The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Is Worship Dress Up or Dress Down?

Does your religious tradition embrace a come-as-you-want ethic with respect to dress during worship, or does it encourage a certain level of dress-up or minimum standard of dress?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at InterfaithUnderstanding.org.

The question: Standards of dress have become more casual and this trend accelerated during the word-from-home environment of the pandemic. I've seen t-shirts with questionable messages in the workplace, sleeveless tees with biker vests at funerals, and shorts at nice restaurants. Does your religious tradition embrace a come-as-you-want ethic with respect to dress during worship, or does it encourage a certain level of dress-up or minimum standard of dress?

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

“Acceptable attire for worship has indeed slid into a more casual territory, but this slide predates the pandemic. In the 50’s and 60’s when I was growing up, we saved our ‘best’ for church.

“None of the churches where I’ve served has had a written ‘dress code’ Standards of dress reflected church culture.

“My personal preference is for modesty and respectability with church leaders modeling both. (of course, modesty for one may not be modesty for another!)

“On one occasion where a man wore shorts to usher and a woman was displayed considerable cleavage while serving as communion I suggested to the church council that those who usher or serve at the sacrament of Holy Communion should wear modest clothing, ie, not shorts or skimpy blouses. An outcry ensued when the congregation learned of my request countering that that Jesus didn’t care what people wore to church. True, but Paul admonished his readers not to cause one another to ‘stumble.’ Do shorts shorts and low cut blouses certainly can be a distraction even if they don’t drive the worshipper to ‘stumble.’

“In a different congregation, I began to notice that one of the physicians in the church always wore old jeans and a flannel shirt to worship. One morning I asked him about this. He replied that he wanted to be sure that the person living on the streets who entered his church would not be the poorest dressed.

“There is a difference between ‘dressing down’ and dressing sexually or politically provocatively, the latter constituting my concern.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“We welcome every person as they are, including all forms of attire. We have no written dress code other than asking people to please refrain from using strong fragrances, colognes, and other heavily scented products. People should feel comfortable in what they wear.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“If you were to attend the West Michigan Hindu Temple on any given day you’d find a variety of modes of dress. While many prefer to dress in traditional Indian style, Western attire is perfectly acceptable. More often than not, women are the ones who are most likely to be in Indian garb. On holidays it’s more likely the men will dress in a kurta.

“Of course, you will also fine plenty of jeans and shirts as well. Although I still maintain that our congregation is better dressed than many others.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“Such matters are not regulated in Presbyterian and Reformed churches.  Much is left to the discretion of the individual, subject to the prevailing ethos of his faith community. The heavy hand of societal norms dictated something of a uniform in the past. Calvinists of every kind were expected to show up for church clad in their 'Sabbath blacks.' At the beginning of the 20th century, those who attended divine service in affluent urban churches consulted Emily Post as to correct formal attire for such an occasion.

“In recent decades the old usages of Protestant worship have been discarded in favor of religious entertainment, with soloists, choirs and quartets, instruments of all kinds, rock bands, jazz combos, or “Country and Western” music and dress. Reformed Presbyterians have resisted all these changes, and still sing the Psalms of the Bible with no instrumental accompaniment, as we have done since the days of John Calvin and John Knox, but we are decidedly in the​ minority.

“What has been lost elsewhere is any sense of the fear of God. Worship is no longer deemed an important occasion that should inspire us to dress with care, modesty, and dignity. The same people who favor jeans and tees for weekly services will spend large sums on gowns and tuxedos for a wedding. Somewhere between these extremes is a point of balance that we seem to be missing.”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“The Catholic Church does not have a universal dress code. The ruling principle is that of the virtue of prudence. The exercise of this virtue sees modesty as its fruit.

“What one person judges to be disrespectful is different depending on the culture. Sleeveless tees and biker vests might be appropriate at the funeral of a fellow biker. Shorts in a nice restaurant may be acceptable given the outside temperature. T-shirts in the workplace may be the norm of a t-shirt business.

“Modest attire is always preferred when attending a service in the Catholic Church. Wearing revealing clothing by either men or women is inappropriate for worship. I do not wish to judge the clothing choices. My preference is not to criticize the person. I choose to rejoice that the person is in Church. If a person is wearing inappropriate clothing, I will call it to their attention carefully and privately.”

 

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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