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Modesty and the Church
Clothing is symbolic in everything we do. Clothing reflects your attitude, and the level of respect you are willing to accord the place and occasion you're attending.

Familiarity breeds contempt, to be sure, and we see it often in the reactions of Canadian readers to even the most humble of pleas for propriety by Christian spokespeople.

Immodest dressing in church is more than indifference to the institution and the occasion …

I have been amused by the spate of letters—the indignant ones, that is—in reaction to a cleric's plea for sartorial modesty in church. Those who take umbrage seem to feel that it is both hypocritical and patriarchal to expect women to modify their taste for tight and/or revealing clothing that has been specifically designed by the fashion industry for sexual distraction: hypocritical because God presumably does not care what one wears to worship Him, and patriarchal because—well, isn't it obvious that any time a man presumes to dictate behaviour to a woman, it can only be because he is a typical male control freak and wants to repress women's sexual nature in the name of some, like, totally archaic concept of public sexual apartheid?

One offended reader asks, why not go all the way and make us wear burkas? That's finally what motivated me to respond, because that very same letter-writer, if asked—no, told—to cover her head and shoulders in a mosque, or if informed she must remove her shoes before entering a Japanese temple would no doubt feel a charming frisson of pleasure in being part of such a multicultural moment. It is only her own heritage clerics that irritate, even when this humble request for proprietary is echoed in every religious culture in the world.

I have to wonder, too, if the very same women who think nothing of appearing in church in tank tops or bared midriffs would show up similarly attired to witness in court. Of course they would not, nor would their advocates. When it is important to impress a judge, even in those liberated times, that you are a person of sobriety and good character, you wear clothing that speaks to those qualities.

If clothing were only worn for warmth or utility, there would be no such word as fashion. Clothing is symbolic in everything we do, which is why we wear one kind of clothing at the beach and another kind to be married in. It's a pretty simple concept. Your clothing reflects your attitude, that is to say the level of respect you are willing to accord the place and occasion you're attending. If you wear modest clothing in court without demur, even if you think the judge is a fool and justice is arbitrary, you're at least saying you hope for justice, and you recognize the office of judge as legitimate.

Immodest dressing in church is more than indifference to the institution and the occasion, it is an aggressive show of disrespect for its history and its message, what is known in sociological jargon as "contested space"—an attempt to co-opt the traditional symbols of reverence and subvert them, so that their own anti-religious message de-sanctifies the space. Sartorial aggression is the outward symbol of the revolutionary impulse. If there is such animosity in immodestly dressed church-goers toward those who rightly criticize them in defence of their own institution's definition of dignity, instead of blaming the messenger, why not simply stay out of churches—or better still, start a "church" of your own specifically for those who think deference even to the idea of a role model for holiness is so unworthy of respect that any old clothing will do in it? For the tank-topp'd, that would be the "principled" thing to do, but they might be surprised and even displeased by the kind of similarly narcissistic "celebrants" who turn up at their services.

Barbara Kay is a columnist for the National Post.

Originally published in the National Post, June 11, 2006.




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