Taking Off My Suit

Sunday night. I took off my suit and clerical shirt. No robes, cassocks, preaching tabs or anything like that for me. And definitely no cassock-alb – technically known in the congregation as ‘that white thing your predecessor wore’. A clerical shirt and collar is hard enough for me to cope with sometimes. As an Anglican friend once said of himself and me, ‘Not so much low church, more like subterranean.’ I changed into casual clothes, and thought, ‘I won’t need that suit or those shirts until 10th May now.’

It wasn’t a morbid thought along the lines of ‘Mama, please take this badge off of me, I can’t use it anymore’, as Bob Dylan sang at the beginning of ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’. Instead, it was a case that I had taken my last Sunday service before my much-anticipated sabbatical, which starts next Sunday. I shall have to put my mind into proleptic mode this week to prepare worship for 10th May. I shall also have a number of important appointments this week, not least including a Church Council and an away day for the Circuit Leadership Team. But unless a crisis occurs, the suit, clerical shirts and collars are sharing fellowship with the mothballs for the immediate future.

Realising I would now be wearing civvies for quite a while, I had another thought: ‘Great. I can be myself now.’ When I dress as a minister, I am putting myself in a rôle. That’s both bad and good.

It’s bad in this sense. If I have to put myself in rôle, like an actor putting on a costume ready for a performance, then I wonder whether something dishonest is going on here. This is not the real me, I’m not meant to be an actor portraying a different character. Ministry can only come out of who I am in Christ. Who is this guy in the clerical collar? It doesn’t look or feel like me.

But it’s also good, and the reason it’s good is like the obverse face of what I’ve just described in saying it’s bad. There are times when, to fulfil my calling, I have to play a rôle. I don’t mean that I’m pretending in the sense of trying to deceive anybody. I mean that it gets me into the rôle God has called me to take.

And that’s important for me, because – as anyone who knows me reasonably well will be aware – I frequently feel a dichotomy between who I am as a person and the fact of my calling to the ministry. I resisted the call to the ministry for ages, thinking I didn’t have it in my sensitive personality to cope with people’s deep problems. I still find that, like the majority of ministers in the historic denominations, I’m an introvert, and many congregations want an extravert. The latter is an issue I’m going to spend some of the sabbatical exploring.

I don’t like dressing differently from the rest of the church. Theologically, I have always recoiled from it. I find it undermines the priesthood of all believers and disempowers people when that doctrine and the related one of the Body of Christ calls all disciples to make a contribution, and not to honour the more obvious ones above the others. For the same reason, my stocks of calling cards have never had the word ‘Reverend’ or any abbreviation of it printed on them. They say I’m a Methodist minister, but titles give me discomfort, because it’s another dubious sign of status and superiority.

Personally, I dislike it, too. I’m just a guy who doesn’t like dressing up. Until recently, our four-year-old son Mark would always protest at having to dress up for fancy dress parties. ‘Can I wear ordinary clothes?’ he would ask. (Having said that, he’s starting to change.) But that’s me: ordinary clothes. I even resisted a suit for years. Looking smart, complete with a tie to strangle me, was something I associated with unhappy memories of school. Why repeat that? It took a long time to see I’d developed a self-esteem issue, and that scruffy appearance was an outward sign of feeling pretty scruffy inside. Feeling better about myself smartened up my appearance more than any harshly applied rules. There’s a lesson there, you know. I even began to enjoy buying suits and building a collection of striking ties. It dawned on me what I needed to do: buy shirts with collars half an inch bigger than I really needed. Then I could be both smart and comfortable. That was a winning combination I never expected after school uniform days.

But despite my theological objections and personal reservations, I still wear formal minister’s attire for formal occasions. Sometimes I admit it’s just to keep the peace. Some older, more traditional folk just wouldn’t understand my message if I didn’t wear it to take services, and especially not ones particularly associated with the ministry, such as the sacraments, weddings or funerals.

