Evensong is the most sublime of all Christian worship, the sound of treble voices cutting through the air of a Gothic cathedral is a moment unparalleled. Whilst attending such an experience without a tie, I would feel inappropriately dressed if I wore no jacket. Why though? Nowhere in the canon law of the church is there a requirement that one should dress in a certain way, yet there is a tendency to do so anyway.
At the evangelical Christian school I attended, the dress code changed from Sunday morning to Sunday evening. House staff who had worn suits in the morning now dressed in suit trousers and pullovers; collars and ties visible under V-necked and round-necked sweaters. Those who ran the school seemed to have an unwritten dress code. Suits were for Sundays. On weekdays men wore plain pullovers and dark trousers and sensible shoes. Women dressed as they might have done twenty years previously, as though it were the 1950s and not the 1970s. But why?
Had they been asked by which standards they tried to live their lives, they would have unhesitatingly have declared their commitment to Biblical principles. But where in the Bible was there any requirement to dress as they did? If Biblical rules had been applied, they would probably have been found to have been in breach of Scripture’s instructions: Leviticus Chapter 19 prohibits the wearing of clothing of different kinds of material.
Christians seem often unable to distinguish between principle and culture. To attend church in Africa and see men all dressed in dark suits, white shirts and ties, is to see not adherence to any Biblical rules, but the influence of Western culture. The Nineteenth Century missionaries took with them a complete cultural package; language, laws, gender roles, church governance, architecture, worship, everything European was somehow considered normative. Dressing Africans as Europeans seemed an essential element of evangelization.
Of course, only the most old fashioned evangelical Christians would now appear in sombre suits and sober ties. Strangely, though, Christians have not moved away from the idea that a particular mode of dress is the norm. Middle aged men in evangelical churches still pretend they are twenty years younger and regard open necked shirts with chinos or jeans as pleasing in the sight of the Lord. Having encountered a few such places, what was striking was not how free and distinctive they were, but how conformist and similar they were.
It is odd that people most dismissive of tradition and ritual in Christianity expressed in occasions like choral evensong are those who are most bound to worldly culture.