By Brittany Darst
“How do you put this thing on?!”
Deep in the church basement, I struggled with my alb. After a lifetime in Baptist churches, I had to wear my first-ever vestments for Thursday Vespers at Duke Chapel. With the gracious help of a Methodist friend, I finally figured out the drapes and snaps and knots. The vestry mirror reflected back someone I had never seen before: myself, clothed for my calling. Tears welled in my eyes.
So began my obsession with clerical attire, an interest which eventually led to my shop, Magdalene Clergy Dresses. A Baptist running a clergywear shop strikes many people as strange, and for good reason. My Baptist people’s aversion to clerical attire has deep theological and cultural roots.
Baptist doctrine emphasizes “the priesthood of the believer,”1 meaning that all Christians, whether engaged in full-time ministry or not, have equal access to the full power of God’s Spirit without mediation from anyone except Jesus Christ. Pastors embody this theology by wearing the same clothes as the people. Distinctive dress might imply a spiritual distinction, which would betray our deepest convictions as Baptists.
In 1896, Charles Spurgeon expressed undisguised contempt for clerical attire for a less savory reason: strident anti-Catholicism. In words I shall not repeat here, lest I offend my Catholic brothers and sisters, he proclaimed that a Baptist in clergywear might as well be a Catholic—to him the ultimate heresy. Spurgeon’s reasons for opposing clergywear were not solely anti-Catholic, however:
If priests suppose that they get the respect of honest men by their fine ornamental dresses, they are much mistaken…Among us dissenters [Baptists] the preacher claims no priestly power, and therefore should never wear a peculiar dress… a modest, gentle–manly appearance, in which the dress is just such as nobody could make a remark upon, seems to me to be the right sort of thing.2
Ever-conscious of human propensities to sin, Spurgeon advocated a humble and unremarkable wardrobe as ideal for a minister who claims to be a servant-leader. To him, special garments in the pulpit were too risky. They might fuel pride, which undermines a minister’s work entirely.
And yet, with both the Baptist Faith and Message of 1963 and Spurgeon himself against me, I’d like to make a case for clergywear for Baptist ministers. Not as a rule, mind you: The autonomy of the local church is too sacred to mandate pulpit attire. But I argue that a collar or alb or stole in a Baptist pulpit should no longer be an anomaly or surprise. Many Baptist churches have already arrived at this conclusion, and I toss in my hat with theirs.
I argue this because Baptists have in fact developed standard clerical attire: the standard Western men’s suit and tie. One day, when a large group of Baptists visited Duke Divinity, a Methodist classmate and I joked about the veritable forest of blazers, men’s and women’s, filling the chapel. Search Google images for “pastor” or “Baptist pastor” and you will see what I mean. Women have long struggled for ministry equality in Baptist life, and our pastoral dress code reflects that. Because Baptists have no special clerical attire, masculine business casual has become our clerical attire. As a woman in Baptist ministry, I believe this is a problem. If I am as much a “priest” as a male preacher, why am I expected to dress like him?
I remember the first time I had to choose an outfit in which to preach in a Baptist church on a Sunday morning. After long deliberation, I chose to wear exactly what the church’s male senior pastor wore each week: a black pantsuit and a button-down shirt with flat black shoes. Stepping into the pulpit, I felt like I belonged there. My appearance fit the setting perfectly. But…most women in the congregation were wearing dresses. If I clothed myself “like the people” in a dress like theirs, would I still have clicked so effortlessly with my surroundings?
I still believe that I, as an ordained minister, have no special standing before God. I know every person to whom I minister has complete and unhampered access to God on his or her own, needing no mediation from me. I also recognize the temptation for trappings like a “Reverend” title or a special collar to make me arrogant and self-important. My people have traditions for a reason, and I don’t wish to discard them lightly. But I can’t help being a little bit jealous of my fellow female ministers of other denominations—jealous of their robes and stoles and albs, and especially of their little strip of white, which means they don’t need to dress like a man for others to tell them they look like a pastor.
Brittany Darst-Hermsen Edwards is a CBF Leadership Scholar and recently graduated from Duke Divinity School in May 2021. Born in New Jersey and raised in North Carolina, she is an ordained Baptist minister and founder of Magdalene Clergy Dresses
- Baptist Faith and Message 1963. https://bfm.sbc.net/comparison-chart/. Taken from 1 Peter 2:5.