At other times, though, wearing the gear is a reminder to myself that yes, this is my calling, despite my periodic bouts of incredulity at that thought. ‘What am I doing as a minister? Should I continue? Wasn’t I right all those years ago to think I wasn’t suited?’ – these are thoughts that orbit my brain and occasionally land for a while. And that’s when I need reminders. 

The reminders can come in many forms. At one especially dark time when I felt very close to jacking it all in, Debbie said to me, ‘What about all those ways in which you knew God had called you? If you quit, you’re denying all of them.’ I knew she was right. When I was exploring what the call of God on my life was, I had written down all the little hints of what it might be and the evidence why I thought God was saying that – Bible verses, striking passages from books, comments by friends, and so on.

That kind of reminder works well for me. They are like pieces of data that can be assembled to make a rational case. But visual reminders serve well, too. They work well for me because they are out of the ordinary in terms of the way my brain usually works. I like logic, theory and principles. Much as I can enjoy photography, you don’t see many photos on this blog. It tends to be words (apart from some video clips from time to time). The visual comes from outside my normal experiences of validation.

In using something that’s outside my conventional learning style, God creeps up on me. In speaking through something about which I have theological and personal qualms, God catches me unawares.

But no, I’m not planning to wear it at all during the sabbatical. Because first and foremost, before I put any sense of identity and self-worth in my calling to be a minister, I’m going to enjoy my primary calling.

And that’s the primary calling of all Christians: to be a child of God.


  1. Dave, thank you for this, and I hope that your sabbatical is refreshing and renewing. I spend a lot of time discussing with my fellow students why I am not buying fancy dress ( oops I mean clerical robes etc). I see no need for them, a shirt and collar will do, being a woman suit issues don’t have to come into it.

    I hope that your sense of call will be deepened. Right with you on the priesthood of all believers!!!


  2. Olive,

    Thanks. I just think titles reinforce the sense of rank and those for archdeacon and bishop which you mention do so even more!


  3. Sally,

    Thank you too. In my last circuit several people at one church actually asked me not to wear a ‘collar’ for services, at least non-sacramental ones. One young couple I married also requested I didn’t at their wedding. Of course, there is the other side of the coin, too …


  4. “What i can’t stomach are ‘the very reverend’ and the ‘right reverend’!”

    Especially of you’re feeling “not very reverend” or “almost reverend.”

    But as far as the dress is concerned – when our student group did hospital visiting, some of us wore clerical shirts, others refused on the grounds that we weren’t yet ministers, and weren’t chaplains, so we shouldn’t mislead the patients. One guy who wore collar and tie all term, decided on the last week to wear a clerical shirt – he said afterwards he wished he’d worn it the whole time, because patients opened up to him much more quickly. It was a badge of trust.

    OK, there have been times when the collar has been a barrier, and other times when it has been a bridge. On balance, I prefer to wear it. (Saves choosing what to wear in the morning…) Horses for courses? Whatever enables the relationship.

    My favourite moment recently was when I went into the local wearing my collar. They serve a very nice lager called Kaltenberg Hell (ie ‘light’) – the barman saw me coming, and in a good loud voice said “Ah, here coes the vicar – he’ll have a pint of Hell…” So I did, and have frequently since!


  5. Thank you for an honest and thought provoking post.

    As a student minister I have found myself grappling with many of the issues which you raise, particularly concerning identity, role and calling. As an introvert who believes strongly in the priesthood of all believers I am having to come to terms with the prospect of wearing a collar, let alone ‘that white thing your predecessor wore’….


  6. Ian,

    Thank you, and welcome here. I found myself in much the same position as you when I was a student minister. We entered college at the time when it was expected that student ministers would be called ‘Reverend’ and wear clerical collars for conducting worship, etc. During my first year that changed in the wake of alleged abuse of the privilege. One of my friends commented he didn’t know whether the incident was the reason or merely the occasion for the change. However, it suited my low church preferences! The interesting thing was to observe the comments of friends who found their burgeoning identity as ministers-to-be taken away by the removal of the collar and the title.

