“Oh, God, no!”

This is exactly what I cried aloud — unironically — when I first saw the Standing on the Side of Love clergy shirt. Hideous and sectarian. Speaks of deep inauthenticity. Clericals are not a costume to be pulled out for dramatic effect, and certainly not shock value.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Sorry to disagree with you Scott (and Bill, and Chris), but I kind of like this shirt. Clericals most certainly are “costumes [put on] for dramatic effect.” I remember really clearly going with a high school youth group to a nearby (high) Episcopal Church. The priest took us into a back room and said, “let me show you my costumes” as he opened to closet with his vestments. He told us about the symbolic meaning of each garment and how the clothes, themselves, told a story. That’s drama.

    And that story, I don’t believe, has been completed. It is — as all good stories are — continuing to be revisited and revised, new meanings being added to — and sometimes replacing — the old.

    This does not look, as the old saying had it, “like your father’s clerical shirt.” Maybe that’s a good thing. If UU clergy want to wear a shirt which in public events helps to identify us as clergy, perhaps the combination of collar (familiar) with blinding yellow and a heart on the sleeve is just the sort of thing we need!

    My two cents, anyway.

  2. I never wear the color group yellow/orange/canary/goldenrod, and have never worn a clerical shirt or collar, even though I give it some thought in connection with every social justice movement. I do think that all clericals are a costume, and they should give a message. I’m glad these were ordered as an option. Unfortunately the message this shirt would give, worn over my expanded midsection, is “that one has been sitting on the side of love.” Maybe I could handle a stole with the SotSOL logo on it.

  3. I think a subtle distinction… Clericals are not a costume, but a professional uniform equivalent to those worn by police, nurses, and firemen. They aid the public in identifying public servants, and communicate both a level of equality among those professionals wearing them, and that the person wearing them is on duty. One should exercise caution when engaging in novel modifications of uniforms. There can be unexpected public perceptions (or perhaps I should say mis-perceptions) about what the modification means.

  4. First, a caveat. I do wear a SotSoL button on my leather vest, which I wear both at church and at secular alt-sex community meetings. And I certainly have no right to tell anyone what to wear, no matter my opinion of how hideous it seems.

    Now, with that out of the way, my two thoughts on this …

    My initial aesthetic reaction was, in a word, yecch. And not to belabor stereotypes, but as a gay friend once observed when I had a similar reaction: “When the straight guy in the room says it’s ugly, then it’s ugly.”

    Thinking more along community concerns, I worry where all this excessive focus on “branding” is taking us. Having recognizable symbols which grab people’s attention is one thing. Jumping the shark into outright hucksterism is quite another, and this is at the very least dangerously close to this.

    The best way of establishing a clear and consistent identity, IMHO, is to clarify our vision of who we are, what brings us and keeps us together, and what kind of world we want to leave our children and grandchildren. And if I had the power to choose between producing yet another mustard-colored piece of merchandise — and an unnecessary one, at that — and a program to empower our ministers to better serve our communities, then I’d strongly favor the latter.

  5. @Derek – The problem with calling it a uniform is that uniforms are not chosen by the wearer but assigned by the community. What police officer you know chooses how to represent himself or herself as an officer of the law? The individual does not have the authority to select a uniform. UU ministers do not wear uniforms. They may or may not wear costumes.

  6. @ Paul – What UU minister wears a uniform? Those who serve in chaplaincy settings. Professional dress codes often apply. When I served at Deaconess Hospital, chaplains were required to wear clericals, or a dark suit if your tradition objected to clericals (eg. Quakers on staff, some UU’s could argue the same), or a habit (for monks and nuns). In those settings we do not have more choices than a nurse who was limited to hospital whites or scrubs. Police tend to have fewer choices, as plain-clothed vrs. uniformed is determined by the nature of the work. So it would be good for us to remember that in most of the religious world, clericals are a working uniform. But perhaps the yellow clericals give the perception of a costume and function as a costume (meaning a mere style of dress for an occassion). In which case we can be easily mis-percieved as being less serious than we intended. What would it communicate to you, if police could randomly sport mustard uniforms for some cause that you as an outsider might not easily comprehend, or have time to figure out? Are you here to enforce the law, or is this some kind of protest, or are you some special kind of agent, etc?

    I am not inclined to wear the mustard clericals. And perhaps it is because they communicate “costume party” to me. Remember that my earlier advice was NOT to forbid the hideous clericals, but for people to be cautious about the modifications we make to a common uniform that means something to the general public. What the wearing of clericals normally means is, I’m a minister and I am on duty.

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