Tuesday, 4 December 2012

There Once Was A Curate from Riga

More than one friend has recently sent me links to articles about the Revd Sally Hitchiner, Senior Chaplain (one wonders what the junior ones are like) at Brunel University. If you don't know who she is, you can find out more, quite a lot more in fact, here ... and here ... and here ... and here ... and here ... and here. And that's not counting the places where she writes about herself. She's another priest who likes clothes. Actually rather a lot of priests like clothes, but those clothes tend to involve brocade, gold braid and maniple fringes, and that sort of covers it up. I'm not going to talk much about Revd Hitchiner per se because she's become the object of rampant hatred across the wonderful world of the internet which I can't see that she deserves. She clearly thinks rather a lot of herself, otherwise she wouldn't be going along with the exposure, but that's a matter between her and her spiritual director, really, not the rest of us.

As a priest who likes clothes, including secular as well as liturgical ones, I do worry about this aspect of who I have become. I'm a bit older than Revd Hitchiner so I've had more time to ponder the ambiguities; and they come into being part of the Goth world, too. It may seem perverse and hypocritical to resent people paying you attention when you dress in a nonconformist way, but Goths nevertheless do it, and are, by and large, adamant that they don't dress to be looked at. This seems to me to indicate a relationship with clothing which is more complex than the explanation Goths themselves usually give for adopting Goth style (and that Revd Hitchiner gives for dressing the way she does), that it 'expresses their personality'. I see it as adopting a role, as to a certain extent play-acting. It's not only that the clothes bring out part of what is within you, but that you put on an identity when you wear them. In a way, the clothing bears the primary identity, rather than the person. I think Goths use Goth clothing in the same way a Christian priest uses liturgical dress: to express, not something which is inside you (at least not in a straightforward way), but outside you, beyond you.

For my part, my church uniform is absolutely standard clerical dress, with the only refinements being that I wear a waistcoat and a hat of some variety most of the time. Once in a while, for very special occasions, I don't wear a cheap little plastic clerical collar but a white necktie, and as even Fr Benson of Cowley did that I don't consider it especially noteworthy. Non-work-wise I wear very conservative male dress with a bit of a twist. I like the way this cove the Sinister Sartorialist carries himself, but he's a lot younger than me and I don't think it would be appropriate for a middle-aged clergyman to dress like that. I like the beauty and interest of clothes; I don't think they 'express my personality' at all. I don't even think I have that much of a personality, certainly not one I want to 'express'. So I hope I am safe, at least at the moment, from dire spiritual peril at the hands of my cufflinks and ties.

However: there's another aspect of all this that concerns me, and I suspect a dire warning to young clergy who might find the world taking an interest in them. All priests, certainly all parish incumbents, find themselves inevitably, just as did the Lord they serve, the focus of the transferred adoration and hatreds of the people around them, and they wade into wider, deeper waters to their utter danger. Deal with a parish and you can through personal contact do something to control the way people see you and think about you; deal with people on the virtual level of the media and you have no control at all. When somebody first sent me a picture of Sally Hitchiner I thought, Ah, she thinks, deluded young woman, that she can counteract people's stuffy idea of what the Church is like by using the media. And, sure enough, she wrote (I think on Facebook, the Mail article is difficult to disentangle) 'There is that perception that religion is in a box with everything middle-aged and that everything else is in another box'. It won't work, because the media's agenda is not hers, and, as all the coverage of her rise to fame shows, she can't control how people understand the images they see of her.

My mind goes back to the BBC TV production A Country Parish and poor Revd Jamie Allen, who was seen in the series floundering in a generally well-meaning and good-natured way in his Wiltshire villages and trying to be a good priest. The programme played down the fact that he had three churches to look after (too complicated) and gave a completely inaccurate picture of what any clergyperson's life is actually like (go to Rev for a more realistic view). More tragically, the poor sod found it was completely impossible to do his work once the cameras had gone: he turned down the offer of a second series but by then it was too late. 'My ability to minister effectively in the villages has been irrevocably compromised', he told the world when he resigned his charge. The programme doubtless had positive effects on some people, but Jamie Allen had to pay the price, and now works in New Zealand.

Advice to young clergy no.715: Go nowhere near the media. Don't kid yourself you can ride the tiger.