Saturday, May 06, 2006

Girls in cassocks -- who cares?

Visiting another blog (Catholic Sensibility) recently, I commented on a thread describing some fine musical accomplishments of a particular parish, including efforts by children's choirs. It featured a photo of one such choir -- all girls, as far as I could tell -- and all dressed in red cassock and surplice. (Given that I saw a photo, it's just barely possible that they really weren't cassocks, but something designed very much like. In any case, the effect was the same.)

I added a comment, praising the "impressive" musical efforts, but saying -- as a "relatively small matter" -- the choice of attire was "unfortunate."

Later, I expanded on that, saying that I think dressing girls in male, and in fact, clerical, attire, is ill-advised.

Well, that provoked several interesting comments:

* The issue of confusing about cassocks is "obsolescent" in "most parts of the country" (I assume the U.S. was meant), as it is "much more common for lay people to wear cassock/surplice as altar servers and choristers than it is for clergy to wear them. The formal evolution of the vesture aside, they have not signified clergy for a long time."

* This is an outgrowth of academic gowns, and that they no longer have any sex-specific meaning.

* The apparent cassock-and-surplice was "choir clothing," not male clothing.

* I was "making it harder" for the music director. (Somehow I doubt that.)

* "Statements like this seem to come from a very narrow mind set." This latter struck me as terribly funny.

Because the focus of that thread wasn't liturgical attire, pursuing it further there strikes me as inappropriate; in any case, that thread seems to have fallen by the wayside.

So I raise the question here.

I'd especially invite comments on the substantive, first point bulleted above: is it true that enough laity and females wear cassocks that it is no longer meaningfully male, clerical attire? Of course, what's "enough"?

What can you report from your parish? (And, if I may, is it a Catholic parish, Episcopal, or other Protestant? Because in my own quick, certainly unrepresentative google-survey, I found hits for girls in cassocks almost entirely at Episcopal sites.)

I realize the temptation to focus on the policy of having girls as altar servers. I'm not saying that subject is not a legitimate one to discuss; but can we set that aside? Because I know what'll happen: that'll hijack the thread.


Anonymous said...

In Denver at one of the churches the male servers wear cassocks and the females wear albs.

At our parish the issue came up and that option was seen as a resonable one. (Right now everyone wears albs)

Our bishop, however, said that he sees cassocks as attire for males and that he doesn't think mixing the two on servers at the same Mass was a good idea.

Personally, if we are going to have female altar servers, I prefer that they all wear cassocks as they look much sharper than albs.

Mark Anthony said...

I know that I tread on slippery ground here, but...come on.

The chasibule and the stole are rightly preserved for the clergy as signs of Orders. The alb and cincture may be used by laity who are serving some liturgical role such as MC, server, choir member, lay leader of prayer, etc.

But the cassock? If it is to be equated with the clerical suit and Roman collar, then it ought not be worn by anyone other than a cleric. By I recall many years ago serving in cassock and surplice without attaining Orders. The issue seems to be maleness, not ontological transformation into the image of Christ.

A decision needs to be made. If the cassock is a sign of the clerical state, so restrict it and keep lay men out of them in liturgies also. But if the sticking point is gender, then the assumption seems to be that the "natural resemblence" between priests and other males places those other males in some kind of midway position, somehow separated from women who bear no such resemblence. Which is silly at best and disheartenly revealing at worst.

Personally, I'd say keep all laity in albs or regular dress clothes for liturgical functions, and the clergy in vestments or clerical suits. As for cassocks, they, for better or for worse, create an emotional barrier between many (not all!) of the laity and priests who wear them. Their time has passed, and attempting to bring them back may make some people in the Church feel like they are restoring something, but for many others they signal the rebuilding of unnecessary walls among the People of God.

Anonymous said...

I commented on this very topic exactly a year ago, with the emphasis on "cross-dressing" which the culture toys with in many venues.

Androgyny is a goal of many folks out there, esp. with those who tinker with Father-God and Holy Mother Church. These realities are important and, while we cannot get bogged down in petty battles, liturgical signposts are not petty.

One parish purified everyone's intentions by making the boys and girls serve separately on the altar and by giving the girls a modified nun's habit, to reinforce the concept of "service." The effect was wonderful.

Gregaria said...

