“Cassock-gate,” the Reformation, and The Book of Common Prayer

I have only been the Rector of my congregation for seven months and already I have had to face-down my first, Watergate-sized scandal. Kyrie eleison.

Picture it: Sewanee, Tennessee. 2017.

There I was standing in the front of a lecture hall giving a presentation on The Book of Common Prayer as a part of Sewanee’s “Once and Future Prayer Book” Conference. The goal of the conference was to gather liturgists from around the Episcopal Church to engage the conversation of potential prayer book revision through the lens of liturgical scholarship. That I, a priest of scarcely four years and only a prayer book practitioner for eight, was invited to be, let alone speak, among this august body is nothing short of miraculous.

I spent months reading, writing, revising, and praying about what I felt called to say. I wanted to speak from the standpoint of one who greatly appreciated the poetic language of the current prayer book (even if I could admit that it could use a bit of expansion) as a point-of-departure for our journey to and with God. The underlying question that informed my whole, 40-minute presentation was this:

How can poetry invite us to excavate the depths of our tradition to provide more transforming and expansive scaffolding to support our journey to and with God?

I attempted to parse this question – pulling it apart and piecing it back together – before presenting four possible answers to the question based heavily on the Reformation identity of Anglicanism.

I did it all in what I have come to see as my uniform: my cassock. For me, a cassock isn’t the suit-and-tie that one might wear to an office or a tuxedo one might wear to a fancy gala; rather, it is the habit of a religious person engaging a symbiotic life of work and prayer. For me to wear a cassock is nothing special. I am not making any statement with it except for the fact that I am a priest and that I engage this work with great respect and solemnity.

When it came time for responses and questions from the audience, a Lutheran (her denominational identity is important for what follows) was the first to respond.

“Why are you wearing a cassock?”

The question completely floored me. I had spent countless hours reading, writing, crafting, reworking, reframing, and praying about what I had to present and her first question had nothing to do with the actual scholarship. She wanted to talk haberdashery. It is okay. I have just enough petty to play along.

“I wear a cassock because I have experienced many clergy, particularly older and white clerics, who easily dismiss my vocation because of my race, age, and sexuality. This is a way for me to project (thank you Dr. MacSwain for the better word “perform” which I will use when this question comes up again) priesthood into a room that I feel needs to respect that my voice is that of a priest of the Church.”

“And that says priest?”

I cannot overstate how angry I was feeling in the moment. I wanted to talk about liturgy, poetry, The Book of Common Prayer, and what the hell difference our words make in the context of our relationship to God, and she wanted to quiz me on my choice of attire.

It has been almost a month since “Cassock-gate” and I haven’t had enough space to engage the potentially racist or ageist implications of her line of questioning, partially because the specific exchange mattered less and less with each passing day. As another person in the room later remarked to me: “if you had asked her why she chose to wear what she was wearing during her presentation, she would’ve taken you out at the knees and called you sexist, but somehow it is okay for her to do that to you.” This might be true and as much as I wanted to return the favor and question her clothing choices during her presentation the next day, I refrained. I offered her substantive, material feedback, a dignity she denied me the day before.

The following day, when she began her presentation on, of all things, poetry and metaphor, she began by stating that through our exchange the previous day, she learned that “Episcopalians and Lutherans are quite different.” She then presented a well-thought-out presentation on the need to reform The Book of Common Prayer. I can appreciate the depth of her argument even if I disagree with the outcome. As she stated at the very beginning of her presentation, Episcopalians and Lutherans are different, a point that I often find missing in all the talk of THE Protestant Reformation.

A few weeks ago, I presented on the Protestant Reformations, among which the Continental and English Reformations are situated, for the adult forum in my parish. We talked at length about the political and theological realities that both unified the Reformations as well as those that made them distinctive. Many in the class were astonished. Many had grown up in the Episcopal Church, but could not tell you what made the Episcopal Church (or Anglican Church writ-large) distinct from other branches of Christianity. Many were pleasantly surprised to discover both the Catholic and Reformed influences of The Book of Common Prayer (particularly the bits that are essentially mash-ups of the two branches of Christian faith). As a historian, it was a joy to watch faithful Episcopalian Christians experience what I have long known about history – that it is never as clean-cut as we imagine it to be. And that’s what makes is interesting.

It would seem to me that this muddiness makes any talk in Reformation in the Episcopal Church incredibly difficult. We don’t have a clear mandate towards semper reforma as many of our Protestant siblings do. Our call is something a bit different – to hold both the renewal and stability in conversation with one another, to never allow one to overtake the other, and to, in the words of the Collect for the Feast of Richard Hooker (whose feast day falls 3 days after Reformation Day), “maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.”

Richard Hooker
Statue of Richard Hooker in front of Exeter Cathedral.

I have joked (at length) with my new, thoroughly reformed friends in the past few weeks about a period of mourning around Reformation Day. I have threatened to wear a black veil and to unfurl a black drape from the steeple of my parish, because I am dramatic. In truth, I am thankful for the Reformation. I am thankful for the centering of grace in the conversation of salvation and the importance of scripture as a theological litmus test. What I mourn about the Reformation (in addition to the further rending of the Church catholic) is the seeming addiction we have to change for the sake of change. It can appear to me that the consumerism of our larger society has crept its way into the Church. We treat our relationship to God, and the liturgical language that can support and inform that relationship, like the unveiling of the newest iPhone. Rather than plumb the depths of what we have, we pine for the latest and greatest. I wonder what this might cause us to miss in the meantime. I wonder what theological gems we are losing in our tendency not only to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but in questioning why the baby needs a bath in the first place.

