My first impressions, when I think about the Anglican Church and cloth is one of extravagance. I imagine gold worked embroidered headwear, lavishly designed altar cloths and endless men in long dresses. I realise, I know little about the Anglican Church.
So with my perceived image of the church I went to visit the Revd Canon Kathryn Fitzsimons, currently a Vicar in Gipton, Leeds.
One of the first things I noticed is actually how little fancy wear there was. On the whole Kathryn wears plain long robes, made from good quality fabrics with well thought out details like double inner pockets and fringes not for religious reasons, but the simple need to make the robe last as long as possible.
The robes could be made cheaper with less expensive fabrics, but the saying “buy cheap, buy twice” could be a mantra for the church. Kathryn’s own surplice, bought in 1999, is still worn today and looking good for years to come.
I asked about the idea of Sunday best, where did it come from?
This idea that we turn up at church looking as though we lead perfect lavish lives, then the rest of the week we (at least I do) wander around in scruffy jeans and t-shirts.
I’ve always seen the Sunday best idea as a false image. Would God really be impressed if I turn up on Sunday in my party frock when he sees me the other 6 days of the week pulling on my almost worn out grey M&S knickers?
Kathryn explains that the Sunday best goes back to a time when we only had two sets of clothing, one for workdays and one for special occasions and Sunday. It also has roots in a Biblical sense of giving our best to God, going back to Cain and Abel’s offerings, but I’m not convinced God is that excited about my fashion sense as much as He is about my offering and sacrifice.
The robes are designed to cover her everyday clothing underneath and are plain in design. Kathryn explained that this helps take the focus away from her and towards God. This is especially important as a woman. Female actors will often be asked questions on how they dieted for a role, where their male counterparts will be asked how they mentally prepared, or their fitness regime. The same is true of the church, women will be judged on their hair, make-up (or lack of) and dress sense.
The robe takes away the ability to judge Kathryn on her personal dress sense and makes people see her simply as a woman of God.
Although the everyday robes are plain, they are decorated with simple stoles, like a scarf around the neck, these decorated items turn the plain robe into a fancy garment of celebration. Kathryn has a box of them, each with it’s own story and personally made or inherited with her in mind. These hand made one off pieces must have taken time and expertise to make, they look expensive and probably would be out of many people’s price range.
In truth, the church pays very little for it’s textiles. Kathryn owns her own everyday robes and stoles, and the church own a small quantity of special occasion chasubles which have been made to last long enough to cover the costs.
Kathryn takes me into the church, a simple building with little decoration, just a plain altar cloth at the front in green, the colour of the season. As Kathryn shows me around the church I begin to see the value of the cloth. Her stoles each hold a personal story for her, but each also tell a story.
Illiteracy is still around but many years ago it was the poor who were often lacking in schooling. Like church windows telling bible stories, these stoles each tell their own simple tale. The journey bringing Kathryn to work in Leeds amongst the poor (I first met Kathryn through Leeds Poverty Truth), flames hinting at the Holy Spirit and Pentecost, Bread and Wine reminding us of communion.
Kathryn leads me to a smaller, side room with a smaller altar. The cloth on this altar is her favourite. Made by people in the church it tells the tale of the communities darker moments, when poverty and crime were high. The people on the cloth seem to flee from a broken home to the peace and hope of God. In the middle of the home split in two is a cross, reminding everyone that in the middle of the brokenness is the church. It’s not just a nice story and a nice image, it’s a re-telling of the church and community’s history.
Kathryn explains that the majority of textiles in the church and her own property were made as an offering to the church or to Kathryn to honour the work she is doing. Kathryn explained that an embroiderers gift to the church is as important as the choirs singing.
That, for me, sums up my own feelings in church, as a member of the Salvation Army. Some might question the cost of an altar cloth or wall hangings, yet have unlimited resources when providing for the church musicians. It often seems as though church participation is best served through music and the non-musical have no option but to sit back and watch. Yet if we believe that Christianity is for the whosoever then we need to consider all contributors, all gifts as equally valued in his house.
If we valued other gifts in our worship would our services change? Would we see artists bringing in their easels to paint what God shows them through the service?
Rather than a craft table at the back of the hall to keep kids quiet, will we ever see creative gifts other than the musical ones being equally valued in all the churches?