    What I think I particularly dislike are those attempts to impose uniformity on this issue. I know that at one Conference a few years ago, there was an attempt to get all the ordinands to dress identically, under the guise of collegiality. I would prefer we pursued a policy of unity in diversity, as per a report to Conference on ministerial attire in the early 1980s. When I had to lead a service three years ago at which the then President, Tom Stuckey, preached, we were gathered in the vestry beforehand, with my then superintendent and Chair of District, and the conversation turned to the idea that we all ought to wear the same. Everyone but me had a cassock on, and – surprise, surprise – I don’t own one. I said I didn’t see that it mattered, because our unity in Christ was of far greater importance. We went into the service, dressed differently. If anyone commented, it wasn’t to me.


  7. I’m going to chime in here.

    I’m not wearing a ‘dog collar’ at the moment because I followed John Sentamu and removed my collar (and I was told that I was not, under any circumstances, allowed to wear the shirt without the collar).

    I do – I’m afraid, Dave – wear a cassock-alb for communion although I simply wear a suit and blouse for preaching services. Full Methodist cassock get-up for a funeral which I do as a mark of respect.

    I’m not particularly interested in clothing, full stop. I like to wear a very plain skirt or trousers (usually black) and a plain jacket. This makes life easy for me. Any plain-coloured blouse goes with a black or navy blue suit and I don’t have to worry about making a fashion statement.

    The thing about the cassock-alb is that it is supposed to cover one up; it’s emphatically NOT supposed to be making a statement about ‘being better’. The thing is that a person (a minister) can use all sorts of techniques to make the point that ‘I am better, I am special’. It doesn’t take their clothing to do that. And if the minister genuinely doesn’t think that they are better than everyone else, the garb doesn’t matter.

    Having grown up in a liturgical setting where this sort of garb didn’t stand out or make a statement, I sometimes think that there is a reverse snobism in Methodism about not wearing it. I don’t know how many people are sitting there stewing their brains out because I wear a cassock-alb, but I have had a number of people make positive comments about it too.


  8. Interesting issue.

    In my own CoE Parish, the vicar tends to robe only for the early HC and some HCs in the main service. Our NSM curate (an older man) will robe for all HCs and some other services as well. Both always wear their ‘ring of confidence’. My fellow Reader and I follow as told!

    I admit personally I lean towards regarding robing as a desirable norm, with exceptions having specific bases. I am influwenced is this leaning by 2 non CoE sources. Both take their position from recognising the priviege and responsibility on those of us, in practice Lay and Ordained, who have been called by their Church to preach and lead God’s people in public worship.
    1) Lloyd Jones in “Preaching and Preachers” made just that point about identifying those responsible. He says there that he always wore a gown in the pulpit, though not his acedemic hoods which would draw attention to himself.
    2) Also look at this link.
    Not sure of the link will take as such. however it draws out the theology, and also makes a cogent case for the Geneva Gown.

    As to Communion and “Word” services, the Church Society web site contains an article suggesting that word and sacrament carry equal weight. Therefore why dress up for one and down for the other. Their take behind this, in CoE terms, is to use the surplice and scarf at all times, and not albs, chasubles, or even stoles in liturgical colours for communion. So should we dress up only for Communion?

    In the end I guess it is down to each minister and congregation reaching their own position. My younger brother, last week inducted to lead the team at a Baptist church in the East Midlands has never worn collar or gown. Except he has a collar for use in, say, hospitals where it can be a useful passport.


  9. Thanks as always, Colin.

    Well, it’s interesting to see what an article which was about personal identity and calling has done in terms of ripples. One of the curious things for me when writing it was the tension between being someone who theologically and personally isn’t comfortable with ‘dressing up’, yet who finds God uses that very thing to help reinforce the sense of call!


  10. Colin, really, I’m still feeling my way through this as a new minister. I’ll readily admit that I have no grand theology other than that the congregation are uncomfortable with the clerical garb and I’m uncomfortable not wearing it.

