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The big questions: Why do men wear dresses?

This year Journey explores questions from the pews, namely from a (fictitious) person exploring faith and the Uniting Church. This month our (fictitious) church goer, Nova B. Lever, asks:
Why do men wear dresses?

HI, MY NAME is Nova B. Lever. I attend a Uniting Church after twenty years of not doing church. At 36, a tertiary educated single mum, I’m exploring faith. My parents never went to church so I don’t have a traditional background, but I do have plenty of questions.

Last Sunday there was a guest preacher. This middle-aged man wore a white smock with a coloured scarf and a tasselled piece of rope around his waist.

My last encounter with men in dresses was in the church I left as a teenager. I might say I have some serious issues about uniforms and badges of rank.

I asked my minister, “Why dress up like a fifth century monk or a Catholic priest in a 21st century protestant church?” She doesn’t wear vestments, other than a long scarf for baptisms and communion.

She asked me if I found it useful for police officers and fire fighters to wear uniforms, but I couldn’t see the analogy linking a sermon with a burning house or a random breath test. She reminded me about a recent adult baptism. The person in the pool wore a white cotton robe over his swimmers: an alb.

I thought that was for modesty. She said it symbolised purity and was a baptism tradition dating back to the very early church. I have enough Latin to get that: alb, alba, white. Although it still seems culturally strange to me for a man to dress that way in suburban Australia.

Apparently I used the wrong word for the neck decoration. It’s a stole not a scarf, because the preacher was ordained as a Minister of the Word. The idea is that the stole is like a plough animal’s yoke: a symbol of service.

I know Jesus said, “My yolk is easy,” but I just can’t imagine the disciples wearing anything except the average clothing of a fisherman or a public servant or whatever when he sent them out to speak in the villages.

I had to Google the rope around the waist. It is a cincture. Roman Catholic priests wear it as a symbol of chastity. This guy had a wedding ring on, so it simply didn’t make sense to me.

There are things about church that are quite strange when you walk in off the street.

Long-term church folk assume everyone understands, but if symbols don’t have clear meanings, and no one bothers to explain, newcomers can’t make sense of what’s going on.