In a recent post Joe Koczera discussed some of the issues involved in wearing clerical dress. That – and the related subject of religious or monastic dress – is a subject that I don’t intend getting into now, except to say that it is a complex issue and that I found Joe’s treatment of it provided a balanced and nuanced approach that is often lacking from online discussions. I may as well admit that if there is one thing that irritates me about some online discussions between Orthodox and Catholics, it is when both unite in demonising Catholic religious who do not wear habits!

But this post is not about whether clergy or religious should wear a distinctive dress. Rather, what struck me was my own response to the photo on his post of a priest (okay, I suppose that it could have been a brother or Jesuit scholastic) in black with a clerical collar. And I must confess that that image triggered all sort of negative anti-clerical associations in me. I know that that is what Jesuits wear if they’re going to wear something distinctive, but my own reactions clearly came from somewhere less than entirely rational. It’s rather strange: I suspect that I would react negatively to images of Benedictines who were not in habit, whereas I tend to react negatively to an image of Jesuits in clerics. That no doubt has something to do both with my experience of Catholic monasticism and dress, but also with my (positive) experience of Jesuits whom I very rarely saw in clerics, and with the assoication of the collar not with religious life but rather with priesthood. When it comes to Orthodox priests, I would probably not respond strongly one way or another, although I suspect that I’d prefer a cassock to a Roman collar and think that I’d be rather shocked to find Orthodox monastics who are not in monastic dress. But this is all rather subjective and fed by multiple factors.

Underlying this, of course, and here I am getting to the point of this post, is a sort of residual anti-clericalism in which clerical dress carries certain connotations, at least for me but I suspect also for some others, of a clerical caste that is set apart and viewed as ontologically distinct (in current Catholic teaching) from the rest of the Church. And I suspect that many of us in the West react to this, but in so reacting we tend to get things rather confused.

In a comment on my fifteen books post, Mary Lanser questioned my reference to Father Andrew Louth’s discussion on the growing gulf between clergy and laity in the Christian West in the late Middle Ages, and my objection to the Catholic understanding of an ontological distinction between clergy and the rest of the Church, arguing that Orthodox priests also use this distinction. (In fairness, I don’t think that Father Louth used the word ontological to refer to shifts in the Middle Ages, but Rome certainly uses it today). I didn’t respond then because this whole area of the nature of the distinction between the ordained and the non-ordained members of the Church is something that I am still trying to get my head around. Since becoming Orthodox (and before then for that matter) I have been aware that Orthodoxy is on the one hand more apparently “clerical,” paying great attention to the dignity of the priesthood, and to roles that are clearly reserved for the priest, and yet also rejecting an absolute distinction between the ordained and the non-ordained. Reading both Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon and Father Alexander Schmemann I have come across repeated references to the evils of clericalism (which seemed to have western origins) and yet neither seemed to be advocating the sort of abolition of distinctions that one finds in some Protestant and progressive Catholic groupings.

Reflecting on this I have also been reminded of an encounter I had with Coptic Christians many years ago. I was part of a group of South African theologians (mainly Protestant, but with a few Catholics) and we were frankly horrified at the reverence which people afforded the bishops. But reflecting on that, I came to realise the link between the people and the bishop, that he somehow summed up their identity in what was really a very difficult national and ecclesial situation. And I was reminded about this when I later read what the Fathers had to say about the bishop recapitulating the Church.

I was reflecting on this after noting my own reaction to Joe’s post (or, more specifically, to the photo in it). This had been preceded by a conversation last weekend in which I had found myself defending traditional Orthodox customs regarding the clergy (titles, asking blessings, certain reserved roles, that sort of thing) against contemporary egalitarianism out of a sense that there is something important going on in all this, and yet being very conscious that I could not articulate what it was, and also being very conscious that I agreed with my interlocutor on some of the dangers of clericalism.

Anyway, I was reflecting on this this week, when I was suddenly reminded of the paper that Father Andrew Louth gave in Amsterdam in May, in which he spoke of Saint Dionysius’ understanding of hierarchy as being not about rank but rather as about reaching out into multiplicity in order to draw everything back into the order and simplicity of God. And I suddenly realised that of course the purpose of various roles in the Church is precisely that they are related to one another, and that the purpose of the priesthood is not to created divisions, but precisely to unite, to provide the binding agent, as it were, to the various ministries in the Church. The tragedy of clericalism (and the negative reactions to clergy that one encounters do not simply fall out of the sky), like the tragedy of laicism (and in recent months I have heard things that have made me very hesitant about advocating lay control of the Church), is that in our understanding and experience the priesthood has often lost this ability to unite. It has all too often become about rank and about dividing rather than uniting.

I was reminded, also, of what Father Schmemann wrote about the role of the iconostasis, which is not to separate the sanctuary and the nave, but rather to unite them.

The icon is a witness, or, better still, a consequence of the unification of the divine and the human, of heaven and earth, that has been accomplished in Jesus Christ … it is an incarnation of the vision of the Church as sobor, as the union of the visible and invisible worlds, as the manifestation and presence of the new and transfigured creation. (20)

And I was reminded of this again this morning when reading Saint Maximus the Confessor on distinctions within the Church. He writes that although the church building is divided into different parts, it is “one in its basic reality.”

Thus the nave is the sanctuary in potency by being consecrated by the relationship of the sacrament towards its end, and in turn the sanctuary is the nave in act by possessing the principle of its own sacrament, which remains one and the same in its two parts. …

Once again, there is but one world and it is not divided by its parts. On the contrary, it encloses the differences of the parts arising from their natural properties by their relationship to what is one and indivisible in itself. Moreover, it shows that both are the same thing with it and alternately with each other in an unconfused way and that the whole of one enters into the whole of the other, and both fill the same whole as parts fill a unit, and in this way the parts are uniformly and entirely filled as a whole.

Saint Maximus the Confessor, The Church’s Mystagogy, 2, in Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings (Classics of Western Spirituality)(SPCK / Paulist, 1985), 188-189.