I am in an all-girls choir and we do wear cassocks and surplices. Incidentally, in a Cathedral parish with 7 choirs, the only other group which wears this same attire is the women's ensemble. I think it is somewhat unfortunate that we wear attire that is normally thought of as priestly. We've had comments from pro-women-priest advocates like, "Hey! I like this look. It signifies that a female priesthood is on its way!" Up until that point, I hadn't thought there was anything wrong with our attire... but now I can see where it would be preferrable to wear something else.

Deacon Jim said...

I believe the appropriate altar wear for any type of server in the United States is the alb. I also believe that the alb's significance is as a recollection of our baptism.

Father, am I correct on that?

If a choir wishes to dress appropriately then appropriate choir attire is called for - a choir gown. Some are similar to cassocks but are cut wider in the body and sleeves.

In the PNCC the clergy generally do wear cassocks. We do not concelebrate in general and if other clergy are present at Holy Mass they dress in choir (cassock, surplice, stole, and biretta). Our altar servers (acolytes) wear albs - both male and female. No members of the laity dress in cassock, it is only appropriate for men who have been tonsured and are thus clerics. We're a tad more traditional.

Darwin said...

I confess that my main memory of the difference between a cassock and an alb from my altar boy days is that albs were white and cassocks weren't.

If I recall correctly, a cassock is cut narrower and has a clerical-ish collar (which I suppose would be called a chinese-collar in women's fashion) while the alb has no collar and is looser. Is that right?

Our parish currently puts both male and female altar servers into cassocks and surplices. I'd tend to think that with altar servers, they should all be dressed the same. Though having all alter servers in albs would be fine.

It does seem a bit odd to dress a choir that way, though. The similarity of altar server dress to clerical dress makes sense given the role of the altar server. The choir is, however, rather a different role. So I'm not sure why you'd have the similarity.

Ellen said...

I'm a mother of a former altar server, my son wore both a cassock and surplice (when our parish had only altar boys and this was up to only about 5 years ago) and then an alb (when we made the big change to altar servers and included girls). There are times when I wish some of the girls would wear a cassock since you can often see the inappropriate clothes that they are wearing under the alb. But I really don't think it matters. In Hawaii, the church we attended during vacation had altar servers that only wore a sash that was the color of the liturgical season. It's not what the kids wear, it is more important that they serve and take an interest in mass and their religion.

Anonymous said...

In my parish in Australia the altar servers (all female) wear cream gowns and red cinctures. When we have a liturgy which requires older servers (all male) e.g. benediction or the Holy Week services they wear surplice and soutane.

Bernard Brandt said...

I dunno. Back in parts East(that's Kiev and Constantinople), where I come from, we start with the simple stichar or black robe (I'm not sure, but I believe youze guyz call it a cassock), which I believe both East and West call "choir dress", and just about everyone puts more things over this depending on how high up the hierarchical food chain one is.

Seeing as how just about everyone these days (with the possible exception of the ultra-Orthodox monks of Mount Athos) has women involved in such things as psalm reading and singing in the choir, it would only seem reasonable to put everyone involved in things liturgical (singers, servers, and clergy) in choir dress. Besides, just about everyone looks good in basic black.

As regards women or girls as servers, I wouldn't know: in the East, anyhow, only males may serve at the altar. We call the Church her. It only seems reasonable that males should serve her. Women are the Church. We of the East are sorry that you guyz are presently gender-confused in your typology.

Gregaria said...

Actually, I'm going to modify my earlier statements. My girl's choir was not actually in cassocks and surplices when we received that comment, we were in modified priestly robes which had been retired (because they were old and frayed) and had been made into costumes. I actually couldn't tell that that's what they were until someone else pointed them out... and no, we were not dressing up as priests. Sorry about the lapse in memory. And, also, sorry, Father, if that opens up a whole different line of discussion!

Fr. Larry Gearhart said...

Obviously, based on the original post and the comments, there's a lot of confusion about this issue. Are there general principles to guide the discussion? If so, what are they? Mark Anthony asks intelligent questions in this direction, but what are the answers? For example, he asks, "the cassock? If it is to be equated with the clerical suit and Roman collar, then it ought not be worn by anyone other than a cleric." I'm inclined to agree with that perspective, actually, and I'm even inclined to forbid cassocks to unordained seminarians. In that case, I would also forbid them to altar servers.

