If there’s one advantage that the lockdown has brought the Christian Churches, its that people can dress casually in their homes whilst watching the online Sunday worship and daily Bible studies which many religious groups are posting from around the globe.
Even before the lockdown, which closed places of worships, many Christian churches adopted relaxed or casual dress codes for attending Sunday worship.
Some of the more fundamentalist and traditional congregations still adhered strictly to the dress codes that men must wear their ‘Sunday best suits’ and the women must have their heads covered with hats.
The challenge to the Christian Churches is whether they will relax their dress codes for attendance at church now that many fellowships are experiencing an online boom in attendances. Even for churches which live streamed their services prior to the lockdown, in some cases, they have seen their online attendances rocket.
As a snap-shot, one rural Pentecostal church which would have an average Sunday morning attendance of around 100 people in the pews, is now enjoying a Sunday online audience of around 3,000 viewers.
With lockdown restrictions now being relaxed so that some churches are having so-called ‘drive through’ worship where people sit in their cars in the church carpark while the cleric delivers the sermon via a public address system, the challenge still remains for these churches as to how many of the vast online audiences can be retained and converted into ‘bums on pews’ once churches get the green light to fully open.
While I certainly did not sit in my ‘Sunday best’ watching our online services, the relaxed dress code reminded me of the battles I have faced as a minister’s son over dress codes.
In the Sixties and Seventies, there really was a myth among some in Presbyterianism that the minister’s son should wear his ‘Sunday best’ at all times! But then I’m a rebel preacher’s kid so challenging the establishment has always been in my nature.
This rebellious streak in terms of the minister’s son’s dress code began in my primary school era. Each June was a traditional Presbyterian Children’s Day at church. The Sunday school students made up the choir that day. All the girls would wear white dresses; the lads would be dressed in dark trousers or shorts, white shirts and red ties.
After the morning service, there was also the traditional church photo of the Sunday school choir on the front steps of the building. But in my mind, if all us lads were dressed the same, how would folk recognise me?
I had a brainwave! Myself and my best chum were among the smallest that year in the 1960s, so I told him that rather than stand to attention for the photo, both of us would stand with legs crossed in the front row!
Seconds before the church photographer yelled ‘smile’ I crossed my legs, but my chum bottled it. Needless to say, I got a severe telling off for being the only person in the photo who was standing differently from the others!
Perhaps it was that incident which brought about the wrath of criticism about what the minister’s son should and should not wear, especially when in the House of God.
As I moved into secondary education in the early Seventies, it was a time when my chums started wearing colourful suits, ties and jackets. But there was no such colour for me - especially when the rumours began ‘I hope the minister’s son doesn’t appear dressed like that!’
I so deeply wanted to dress like my chums, but I realised if I did, the ‘tut-tut brigade’ would heap their verbal flak on me. There was only one solution - I would have to wear my grammar school uniform to church!
While my schoolboy nickname was Budgie Coulter, because of the schoolboy image at church, I also got the nickname ‘Plain John’.
During term time for about 18 months, I would wear my Ballymena Academy uniform seven days a week - Monday to Friday in school for lessons; on Saturdays representing the school at cross-country and athletics events, and on Sunday at all the church activities.
Then an elder’s wife took pity on me, noticing how I looked so plain in my school uniform while all my chums were in fancy suits. She bought me two fancy shirts and matching ties.
The next Sunday, I turned up at church wearing one of the shirts and a colourful matching tie. It was like a red flag to a bull in terms of the ‘tut-tut brigade’.
They were having a field day criticising me until one of the ‘brigade’ made the mistake of mouthing off about me and my new dress code in front of this kind elder’s wife.
A real bitch fight erupted between the elder’s wife and one of the ‘tut-tut brigade’. But it had the desired effect. I could wear jackets and even French Flair trousers and the ‘tut-tut brigade’ couldn’t mutter a word because they didn’t know who had bought the outfit!
But I could use the symbols of dress code to emphasise that I was a rebel. I did at one Boys’ Brigade annual display. The BB being a Christian uniformed organisation, there was a specific dress code for church parades and annual company displays in the church hall.
It was a dark suit, white shirt and black tie along with the traditional BB regalia. In the early Seventies, I decided to make a point. Instead of the black tie, I quickly donned my red and blue Ballymena Academy school tie for the inspection parade by the guest inspecting officer.
It, too, had the desired effect! The guest officer stopped with me and said: “I see you’re not wearing a black tie!” Grinning back, my retort was: “That’s because I’m the minister’s son!” Speechless, the inspecting officer moved quickly on as there was nothing in the BB dress code about minister’s sons being exempt at that time from the black tie rule!
But such a rebellious protest was a ‘one-off’. In 1975, the ‘in’ piece of clothing for all my peers was a denim jacket known as a ‘Wrangler Jacket’. All my chums had one, except me. Finally, I persuaded my parents that I needed one of these Wrangler Jackets for BB camp that year at Southport.
That was okay for BB camp in England where the ‘tut-tut brigade’ could not see me, but I made the huge error of judgement that it would be okay for the minister’s son to continue wearing the Wrangler Jacket back home at the Saturday evening church youth club.
While my chums - mainly farmers’ sons - could wear such jackets to the church youth club, the reaction I got when I turned up at the same youth club sporting my Wrangler Jacket took me completely by surprise.
For the ‘tut-tut brigade’, the sight of me in a Wrangler Jacket sparked a level of criticism more akin to a situation if I’d tried to burn down dad’s pulpit in the main church building.
Yes, I wanted to be a rebel against the ‘tut-tut brigade’ and their Victorian image of the minister’s son, but it would come at a price. There were times, especially in my later teens, when I would simply not don the Wrangler Jacket just to get some peace and quiet.
That conformist mentality evaporated when I went to university to begin my journalist training. As I near 61, I am still a radical Presbyterian rebel. I will occasionally still wear a denim jacket to Sunday worship or the mid week Bible study, complete with sew-on patches and badges.
Occasionally, I still lock horns with the ‘tut-tut brigade’. In the late 1990s, I was refused the Right Hand of Fellowship ceremony of membership of a Baptist Church because I am married to a woman who does not wear a hat to church!
At some mid week Bible studies, I would wear a football top and jeans. Other chums would also wear their ‘footie’ tops, too. But one evening within the past few years (bear in mind I was then in my very late 50s), I was singled out for criticism for wearing such football tops - the incident provided me with a right old rant on my radio show about dress codes in church!
Perhaps I just need to learn the lesson that no matter what age I am, the ‘tut-tut brigade’ will always target me because I’m a minister’s son. But hopefully, I will have the last laugh on the ‘tut-tut brigade’.
My hobby is vexillology - the collection and study of flags. I have over 100 in my collection from around the globe and various organisations, including an Irish tricolour and Starry Plough flags.
When it comes my time that God decides that I will enter eternity, perhaps I will give one last ‘two-fingered’ salute to the ‘tut-tut brigade’ by having my coffin adorned in these two flags and carried up the church aisle at my service of thanksgiving. I imagine many of the ‘tut-tut brigade’ will have expressions on their faces akin to a bulldog chewing a wasp!
Can you imagine the furore given the past history of republican funerals and the removal of flags on coffins before the service? Just imagine a row at the front door of the church - the Presbyterian minister’s son and life-long unionist having an Irish tricolour and Starry Plough flags on his coffin! Even in death, I will still be a rebellious preacher’s kid!