    Having grown up Lutheran (and hence ‘liturgical’) the garb actually means the opposite to me that it does to many Methodists. It’s a sort of pragmatic compromise. You could very fairly say that the theory is sloppy and inconsistent, but it’s done for the best reasons. Were I to overcome my discomfort in this context, I’d likely move to presiding in a regular blouse and suit because this is what the norm is.


  11. Pam,

    I’m picking up something from your comments about contradictory interpretations and expectations in different traditions. I think that’s entirely accurate, and a cause of much confusion. You’ve seen it from both sides. Having grown up in Methodism, I’ve very much imbibed the idea that dressing in a different way indicates rank or status. I remember being astonished in my last circuit at a meeting in one of my Anglican-Methodist LEPs when the church treasurer started talking about his youth as a choirboy. He described the choir’s robes in the way you did about the cassock-alb, about covering oneself up, all being equal and anonymous under the ‘uniform’.

    I suppose there are also other things to explore here about the origins of certain garments, e.g., the cassock deriving from everyday Roman attire and the surplice from monks trying to keep warm in draughty cathedrals. But the meanings of vestments seem to change along with the way words change their meaning. However, I can’t get much more into that now – it’s late at night and I’m short of sleep lately!


  12. Dave – absolutely, you are correct. Having come from the ‘opposite’ tradition, some of the Methodist truisms can be painful. I understand the very deep sociological and class issues at work, though, so it gets complicated. However, I do think that my congregations know me as a person who genuinely does believe we are all equal in the sight of God, so it’s a lot easier for them to accept my funny dresses. 🙂


  13. Yes, there may well be sociological and class factors at work, and they are complicated when it comes to what one wears in all sorts of areas, not just clergy attire! My ex-choirboy treasurer (see my last comment) conceived of choir robes like school uniform, and they are sometimes the very dignity of less well-off families (says he who lives on a well-off estate and is grateful his children can dress the same as the others). Likewise, my African-Caribbean friends at my home church were among those who insisted more than most about dressing in ‘Sunday best’. Having said that, it was combined with a very deferential attitude to those in authority, so they weren’t thoroughly egalitarian. As you say, ‘it gets complicated’.


  14. Realising I would now be wearing civvies for quite a while, I had another thought: ‘Great. I can be myself now.’ When I dress as a minister, I am putting myself in a rôle.

    I found that thought deeply disturbing. It smacks of dualism … though I’m not sure that’s what you meant.

    I long for all of us – ministers too – to be able to be who we are and not hide behind a mask or robes/ dog collars.

    I’m sure we’ll explore this more … glad you are here at Cliff this week


  15. Lorna,

    Thanks. You might be correct in observing some dualism. I’m not saying my feelings are right. Rather, I started this post from the perspective of one who lives with a tension between the call of God to be a minister (whatever a minister is, and I think that’s a legitimate debating point) and other things. One is my personality type, which doesn’t fit what a lot of congregations want. Another is my theological perspective of what I believe ministry and leadership should involve, in comparison and contrast to received understandings of ordination.

    It was great to meet you at Cliff this week, and apologies for the delay in approving the comment. However, the comments were going to one of the email addresses I access at home, rather than the webmail address I was able to monitor on my laptop at Cliff. However, now I have approved this comment of yours, any others you submit will be automatically approved. Well, unless you suggest something outrageously heretical, like, um, God being Finnish or something like that. 🙂


  16. I long for all of us – ministers too – to be able to be who we are and not hide behind a mask or robes/ dog collars.

    I am a person who doesn’t want to have to think about what I wear. Wearing a ‘rob’e really is part of who I am. I don’t think it’s fair to assume and to declare that everyone who wears robes does so because they are trying to be something they are not.

    I don’t see how we can ‘all be who we are’ if one personality-type declares that there is only one right way of doing things and the other personality-types are being fakes.


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