I am not intending to make an argument for or against prayer book revision. I am not even intending to redeem or reprove the Reformation. Rather, I do want to raise the uniqueness of the Anglican tradition into the larger Reformation conversation – our Reformedness and our Catholicness. As a dear friend quipped to me recently, “The Episcopal Church is a four on the Enneagram; you all just have to think you are so special.”

I often wonder if, in a world that is experiencing no shortage of uncertainty and upheaval, there isn’t a need to experience a faith tradition that engages stability and tradition as assets, not liabilities. Like the great cathedrals and parish churches of Europe (and indeed much of the Middle East and northern Africa), I wonder if permanence doesn’t possess some sort of appeal in a world often too busy to remember. Deep in our hearts, we know that nothing lasts forever, but for those among us who are “wearied by the changes and chances of this life,” I often sense a desire to “rest in [God’s] eternal changelessness.” It can be easy to dismiss this as nothing more than nostalgia and navel-gazing, but I think we do so to our own peril. Our own spirituality is greatly impoverished when we so easily dismiss the gifts of grace bequeathed to us from the Great Cloud of Witnesses who ventured much in their day, some giving all, to profess the faith of Christ crucified.

There is much to celebrate about the Church, and also much to mourn. We have made great strides towards including all of God’s children in the sacramental life of the church, and we have much further to go. Our language has adapted to incorporate more metaphors for God, and we still wrestle with imaging God as anything by male. Our rituals have evolved to recognize where God might be present in our lives in new, formerly unseen ways, and we often seem stymied by our desire to mete out the grace of God only to the deserving and desirable. We have grown, and we are divided. It can be easy to devolve either into despair or pride until we realize that at the end of the day, this is God’s Church. We are merely participatory stewards of God’s greatest gift to the world – the Body of Christ given for this world that God loves so much.

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4 thoughts on ““Cassock-gate,” the Reformation, and The Book of Common Prayer

  1. I’m sorry that happened to you at Sewanee. How horrible! If I were in your place, it would take me a long time to get over that encounter. Bless you!
    I read this post with great interest. As a cradle Episcopalian (with a 6-year sojourn in a Pentecostal church some years ago), I grew up with the 1928 Prayer Book. I have no problems with the one we have now, and I don’t see the need to change it, although I can imagine that many people do. I love the poetic language of many of the prayers in the 1928 edition and, in fact, say every morning the prayer I remember from my childhood, “O LORD, our heavenly Father, Almighty and everlasting God, who hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day; Defend us in the same with thy mighty power; and grant that this day we fall into no sin, neither run into any kind of danger; but that all our doings, being ordered by thy governance, may be righteous in thy sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” I still have my old copy of the 1928 edition as well as several copies of the current Prayer Book.

  2. Perhaps the woman in question was perplexed and that detracted from her focus on what you were saying. I have always understood that a cassock was the ordinary street dress of the clergy of the period when the English Prayer Book for in formation and as recently as the first part of the 20th century, at least in parts of England. I note that the great English Methodist, Lord Soper, always wore a cassock in public. Wearing a cassock as norm is behind the injunction that the minimum standard wear for celebrations of the Eucharist is a surplice, which many “ministers” in Sydney and some other ultra-evangelical places wear a surplice, sans cassock (and sometimes over attire more suited to an afternoon at the beach). Standard wear is now a black shirt with “dog collar” or a shirt with crosses on the lapels, a uniform which no other person is entitled to wear. Oh for the time when “impersonating a minister of religion” was an offence at law!

  3. Thank you for sharing what was understandably a frustrating encounter. I agree with you that Episcopalians and Lutherans are different. The long English Reformation went in different directions and had different nuances than the continental reformation, yet despite most English speaking Christians being heirs, in some form, of the former, we mostly only talk about the latter. Perhaps because it has cleaner and more easily understood boundaries.

    But while Episcopalians and Lutherans are different, I think there are people within the Lutheran tradition who wouldn’t ask that question, and would find it equally off-putting. There are Lutherans of a more Catholic bent. I doubt a Robert Jenson would’ve bothered with such a question, and not just because his mind would’ve undoubtedly been on deeper subjects.

    Likewise, there are Episcopalians who question the wearing of cassocks for a whole host of reasons. It’s too dated. It looks Roman Catholic. It’s not fashionable. You name it. I just read a Facebook post from a colleague in a Biretta belt diocese who endured several irritating remarks at his diocesan convention where people asked him why he was wearing a cassock. I wonder if one of the reasons people question its wearing, is because they are just insecure for some reason. That is usually what lies at the heart of criticism directed toward others for actions that do not actually affect anyone else, and are none of their business anyway.

    On a more important note: Is there a video of your presentation and the other conference presentations available? A brief google search didn’t turn up anything, but I haven’t delved into the School of Theology site or Vimeo page yet.

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