Dressing Down for Church

By Graham Glover

It’s been just over three weeks since my family and I arrived to our new duty station in Hawaii. We’re settling in nicely to our new house and are thrilled with our children’s new school. I’m getting to know the Soldiers of my new Unit and look forward to heading to the field with them in the very near future. Although we’re far from home, life in Hawaii is great. (No matter how tough your day might be, it’s hard to complain when you live on an island!)

However, things are a little different in Oahu, to include a casual way of living that is something I’m not yet ready to embrace. Among other things, this includes how EVERYONE dresses for church. The first Sunday we went to our new parish, I showed up in slacks, a clerical, and a blazer. To say I was over-dressed would be an understatement. Most of the men in the congregation wear nice shorts, a short-sleeved collared/Hawaiian shirt, and flip-flops (or as they call them here, slippers). I’ve quickly learned that this casual style is not unique to our parish or to Hawaiian Lutherans. This is how everyone dresses on the island. I doubt I’ll ever show up to church in shorts and struggled mightily the past two weeks not wearing a blazer. The first time I preside at the Divine Service ought to be interesting, as I almost always wear an alb, stole, and chasuble.


That being said, these past few weeks have reminded me of a very important reality that is often lost on those like me who put a premium on how one dresses, especially at church. It’s a lesson people like me who are all about the smells and bells – we high church purists – need to hear more often than we like. That is, what we wear, from the parishioner to the pastor – means very little. Whether or not there are the appointed and customary accoutrements in the sanctuary, to include the style and amount of vestments the celebrant, preacher, acolyte, assisting deacon, etc. wear, ultimately means nothing. Don’t get me wrong, vestments are important. Dressing modestly, even if casually, is the appropriate attire when we are in the presence of the Almighty. But at the end of the day, clothes and liturgical vessels do not make the gifts of God. Style always loses to substance. Christ’s Word is holy entirely on its own. His Sacraments are efficacious because He instituted them. Period.

For those who love the Liturgy (and there is every good reason to fall in love with this precious gift of the Church), comments like these are often not very well received. This is especially true among Lutherans who continue to fight the influx of “contemporary” and “non-liturgical” styles of worship into our congregations. For reasons that I’ll never understand or accept, some Lutherans think that they have the right to change the Liturgy – to add, delete, or modify the ordo that has been part of the church catholic for almost two millennia into something they characterize as “relevant”. Why the Church’s Divine Liturgy is no longer relevant is beyond me. And as we know too well, those who are quick to change our worship are equally quick to change how we dress in church. Vestments, clerical collars, etc. are viewed as suspect. Casual dress is the thing to do, because, well, it’s “relevant”.


But even those who love the Liturgy, recognizing all of the goodness it has and continues to offer the people of God, are wise to remember that it is not the Liturgy itself or the vestments/clothes one wears at the Divine Service that makes it efficacious. It is the Word of God. Alone. It is Christ’s promise of forgiveness, given to us in Holy Absolution – His comforting words of grace and love, given to us in His Holy Word – and the most perfect gift we will receive this side of eternity, given to us in His Holy Supper, alone that we need. How they look, how the celebrant is dressed, etc. do not make these gifts what they are for us. A lesson I have been reminded of the past few weeks and one we are all wise to recall as we find comfort in Christ’s gifts, no matter how one looks when giving or receiving them.