Our Sunday Best

For the last several weeks, I’ve been mulling over the idea that by failing to keep Sunday special will cause us to continue to lose congregants. I have absolutely no scientific data to prove this, no polling or even anecdotal evidence. It’s just a hunch. It has been difficult because to criticize an approach to a more informal form of worship can appear snobbish or unfairly judgmental. So upfront, I want you to know that I believe no denomination or parish is better or worse than any other, just different.

With that qualifier out of the way, let me get on with what I have been thinking about. Every day, in so many ways, I am reminded of the loss of civility, good manners, respect for others, and numerous other elements of what I, as a child, learned in church on Sundays. Now, I don’t mean the church, of any denomination, had an active role in the loss of good manners and appropriate behavior. Many a sermon has been preached about love and respect for our neighbors and humankind. But, there has been a specific approach, and in some cases, encouragement, to weaken the importance of Sunday in our lives.

Do you remember Sunday? The day of rest, the day we celebrate the Lord finishing the creation of the world? Sundays, when you spent time with your family, dressed up for church and skipped soccer, football or any other non-faith based activity often scheduled for 10:00 am on Sunday. When we started to skip dressing up on Sundays and the family Sunday meal that followed, we lost more than a dress code and overeating. We lost a sense of respect for tradition and ritual. When we started making Sunday observances casual, it proved to be a slippery slope.

I am sure some will read this and suggest that I am a terrible snob. After all, the notion that you went to be “seen” at church is not that far behind us. I am also aware that congregations are shrinking and that churches are having difficulty keeping pews full. Why shouldn’t we make it a more relaxed place where worshippers attend in sweatpants, jeans, or other similarly casual attire? I would argue that my position is not about status. In my work over the years, I’ve met people with far less than I have been blessed with, but they always had a Sunday Best outfit. A dress or dress pants and a clean shirt that only got worn on Sundays. It would never have occurred to families I have met in places like Appalachia not to dress for church. I have seen women in South America walk on their knees, wearing their best mantillas to pray at a basilica while worrying about their next meal. These people, and many of us before the casual revolution, dressed for church services to honor God, to show respect, not to show off.

Not everyone dresses so casually, as to shock me, but here are some of the time-worn rules from my childhood that appear to be gone.

  1. No bare arms in church, they are to be covered. Even as recently as my oldest daughter’s wedding about ten years ago,  I was arranging for a jacket to cover her bare arms caused by the design of her wedding dress.
  2. Footwear should not be sneakers unless you are under twelve, and even then, most parents put their kids in “dress shoes.” Another shoe faux pas was opened-toe, but that’s probably a shoe too far.
  3. No bare heads. While the elaborate hats once worn, seem to remain only in the United Kingdom, scarfs were also an acceptable substitution.
  4. And, of course, no jeans or sweatpants. I stress the sweatpants not because they are that common, but because I saw someone wear sweatpants to a wedding and then go home and change for the reception.
  5. When I was a girl, you wore a dress to church. Maybe insisting on that is a bit over the top considering that women in pants are not only acceptable but are a critical equality statement.

So, why should this matter? Isn’t this tirade about dressing for church a bit ridiculous? Remember, we are trying to increase our numbers and make attending church more comfortable. To these questions, I have one answer – how is it working for us? The number of people who identify with or participate in organized religion of any type is alarmingly low. The numbers are even worse for mainstream faiths. No, the fact is I don’t think to make religious practice more casual is working all that well.

Here’s my thinking. God is supposed to be a bit mysterious and mighty. Otherwise, there is no awe, no need for a leap of faith because we are no longer treating the Almighty as, well, the Almighty. Dressing for church services in our Sunday best and all of the Sunday rituals that went with it, like stores being closed and family time, gave everyone a space for reflection and inspiration. These activities, or in some cases the lack of activity, meant we spent time together. We showed respect and reverence. Going to church was essential, and you had to do a little bit more than every day, you had to show up with an outward sign of some inner belief.

The change of ones Sunday attire started a while back and has joined the ranks of other desocializing activities. The bottom line to me is, we have lost a sense of consideration for our fellow humans. How many of us have been taken out by a rolly bag, because the person pulling it wasn’t watching where they are going? How about the fact that almost no non-disabled person gives up their seats on public transport for those who need them? We have stopped observing the small human considerations that give us all a sense of dignity and belonging. Our respect for our community, for many people, starts in the church as children. If that obligation no longer exists under the category of God, how can anything else seem important?

No doubt you cannot go back to the 1950s or early 60s when restrictions on shops being open and alcohol sold were so prevalent. It is equally unlikely that you can stop soccer practice on Sunday mornings, but there are ways to restore some tradition and ritual to our lives that enhances the faith. A little awe and mystery can go a long way to not only attracting people but keeping their attention as well. Many people caught in a world where common decency seems to be allusive, and world leaders would rather golf than attend worship services are hungry for something to believe in, something to provide comfort and direction. I have always felt that part of the definition of faith is that it requires you to believe something which is not provable under the standard meaning of the world. For example, the notion of a virgin birth involves a leap of faith to accept that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus.  These events which stretch credibility are often filled with mystery and wonder. Having a church, which enhances that wonder by being a formal center of ritual and tradition enhances the experience. A church where you show respect and devotion is a church that may be worth joining.

In the purest sense, I believe we need to make worship important again. We need to restore a sense of devotion which becomes an attraction in its own right. Going to church on Sunday, in our Sunday best, as a family, needs to matter more than soccer practice. In the alternative, find a parish with a Saturday evening or Sunday evening service and make that the tradition. Too often I hear, I wish we could attend more, but there is this or that conflict. It is time we got a more faith-based sense of priorities. The respect we develop that we display in a church setting can, with a little bit of luck, transfer to the rest of life.

Fair Winds,

Susan Hynes