I decided to go in civvies to our Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper. I wore a rather simple crew neck shift dress, deep maroon, synthetic, with a ruffle down the front and no-collared Janie shoved in awkwardly underneath the neck hole. It was cold and wet out, so I paired it with a pair of dark brown tights under brown leather boots. I imagine I also wore a brown corduroy blazer since the dress is short sleeved. My hair was pulled back in a no-frills ponytail and my ears were adorned with small fake pearls.
As I made my way to the buffet line, a young female parishioner leaned in close and quietly said to me "Can a priest be sexy?" I looked at her a bit quizzically. "Sexy outfit," she continued as she nodded with toward me with a downward glance.
Only a few days before, a young Episcopal priest, the Rev. Emily Bloemker of St. Louis had appeared on the TLC show What Not To Wear. I can't imagine that any of our young clergy women readers haven't seen the show, but just in case: people nominate their friends or family members to receive a fashion makeover by two New York stylists, Stacy London and Clinton Kelly. If selected, the subject is secretly filmed for a couple of weeks in order to document their fashion failures and then surprised by the stylists in front of a gathering of friends, where the captured couture catastrophes are projected for all to see. If the subject is adequately convinced of their need for wardrobe repentance, they are offered $5000 in exchange for control over their closet. The fashionotsta is whisked away to New York City, where the audience follows along on what is usually a very emotionally turbulent shopping spree. Often the subject describes frustration, resentment, and annoyance at the outset, only to find, by the episode's end, a profoundly transformed self-understanding both externally and internally.
I was surprised at how gently they critiqued Mother Emily. (I don't mean to suggest her wardrobe warranted it, just that the show usually pulls no punches.) Stylists Stacy and Clinton seemed to handle her more gently than prior subjects, showing respect for her ministry and sensitive to her unique context. Stacy was encouraging of her as a young professional woman and a person of faith, impressed with her leadership and thoughtfulness while still challenging Emily to ask new and perhaps different questions regarding the nature of and relationship between priesthood, femininity, public ministry, sexuality, and self-expression. Clinton seemed a bit more empathetic with the awkward position in which exploring that constellation of subjects that Emily could be put. Like that parishioner on Shrove Tuesday, What Not To Wear was asking the nuanced ontological question: Can a priest be sexy?
Asking this question really means asking a range of questions about what understandings (and expectations) are held by the tradition, the individual, and the society in which the clergy person exists. It means asking what the implications are for personhood in the exercise a public ministry. It also invites each of us to examine the roots of our own self-image as we evaluate the appropriateness of our personal expression in light of our professed religious beliefs.
The audience was invited to step into the complicated existential realm of the young ordained female. Can clergy understand themselves as sexual beings? How should or could clergy express that sexuality? Can the communities of faith in which they work tolerate such an understanding or expression (i.e., dating)? What is the assumption of the larger society as to what is permissible? What are the "missional" implications of that conversation?
The What Not To Wear episode confronted these questions mostly by assuring Emily that the changes would help her find a date. It is, after all, an hour long Friday night cable show devoted to helping women cope with our society's insistence that human worth can be instantly determined by external appearance. "If at every moment the world is judging you only based on that day's fashion choice," the narrative reasons, "why not take advantage of it?" I trust Fidelia's Sisters readers can deconstruct that logic quickly enough, so I'll just give What Not To Wear the benefit of the doubt and grant them that each new person that meets us assigns us a value not only on aesthetic grounds, but also extends judgment as to our sexuality, professionalism, and social competency based solely on superficial external evidence. The combination of our scores in those categories will allow them to rank our relative social worth and will often either boost or diminish the value of any deeper interaction they might have with us.
Women clergy are the recipients of all kinds of projections and expectations — healthy and unhealthy, legitimate and bizarrely inappropriate. Often the curiosity devolves into an obsession over the sexual aspect of incarnated persons, and the overlap of spirituality and sexuality is just too much for American Christians to consider. Stacy and Clinton were willing to push through those uncomfortable questions because they understood it to be a healthy exercise in self-differentiation and relevant to "mission" and they invited their audience to encourage Emily and the Church to do the same.
The photo of Rev. Emily Bloemker with Stylists Stacey and Clinton originates from the What Not To Wear blog post entitled "The Priest Who Earned Her Fashion Wings" found here.