I’ve just been to Watts in Westminster to buy my first cassock alb, which is a generous leaving present from St. Christopher’s. I found Watts tucked away behind Westminster Abbey and was welcomed by a tailor. I took off my denim jacket and hoodie and was promptly measured up, before an alb was popped over my head. I sheepishly looked at the mirror and down at my scuffed black trainers that stuck out underneath. I doubtfully pulled at the sides.
“Um, have you got one of those ropes to tighten it with?” I asked the tailor.
“No. You aren’t allowed to wear ropes with a hooded alb. It’s against the rules,” said the tailor. I stared back, wondering who had sat down and created that rule.
“Right. And do you have anything a bit slimmer?”
“No. Cassock albs aren’t really designed for women,” said the tailor, slightly apologetically. I sighed.
“Well, I guess they’re not supposed to be a fashion item,” I said. The tailor nodded, and proceeded to wrap up the cassock alb for me. I took it home on the bus and unpacked it, writing my name in black ink across the label. I stared at it for a while, remembering the white name tapes with red lettering that I had sewn in my secondary school uniform when I was 11 years old. There had been some pretty hideous pieces of kit. I remember particularly resenting the bottle green gym knickers that you were supposed to wear under a hockey skirt of the same colour. I had spent most of that first year fishing the knickers out of the lost property cupboard. At least they had been abolished several years later, in favour of more “modern” sports gear. Still, there was a part of me that had always kind of liked the different uniforms that I had worn over the years – Brownies, Guides, and Cadets – they had all required a uniform. But, I thought, looking at the white alb in front of me – they had made each of us the same – they had abolished difference.
This white alb did exactly the opposite. The only time that it would mean that I fitted in was probably at theological college or perhaps in Church on a Sunday. The rest of the time, the white alb, like the black shirts and dog collar that I’ll be expected to wear in 3 years’ time, would signal difference and not similarity. I thought back to the Youth Group’s session the day before. I’d taken Thomas Merton’s poem The Road for them to read. They’d been unimpressed.
“What’s the point in trying to do what God’s calling you to do, if you’re just going to get it wrong? That doesn’t count!”
They hadn’t thought much to our discussion of callings to priesthood or religious life either.
“Those people are so weird,” they said (and some of them not so politely), clearly forgetting what I was training for. And the truth was, I was glad that they’d forgotten. As I’ve said before, it always worries me that people will see me differently when I’m ordained. Only a few weeks ago, somebody had come to apologise for swearing in front of me, saying she realised that she shouldn’t do that, “given what I was about to go and do.” I’d been, frankly, horrified. About the apology, and not about the swearing.
And yet, there is something about putting on any kind of uniform that prepares you for the task that you are about to go and do. I remember putting on my Brownie Guide uniform when I was a child, after making my Brownie Guide Promise in the special ceremony: ‘I promise that I will do my best, to do my duty to God, to serve the Queen and my country, to help other people, and keep the Brownie Guide law.’ At 7, when you did something wrong in the playground, the other girls would swoop round,
“But you’re a Brownie! And now you’ve broken your promise!” And the person would resolve to somehow try to do better next time. Or at least you did in the small, rural C. of E. Primary School of my childhood.
I looked back at the alb in front of me, and thought how putting it on would be a preparation for worship, and how the black shirt and white collar that I will one day put on will be a reminder of the oaths before God that each person must make before they are ordained. The uniform would be a reminder, too, of the task that I would be about to go and do. It would bring me into an awkward reverence of God and remind me to be the person that God calls me to be me, even when that is difficult. I folded up the white cassock alb and put it carefully back in its cloth bag. It’s exactly 2 months before my first day at theological college and there is lots of preparation to do before then.