.

Of all the things that need fixing in Orthodoxy - I don't think the facial hair and dress of the clergy is one having much abuse (I've not seen Orthodox clergy anywhere dressing immodestly or unprofessionally, nor in a manner that would suggest faddishness.)

The Russian WRO has its 'dress code' as well - embodied in the Customaries of the various communities (traditional Benedictine monastic habits, traditional English Catholic clericals and/or monastic habit, facial hair after the Western tradition, crosses to mark the priests as Christian priests, etc.) IOW - nothing to be purposefully odd - but giving respect to the office held, to Christian witness, the sensibilities of society, the liturgical tradition handed down, etc. No one is going to mistake them for laymen, members of another religion, or as some odd eccentric or hippy. Given, some might mistake some of it for traditional Roman Catholic clergy or monastics of certain orders - 'Romish' over 'Muslim' is the more likely reaction, even here in the deep South. With maybe the exception of particularly monastic Byzantine dress (klobuk, schema, mandyas) - Byzantine clericals are more often recognized as a 'Catholic' vestment or Academic dress, in my experience. Whether cassock or suit, bearded or shaven - in our society, the presence of a cross and clerical collar pretty much leaves no question that the wearer is Christian clergy.

Not that it matters - but, the use of clerical suits has been for Protestant sensibilities. Appear 'Romish', and they would not even listen to the first word out of your mouth. However, I think our society now is a bit less anti-Roman. Catholics outnumber all others, and few of them have a toxic reaction to clergy (theirs or others) dressing as clergymen rather than laymen. Otherwise, society except for some rare parts is pretty tolerant of dress. Curiosity rather than hostility would be what I'd expect from Americans towards those wearing clericals of any sort (same as goes for those wearing in public a uniform of any sort or ethnic clothing - Indian, African, Highland Dress, Country-Western, Amish, etc.)

So what are they protesting - are there actually Orthodox clergy with mohawks, Hawaiian shirts, and Skater pants - or am I missing something here?

1:28 PM  
Blogger Fr Matthew said...

Ben--a clarification. The basis of my blog entry was the discussion of western clericals vs. Byzantine cassocks as standard for clerical dress in the Byzantine Rite which came up on two different blogs: Orthodixie and Huw's Doxos.

I'm not familiar with the discussion of beards in the WR that you mentioned and it wasn't my motivation for my post. I was simply taking the discussion of dress in the Byzantine Rite and putting it within the context of the Western Rite.

(And, FWIW, I've had a beard for most of my adult life, so I'm probably a "true Orthodox" priest, unless length is an issue...)

4:17 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

The bottom line should not be rite vs. rite, but simply obedience to one's bishop. If the bishop tells the pirest to wear a shirt and clerical collar and keep the beard trimmed or shaven, the priest should do it. If he says wear a cassock and grow out the beard and hair, the priest should do it.

Now, if the bishop says, it's up to you... well, I will make the point that an Antiochian priest once told me that the point of the cassock and beard for somebody in this country should be so that the priest is not mistaken for a Catholic, Lutheran, or Episcopal clergyman.

On the other hand, another Antiochian priest told me, "The priest put the wedding rings on our right hand, but I wear mine on my left because I don't want there to be any confusion for people who aren't Orthodox."

For myself, as a layman, I have short hair and a trimmed beard. I'm a layperson out in the world, not a monastic, and there's no reason for me to try to assume the trappings of the latter. As with so many things, however, your mileage may vary.

In Christ,


11:24 AM  
Blogger Ben Johnson said...

Ari, the beards discussion popped up on the Yahoo group alluded to in the post. Its moderator was interested in setting "a standard." In fact, beloved Leoxiii on York Forum posted a joking reference to this on that august board. You're not missing anything: it's simply another way for some personalities to be "more Orthodox than thou." The Russian Church has its dress code, which should be respected by its priests. However, rememberin other traditions NOT all priests wear a pectoral cross and collar: some wear merely a black cassock. Which is not understood in this country....

Fr. Matthew, thanks for the note; I hadn't followed the discussions on those blogs and knew you did not shy away from setting errors from my assumed source straight. Good to know; I actually thought I had taken the discussion over to Byzantines. To paraphrase the canonists: "If people feel the Byzantines should wear Western clericals, how much more the Western Rite?" :)

Father bless.

2:01 AM  

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