Every so often I get a note from a concerned soul in the parish that addresses their perception of inappropriate attire in Church. I am unaware of any formal church teaching on the matter, but my research has shown that those Churches - and there are some - that actually have a dress code, are considered to be very traditional or extremely conservative. Some congregations refuse to allow women into their church or sanctuary unless their heads are covered. Men may not enter without wearing a dress shirt and dark slacks. I couldn’t help but notice that most of the “do’s and don'ts” of such dress codes were far more detailed with respect to women’s attire than to men’s.
When I was growing up in the West of Ireland, Sunday mass was an occasion for Sunday best. I usually wore clothes on Sunday that I wouldn’t ordinarily wear on any other day of the week. I grew up in a rural village, and when I look back on it, people made an effort. For some, their circumstances meant they tied their slacks around their waist with twine, covered by a sweater that was pulled below the waist. The more well-to-do wore shoes that shined, and jackets over their shirts. Men always uncovered their heads, sometimes placing their caps beneath their knees on the hard wooden floor. Women wore scarves over their heads, but only to protect themselves against the weather. In church the scarves were mostly removed or worn around the neck. Skirts and trousers were the order of the day. Winter saw overcoats while summer saw short-sleeves.
In South Africa, I was struck by the formality of church clothing that was worn both by the poorest of the poor as well as those financially better off. I have visited churches in Spain, France and in Italy where there are signs and sometimes people, reminding those entering the sacred spaces that shoulders are to be covered, as are legs, at least to the knees. In a few places, people could rent or buy scarves or wraps, if they wished. This was mostly in popular tourist areas. In a California beach parish, standard church attire involved sandals, shorts, skirts, and bright-colored shirts or blouses. Visiting Hawaii once, I found myself to be the most over-dressed person there in my slacks, shirt and shoes.
Does God care what people wear to Church? Maybe yes, maybe no. I don’t presume to know the mind of God, especially on such things as this. References in the scriptures to appropriate attire for worship are culturally, geographically and historically grounded. In this we share some affinity with the peoples of scripture. What’s appropriate in summer at the beach may be considered very odd in winter in the mountains. It would seem to me that trying to come up with a dress-code for Church is a complex, if impossible task. How could we possibly accommodate for fashion, style, cut, fit, lengths, etc? Neither could we accommodate people’s socio-economic, individual or personal circumstances. One person’s stylish expression is another person’s affront. It seems to me that there is no particular way of wearing clothes that guarantees a person is a better or worse Christian than anyone else.
I am reminded of the passage of scripture in which the prophet Samuel is sent to the House of Jesse to find and anoint a new king. As the prophet looked at the sons of Jesse, he was reminded by God: “Do not judge from his appearance... God does not see as a mortal, who sees the appearance. The LORD looks into the heart.” (1Sam 16:7).
Yet for all that, I would be surprised if most people would put as much thought into what they wear to church today as I have already put into penning these thoughts. And maybe that’s a bigger issue for us to consider. Have we become lazy in our approach to preparing for Church? Is Church becoming an afterthought for us? Do I put more thought into what I wear to the office or to a date on Friday night than I put into what I’ll wear for Church? What does my attitude to preparing for Church reflect in terms of my cares and priorities?
Let’s face it, while God may or may not care about what I wear to Church, my choice of attire says something about me and how much I care. Am I more concerned about how others see me than I am about how I present myself with and among God’s people? Do I dress to draw attention to myself or for my own comfort, or do I dress keeping in mind the God whom I seek to worship? There’s an old expression: Clothes make the man/woman. What does my choice of attire say about the kind of person I am or am striving to become before God and before God’s people?
Perhaps these are some questions that we might consider. I suspect if we do, then dress-code concerns will subside. And if I see someone wearing something I don’t necessarily consider appropriate, I will continue to choose to thank God for the gift of that person’s presence, rather than pass judgment, without any sense of their circumstances or context.