funny church clothes on tv

In my post-committee-night haze last night I tried to see if regular TV might surprise me with something good. I managed to watch about 20 seconds of “The Mindy Project” before giving up and queuing up an episode of Homeland.

But about that 20 seconds. The Mindy Project is a show about…well, I have no idea what the show is about. I’m sure it’s very funny in the usual edgy-sitcom kind of way. But the part I landed on had my attention because it was a funeral scene and I always like to see if the costume and art departments get the church stuff right.  Once you know what we’re supposed to wear, it’s kind fun to watch film and tv and see how wrong they often are.

They used all the shorthand for “traditional” church: Gothic architecture, vested priestly guy greeting people at the door before the service.

And the results:  Cassock & surplice was the costume choice, which is indeed traditional and certainly appropriate. But the priest was wearing a Black Stole! Come on guys!! We don’t wear black stoles at funerals (well, most of us don’t, anyway). Pick up the phone and call a church. Get it right.

Proper for funerals.

Proper for funerals.

What’s the difference, you might ask?  A big one if you’re paying attention. Most churches haven’t used black stoles in decades. A tippet, which looks an awful lot like a black stole but is regarded more as a preaching scarf, is appropriate for morning & evening prayer but makes less sense for funerals except during rare circumstances.

Funerals typically call for white stoles. The reason for this is that white signifies Easter and the Resurrection, which is what we celebrate at funerals. If funerals were times for Christians to get together to be maudlin and mopy, then black scarves would indeed be more typical.  Fortunately, that is not the case.

Proper for fake TV funerals. Dumb for "actual" funerals.

Proper for fake TV funerals.

I don’t actually care if The Mindy Project gets either theology or church practice right – their job is to entertain, not teach about the church. But I think we see here (and in many other places) a kind of shorthand image of what “church” is supposed to be that is in fact very different from what the church actually is.

The church has a vocabulary all its own, and it is meant to be beautiful, mysterious, and even holy. As our culture forgets that vocabulary, I think we all lose something.

However, if costume designers are interested in getting church vestments right in future productions, I am happy to serve as a consultant for the nominal fee of a bazillion dollars, 10% of which I will give to the nearest church named St. Andrew’s.

(Note:  Since posting this, a whole bunch of colleagues have fb’d me to correct me, that in some places, particularly Anglo-Catholic churches, black vestments are indeed used for funerals, as well as for Good Friday and All Soul’s day. So, given my not-entirely-universally-accurate description of church vestments, I am willing to reduce my consulting fee to half a bazillion dollars.)



About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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5 Responses to funny church clothes on tv

  1. Anne Wilkinson says:

    that is very generous of you, BJ.

  2. I loved the “Easter”-reminder about how we view funerals.

  3. Laurie says:

    Since we are on attire, would you explain the difference in collars. Some episcopal priests wear an all white collar and others have just a bit of white showing as in the pictures above. Thanks.

    • bernardowens says:

      As far as I know, it’s purely the choice of the priest. The full white collar is the Anglican Collar, and the “tab” style collar is called the Roman Collar. If there’s a deeper meaning than that I don’t know it. That one is really just a matter of preference.

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