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God squad: Dressing for worship strikes a blow for modesty

I'm a 64-year-old Catholic. As a teen in Queens, I attended Mass every Sunday. Back in those days, there was something called your "Sunday best." That meant jacket, tie and polished shoes for the boys, and dresses, nice shoes, gloves and kerchiefs or hats for girls. The attire was the norm at all services. Over the past several decades, my wife and I have noticed what I will call a "decay in appearance" among the majority of parishioners. In summer, T-shirts, cutoffs, team jerseys, old sneakers and flip-flops are the norm. And I'm not just talking about children; adults dress that way, too. They all look like they're headed for a barbecue or a day at the beach. I'm sure the hierarchy is aware of this, but fearful of imposing a dress code, not wishing to lose members. Do you think "Sunday best" will ever return? Am I old-fashioned to be thinking about this?

- P., Holbrook, via e-mail

Church (or synagogue or mosque) dress is, indeed, a big issue that riles up worshipers and pastors. How we dress when we pray is a very big deal.

Every organized religion has a view about this issue. Some traditional Baptist churches used to have a squad of church ladies standing at the door to measure hemlines. I regularly give a "cleavage speech" to the mothers of my students who might confuse a cocktail dress with a synagogue dress. I also give a blue jeans speech to fathers. I care about how people dress when we pray together.

So how do the spiritual issues in the holy clothing wars sort out? I deeply sympathize with your frustration at the decline in modest dressing for worship. I agree that being dressed in your "Sunday best" helps make worship special.

The biblical Hebrew word for holiness is kadosh, and its root meaning is, "to set apart from the ordinary." Special dressing is a visible sign of our spiritual understanding of holiness. Worshiping God ought to be set apart from our ordinary life and dress.

Another spiritual reason for dressing up for worship is that it strikes a note for modesty. We live in a sex-suffused, micro-mini, pants-on-the-floor world promoting the view that women and men are primarily sex objects, not primarily spiritual beings made in the image of God.

Modesty is not just a value of prudes embarrassed about their bodies and human beauty. Modesty is a revolutionary change of focus from the shape of our bodies to the shape of our souls. Of course, taken to the extreme, these demands for modesty can be oppressive.

However, immodesty in dress conveys a strong, unspoken message that our principle value as human beings derives mostly from our bodies and not from our souls.

The other side to this debate also has some powerful spiritual arguments. The best is that God doesn't care how we look, so why should we care? There are no biblical texts demanding "Sunday best" as a precondition for prayer. We read in James 2: 2-4: "If there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man with filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one with the fine clothes, and say to him, 'You sit in a good place,' and say to the poor man with filthy clothes, 'You stand there, or sit at my footstool,' have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Know this, God will judge everything we do, good or bad. He will judge those in authority who make such decisions even more harshly."

By setting a dress code, we're setting a class code that privileges the rich, while pushing away those who need a Sunday best exposure to God but can't afford good clothes.

Many people also point to the new casualness accepted in business and elsewhere as proof that society has become less rigid and more accepting. They rightly argue that trying to attract new members while pushing them away with dress codes makes no sense.

I believe dress codes are really about us, not about God. I see no reason to rigidly enforce such codes but good reasons to encourage them. Dress codes show respect for the community of worshipers. How we dress when we pray is as much a tradition as how we sing when we pray. It's what we do to feel respectful and united. Praying is about you. Praying together is about us.

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