Yet, this principle is obviously opposed by Church tradition, perhaps with the motive of fostering vocations among altar boys. Just as clearly, that exceptional logic no longer applies. What we're talking about, obviously, is a matter of little "t" tradition. Because of the origins, history and results, it is obvious that it cannot become big "T." Whatever clerical symbolism the cassock may have carried, it is slowly losing its potency.

The problem raised by all of this is that it is essential for priests to wear distinctive attire that identifies them as such. That is big "T" Tradition. The actual attire used, however, is little "t" tradition. If people in general start using the Roman collar, the real priests may be forced to abandon it for something else.

In our highly secularized and highly individualized society, the only way that the Church can legally protect such a symbol is by trademark. And, even then, that will only protect it in the countries where the trademark is respected.

Taz_Cat said...

Clearly you must be more concerned about this small matter than you admit if you're mentioning it in your blog. Choirs often have set dress. End of story. To my knowledge, it doesn't affect voices, and girl choristers in cassocks in cassocks probably don't have future aspirations to the priesthood, particularly if they're Catholic and it's forbidden anyway, so what's the problem?

Fr Martin Fox said...


I never said I didn't care about this subject; as you say, obviously, I do think it merits some attention.

But is it a "relatively small" matter? Certainly it is, "relative" being the operative word.

What the choir would be singing is more significant than what it is wearing; but apart from a "clothing-optional" setting, I can't imagine anyone saying the choir's choice of attire doesn't matter at all.

In other words, we all "care" what the choir wears; some more than others.

In my parish, the choirs wear street clothes -- they "come as they are." I have no plans to change that. I have lots of matters in line ahead of that.

Were the subject to come up, I think I'd say, for children and adult choirs alike: "how about we try to be a little dressy," rather than opt for robes, albs, cassocks, stoles, jumpsuits, or whatever.

Fr Martin Fox said...

...and to reply to my friend Mark Anthony:

Appropos of my last comment, big matters merit big attention, small matters merit small attention -- not no attention.

This is a small matter, relative to many other things, but I would not deem this a matter of no importance.

It may seem -- and it may be -- that a cassock is a relic of a past age; but in the Church, relics have a way of being alive, even when they appear not. In this part of this country, cassocks are relatively rare as clerical attire, it is true; but that's "this part of this country," at this time.

Your argument about the negative meaning of cassock-wearing is valid, as far as it goes; however, as I think you are aware, that point has been frequently made about wearing any clerical attire: there are priests who are almost never in black, for reasoning almost word-for-word what you said.

And yet, the Church's position is clear that priests are to wear distinctive dress, with the actual application of that subject to varying, and always practical, application.

And, it isn't simply a matter of following rules: there is, I believe, a definite positive value in distinctive, clerical attire, both practical and theological (and I feel sure you agree with that) -- despite the negatives that go with that.

One reason I wear a cassock is because I do think we need to be more embracing of our entire tradition.

I think the Church, at least in this country, or "this part of the country," has been too disconnected from her full tradition. There is an idea that Vatican II represents some great rupture (and ironically, both "pro" and "anti" Vatican II folks argue this); and this is wrong and harmful, in my view.

One of the pernicious ways a wrong-and-harmful notion has its effect is not in being discretely presented as such, but in being a overarching way of seeing things. As such, it can't be corrected simply by a discrete response, but by fostering a different mindset.

I believe there are many Catholics who have only peripheral experience of the Catholic Tradition beyond the contemporary.

You and I have the advantage -- or disadvantage -- of theological formation. We know to look beyond, look deeper, and we know there is a greater continuity than might be apparent.

Alas, there are many Catholics who seem to be more struck by the discontinuity, such as when they see Catholic churches that "don't look Catholic" or "this was a totally different Mass from my parish" -- when the differences are a matter of hymnal or vestment, all within the Rite of Paul VI!

So, in short, I think we have a problem -- it's not "choosing sides" but that there are "sides"!

The divide that we have in liturgical music, between "contemporary" and "traditional" (with the latter apparently embracing everything prior to, say, 1960!) has manifested itself in church architecture, and in the very structure of the Church herself (i.e., we have a "traditional" Roman Rite of the Mass and sacraments coexisting with the "normative" Rite, the Fraternal Society of St. Peter, and more in the offing, it appears).

If ecumenism is worth pursuing with other Christians, surely some "ecumenism" within the Catholic Church is in order?

