Written by F. B. Henry, Bishop of Calgary on Tuesday, 04 September 2012
One of the highlights of the recent Olympics had nothing to do with winning a gold, silver or bronze medal but rather the accomplishment of Sarah Attar, the first female track athlete to compete for Saudi Arabia in the Olympics.
Sarah ran in a preliminary 800m event and finished last, nearly 45 seconds behind the winner. However, her participation represented an historic moment, as one half of the first ever women's team to represent Saudi Arabia. She was cheered on every step of the way and given a standing ovation at the end of the race.
She summed things up saying:“It is such an honour to be representing Saudi Arabia. Hopefully this can make such a huge difference... to make that first step for women is just the most amazing feeling ever.”
It is important to recall the context. The Saudi Olympic Committee overturned a ban on women athletes in June despite strong opposition from many quarters of society. But officials demanded that all female competitors would be dressed “to preserve their dignity.” Hence, the modest attire. For the race she was dressed in a long-sleeved green training top, long jogging bottoms and a white hijab covering her hair - a bit over the top and quite a contrast to the attire of her peers.
The criteria for acceptable modesty and decency have relaxed continuously in much of the world since the nineteenth century, with shorter, form-fitting, and more revealing clothing and swimsuits. Most people wear clothes that they consider not to be unacceptably immodest for their religion, culture, generation, occasion, and the people present. Furthermore, what is considered appropriate depends on context, e.g. competing in a sporting event or worshipping in a church.
In 1957, Pope Pius XII presented some principles re modesty in dress. Clothing fulfills three necessary requirements: hygiene, decency and adornment. These are “so deeply rooted in nature that they cannot be disregarded or contradicted without provoking hostility and prejudice.”
Hygiene pertain mostly to “the climate, its variations, and other external factors” (e.g. discomfort, illness). Decency involves the “proper consideration for the sensitivity of others to objects that are unsightly, or, above all, as a defence of moral honesty and a shield against disordered sensuality.” Adornment is legitimate and “responds to the innate need... to enhance the beauty and dignity of the person with the same means that are suitable to satisfy the other two purposes.”
Priests and bishops rarely speak about modesty. It’s awkward. You can be accused of legalism. It can seem politically incorrect and it is so easy to turn people off before the point is made.
I admire the way one non-Catholic clergyman addressed the modesty in dress in an email:
This email is to bring you into the conversation, and also to ask for your help. Let me start by first making sure that you know how grateful I am for the ways that you serve. You sing wonderfully, and more importantly, you serve humbly and joyfully with an eye toward magnifying Jesus. It is a pleasure to do it with you!
It seems that what’s in the stores and in the media has become more and more form-fitting over the last few years. I don’t track these things carefully, but it seems like stuff is a little tighter on the body than it used to be. Although one wonders how that trend can infinitely continue! ....
My wife mentioned to me that it seemed like women in general are often conscious of how much skin is showing (neck lines, skirt length, etc.) but may not always be as conscious that things being really tight-fitting can be just as much a temptation for guys as actual skin showing. I thought was a helpful distinction, and as a guy, would agree.
As a whole church, we don’t enforce a dress code or talk about specifics often, because we want to direct ladies primarily toward the heart issues rather than a specific application. As a worship team, though, we do need to get more specific, because what we do is seen by the entire church and serves as a model, whether we intend it to or not.
Our goal in clothing is pretty simple: don’t tempt others, but instead do what is beautiful, simple, and will help us point others toward the beauty and greatness of God. Peter speaks to wives in this way: “Do not let your adorning be external .... but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:3-4). He’s not saying we shouldn’t look nice. If we look bad, that’s not helpful, either! Instead, we want to dress in a way that communicates that it’s not all about how we look, that we care about what helps or hurts others, and that lets people join us wholeheartedly when we sing to them about following Jesus.
So this email is just to stir you up again by way of reminder, to be vigilant and alert about what you choose to wear on Sundays. Sometimes what’s in style is tempting for others, and as trends change from year to year, we just want to continue to be thinking critically about what might not serve others. It’s not an easy job!
I don’t want anyone to feel condemned. I’m not assuming anyone has had wrong motives. But if you’re experiencing any Spirit-induced conviction, confess your wrong, bring it to the cross, and remind yourself of our perfect Savior who was sacrificed for your sin! As we think about the topic of modesty, we want the effect to be repentance (if needed) but then primarily a joy and faith to do what will serve others and help build the church.
If you have any thoughts or response, please feel free to contact my wife or speak to another woman you respect on the team. Let’s seek to ask questions humbly of others that are close to us (either a spouse, or another female friend who is honest and wise about these things).
I’m grateful to God for you all. May he continue to confirm, strengthen, and establish you as you continue to grow into all that the gospel of Jesus means for us!
✠F. B. Henry
Bishop of Calgary.
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