“How do you put this thing on?!”
Deep in the Duke Chapel basement, struggling with an alb, I turned to ask for help. As a brand-new seminarian, I had to wear vestments to carry the candle for Thursday Vespers, and the alb mystified me. The drapes and snaps and knots yielded to a classmate’s knowledgeable hands, and soon the vestry mirror surprised me with an unfamiliar image: myself, dressed as a minister. I caught my breath. I had known I was called; now, I saw.
Thus began my obsession with clerical attire, one which in spring 2020 became my shop, Magdalene Clergy Dresses. A Baptist making clergywear strikes many people as strange, and for good reason. Our people’s aversion to special clothing for pastors has deep roots.
Baptist doctrine emphasizes “the priesthood of the believer,” meaning all Christians can access the full power of God’s Spirit without mediation from anyone except Jesus Christ. Many Baptist pastors embody this theology by coming to church in everyday clothes: suits, ties, button-downs, cardigans. Sartorial distinction for pastors might imply spiritual distinction, thus betraying our Baptist convictions. In 1896, Charles Spurgeon wrote:
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.
Ever-conscious of the pulpit’s temptations, Spurgeon advocated an unremarkable wardrobe as ideal for a minister who claims to be a servant leader. To him, distinctive garments in the pulpit were too risky. They might fuel pride, which can destroy both minister and church. Dressing like the people showed self-effacing humility.
And yet, with Spurgeon himself against me, I’d like to speak in favor of clergywear for Baptist ministers. Collars, albs and stoles should be welcome in our pulpits. I argue this because, in my opinion, Baptists have in fact adopted clergywear: the standard Western men’s suit. In Spurgeon’s words, we keep to “a modest, gentlemanly appearance.” While other denominations offer gender-neutral ministerial markers in the form of white collars and seasonal vestments, masculine business casual has become our de facto clerical attire.
Once when a large group of Baptist leaders visited Duke Divinity School, a Methodist classmate and I joked about the blazer forest filling the chapel. Long lapels, square shoulders and neutral solids framed every face, male and female. I smiled at the familiar sight, remembering the first preaching outfit I wore in a Baptist church. I had copied what the church’s male senior pastor wore each week: black pantsuit, muted button-down shirt, flat black shoes, no jewelry. I didn’t feel like myself, but I looked like the pastor. Stepping into the pulpit the next morning, I felt I belonged there. My silhouette nestled perfectly between the stained-glass windows and 1970s wood paneling. But most women in the congregation expressed their personalities in their colorful, varied outfits. I hadn’t dressed “like the people.” I hadn’t even dressed like myself. I had dressed like a man—not because I wanted to, but because the weight of a century’s expectations pressed down on my lapeled shoulders.
Now, years later, I have decided to never again dress like someone I’m not to feel like the preacher I am. I have made it my business (in every sense of the word) to chase the feeling I experienced by the vestry mirror in the chapel basement. Today, I feel it in clothing of my own creation: a linen dress the color of communion wine, with a round white collar around my neck.
Every woman in ministry should be able to look in the mirror and see with her own eyes who God has called her to be. So, sisters, I invite you all to try a clerical collar. Try a stole, or an alb, or even a clergy dress. Look in the mirror, ask yourself how you feel. You just might feel like the person God has called to service: yourself.
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Rev. Brittany D.H. Edwards is a 2021 M.Div. graduate of Duke Divinity School and the 2021 recipient of the Addie Davis Award for Excellence in Preaching.