I think so: ergo, I think it would be well if we did more bridge-building; the "trads" and "contemps" need to do more "exchange programs."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking my comment completely out of context, Martin. You siad, "I think it a bad idea to have girls dress in male clothing, just as it would be ill advised to have the boys wear jumpers or skirts. "
In light of cultural issues this seems ill-informed. In the Church, for all intents a purposes, men do wear skirts.
I'm glad you found my comment amusing. I found many of yours uncharitable.

Fr Martin Fox said...

Anonymous says:

Thanks for taking my comment completely out of context, Martin. You siad, "I think it a bad idea to have girls dress in male clothing, just as it would be ill advised to have the boys wear jumpers or skirts. "
In light of cultural issues this seems ill-informed. In the Church, for all intents a purposes, men do wear skirts."

I don't know what men wear skirts in church. If you think either a cassock, alb or chasuble to be a skirt, I think that you're using the term "skirt" rather loosely, and I choose not to accept your definition of skirt, because I don't know why I should.

I'm glad you found my comment amusing. I found many of yours uncharitable.

The statement I found amusing was:

"Statements like this seem to come from a very narrow mind set."

It strikes me as terribly funny that you accuse me of being "uncharitable," when I have not once impugned those who disagree with me in any way whatsoever. But you proceeded to describe me as having "a very narrow mindset."

And you accuse me of being "uncharitable" -- without backing it up. Not nice.

Wouldn't it be better to focus on the issue, rather than pursuing ad hominems? Wouldn't that be charitable?

Mark Anthony said...

Father Martin:

It is both heartening and disheartening, strange as that sounds, for this conversation to be taking place nearly two thousand years after Paul and the Corinthian church struggled with the same issues. We may not learn from our past very well, but we can look back and see that we will survive the crisis de jour, just as our ancestors did.

You are absolutely right that the real problem is that we have sides at all within the Church. In Corinth, it was a competition among factions allied with Peter, Paul, Apollos and "Christ". We don't put so personal a face on our divisions today, but we might as well personify, or demonize, with labels like traditional or progressive, or grabbing onto issues like liturgical music, priestly dress, girl servers, etc. as ways of defining others and ourselves.

It is noteworthy that most of these distinctions center around the liturgy. No doubt, that is because the vast majority of Catholics only come into contact with their Church on a personal level at the Mass. A parish might do a thousand things well during the week, but a Sunday that goes awry is all that is remembered. While it is an unfortunate methaphor, Sunday Mass is the front line for the various forces - conservative and liberal - wishing to influence the path of the Church.

Good parents learns early that they must pick their battles. Everything cannot be emphasized; not every infraction can be punished; not every lesson receive the same focus. The same is true of our Faith Tradition. Given the minimal amount of time and attention that most Catholics can give to the Church (no matter how much they may want to give more), what ought they see and hear? What ought draw their attention?

It has to be the important stuff. The scandals of the recent past are tuned out by many when all we hear from our "progressive" brothers and sisters is that the problem is celibacy, women's rights, or general sexual aversion. By trotting out those images, people see only them and turn away. The same can be true from the more "conservative" side, when efforts to recall the past through cassocks, birettas, Latin responses not taught to the congregation, etc. only serve to harden hearts with assumptions.

We have to pick our battles. What is really missing from the Church today? A familiarity with the Morning Offering, or mercy? What do we really need? More women in liturgical roles, or more compassion? Anything we do that pulls away the attention from the Big Stuff, even if good in itself, serves no good purpose in the long run. It might score some points, but we should not be keeping score.

Again, I turn to Paul, who told the Corinthians that they could eat meat from the market, or not, but whatever was done had to be done with an eye to the weakest and most immature among us. Which is to say, all of us sometimes. All factions of the Church must learn humilty, and then live it.

Tradition will be important and holy to modern Catholics only once we turn to one another and see a family, not opponents in a political struggle. It isn't about being right - it is about being good and helpful and humble and kind.

tinuviel said...

In every Episcopal church I've been too (and the one I sing at), women and girls in the choir wear cassocks and surplices just like the men and boys. I can't see why there's a problem with this. It's a uniform for SATB choirs or mixed boy/girl choirs, since having half of the choir in dresses or albs and the other half in full cassock and surplice would look rather ridiculous.