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An Easter Bonnet With Frills Upon It Is Decidedly Old Hat

At St. Stephen Baptist Church In Louisville, Ky., They Won’t Dress Up This Year

By Angelo B. Henderson and Robert McGough Staff Reporters of The Wall Street Journal
1,138 words, 7 April 1998, The Wall Street Journal, English (Copyright (c) 1998, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

Easter Sunday is the dressiest day of the Christian religious year. That's certainly true among African-Americans. But at predominantly black St. Stephen Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., Easter is a dress-down day. The attire: T-shirts, jeans, jogging suits, gym shoes or anything casual.

"People can truly come as they are," says Valerie Rice, a 42-year-old airline audit supervisor at United Parcel Service in Louisville. "That way, people who are less fortunate don't feel left out or stressed out," she says. "At St. Stephen, you can't tell the CEO from the person who doesn't have a job—we all come to praise the Lord."

Throughout the U.S., there are signs that congregations—Jewish, as well as Christian—are dressing up less for religious services. And why not? If dress-down Fridays can change the workplace, why can't churches and synagogues follow suit on Saturdays and Sundays?

A dress-down Easter parade would still be a stretch in most churches, whatever the racial mix, but not at St. Stephen, which is trying to be more people-centered and user-friendly without sacrificing the integrity of the religious message.

"The emphasis is not what we are dressed up with on the outside, but the mind and spirit on the inside," says St. Stephen's 39-year-old pastor, the Rev. Kevin W. Cosby. He remembers rushing home after church all his life to get out of his "church clothes." He wants the Sunday-morning fashion shows to end. "You can have on a brand-new suit, but if love is not in your heart, you are a dressed-up mess," he says. During one six-month period, he made a point of preaching in T-shirt and jeans.

During his 19 years as pastor, his congregation has grown to 7,000 from 300. He says that about 50% of his members come in casual dress every Sunday, and about 25% wear African-inspired clothing. Only about 25%—and they are primarily older worshipers—still put on their Sunday best.

Of the several dozen people at the Sunday service at the predominantly white Oceanside Lutheran Church on New York's Long Island recently, only one man was wearing a necktie—and that was a bolo tie worn with a plaid shirt and no jacket. Among the women, sweaters and pants outnumbered dresses by 4 or 5 to 1, even among older women. A number of people, of both sexes, were wearing jeans.

Martin Schneider, a 37-year-old member of the congregation who grew up in Germany, divided his attention between Pastor Peter Swan and his own squirming towheaded son. Mr. Schneider was in jeans and a gray pullover with sleeves rolled up. Germany was more formal, he recalls, but here in his adopted America, he says, he feels "less pretentious" and more authentic going to church in casual attire.

For Mr. Swan, whose congregation is small, that's just fine. "It's more important to me that people come than how they are dressed."

But that is hardly the mainstream view. FitzSimons Allison, retired Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina, has some qualms about the new realities. "Clothes are deeply significant," he says.

"They are symbols of much that is going on in the culture." He recalls that when he became rector of a church in New York City in the mid-1970s, the dress was so formal that one member of the vestry—the church's ruling body—wore a bowler hat on Sundays. "No one would dare walk into Grace Church improperly dressed," he says.

But a big shift in the culture was already taking place: "The church ceased to be the established, respected, law-enforcing, moral-adjudicating" force it had once been. "Now church is peripheral to Hollywood and the New York Times," he says. "It doesn't have the clout that sets fashions."

He has mixed feelings about changing church fashions: "One ought to honor the Lord by dressing up," he says. On the other hand, "when you can be less concerned about what you wear, you can have more room in your consciousness and your heart for the Gospel preaching." Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, of Temple Israel in Omaha, Neb., remembers going to a service at Trinity Church, a large, evangelical church nearby. It was "very happy, very uplifting, beautiful music," and "definitely dress-down," he says. In his synagogue, he says, "sometimes you have a member of the congregation who comes in with gym shoes and jeans, but that's very rare."

Some of the hottest debate on church attire is taking place in African-American churches.

Some older ministers, including the Rev. Charles Duncan, the 65-year-old pastor of First Virginia Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, are outraged.

"You keep forgetting that the world is not to change the church, the church is to change the world. It disturbs me that the church is being backed into a corner," Mr. Duncan says.

He believes that churchgoers should dress up to worship as a way of showing reverence and respect to God, just as they might do for the president of the U.S. or the queen of England.

But, he says, that isn't the trend of things, and he sometimes feels like a dinosaur; his church has about 1,000 members, but only about 300 of them are active members. "If the church keeps on going in the direction it's in, there will be casual dress, there'll be hot pants, there'll be hugging and kissing in the pews—all while the service is going on," Mr. Duncan says. "And we will look up and wonder what went wrong."

On the other hand, more non-traditional church leaders, including Dr. Cosby, argue that the casual trend isn't a bad sign at all. If priorities are in the right place, Dr. Cosby asks, then why do most churches report record attendance on Easter Sunday and one of the lowest church offerings? "It's because people are wearing their tithes and offerings."

So on Easter Sunday morning, his parishioner Ms. Rice plans to forsake the Easter bonnets of her youth and go to her closet for something casual that she could also wear to the park or to brunch following services.

"No Easter hat or Easter frock for me," she says. "I'd feel uncomfortable and unprepared to worship all dressed up at my church."