by Chris Ritter
The Midwest has been fabulously introduced to the phenomenon of drag queen United Methodist clergy. The media blitz associated with Isaac Simmons (aka “Penny Cost”) being unanimously approved as a ministry candidate has been upstaged recently by Rev. Craig Duke and his appearance on the HBO reality show “We’re Here.” What is new to the Midwest is not-so-new to the denomination at large. Drag has been celebrated at progressive seminaries for some time. Iliff School of Theology in Denver, a UM-funded institution, had proudly held drag shows in its chapel. A few churches have even added “Drag Sundays” to their liturgical commemorations, alongside All Saints and Epiphany.
Reactions? Loud voices of disgust have certainly been heard. More widely, people have quietly questioned why, in the name of inclusion, a denomination would allow folks to preach who flaunt their sexuality… whatever that sexuality may be. They look for humble, modest clergy who have their life together and can offer wise counsel and biblical preaching. “It’s not about me” has been the unwritten ethos of the clergy. But drag queen clergy are here, queer, and standing up to be recognized. They believe coming out of the closet makes it easier for others to express their own identities. In that way, supporters say, they are a force for liberation.
But even for traditionalists, the emergence from the vestry of drag queen clergy provides a teachable moment for the church. When we see a drag queen, we see something in our own souls… wrapped in a gaudy, bedazzled vessel. And taking a long, reflective look in the mirror may be exactly what Christ wants the church to be doing right now. If you haven’t noticed, the church in North America is currently being pruned by our Vinedresser (John 15). Branches not bearing fruit are being lobbed into the fire so a leaner, more fruitful configuration can emerge to the glory of God. Drag queen clergy show us our own addiction to fabulous at the expense of fruitful.
Megachurch pastors wearing $3,000 sneakers are an easy example of gaudy self-expression celebrated in the church. But run-of-the-mill congregations platform the flesh in our own ways. We love to hype our own trappings of success, intellectualism, architecture, social awareness, or cultural relevance. If drag seems a weird flex, it is really just the garden-variety pride with which we all tempted. Carnality run amuck demands the spotlight. We tell ourselves it is somehow for a greater good when it is really just the same old internal Golden Calf — manufactured with the help of our excess jewelry — leaking out to be praised instead of God.
We lampoon the rigid piety of the Puritans, but theirs was an effort to highlight the beauty of inner holiness by toning the flesh way, way down. John Wesley admired this and called preachers and laity alike to the plainest of dress. Those Christians of higher rank should dress no different than their servants. Wesley:
The wearing gay or costly apparel naturally tends to breed and to increase vanity. By vanity I here mean, the love and desire of being admired and praised. Every one of you that is fond of dress has a witness of this in your own bosom. Whether you will confess it before man or no, you are convinced of this before God. You know in your hearts, it is with a view to be admired that you thus adorn yourselves; and that you would not be at the pains were none to see you but God and his holy angels. Now, the more you indulge this foolish desire, the more it grows upon you. You have vanity enough by nature; but by thus indulging it, you increase it a hundred-fold. O stop! Aim at pleasing God alone, and all these ornaments will drop off.Sermon “On Dress“
Wesley dreamed of the day when a Methodist gathering would be “as plain dressed as a Quaker congregation.” He admonished all “to dress cheap as well as plain.” He instructed parents not to doll their children up like princes/princesses, but to adorn their inner person with holiness. To do otherwise would be cursing their souls.
Wesley’s instructions on clothing extend to all the other ways we parade ourselves instead of Christ. Drew McIntyre wrote an excellent little post in which he calls us away from glittering intellectual arguments for the faith, a preoccupation among many of us evangelicals. There is nothing like the apologetic of the early church… humble, faithful, Christian lives offered to the glory of God and in service to others. This alone is our opposition to the preoccupations of the world. I have long respected the Salvation Army as heirs of John Wesley. Leaders wear plain uniforms and are denied religious titles. At their best, the trappings of big “buildings, budgets, and baptisms” are abandoned in favor of work on the streets with the “least, last, and lost.” It’s beautiful in the best definition of that word. Visiting Africa, I notice that many United Methodist bishops there require their clergy to wear plain, black tab-collared shirts and be constantly active in public among the people.
It is certainly possible to make plain dress and other trappings of humility into another form of religious showmanship. But Wesley would argue, I think, that a Christian afire with the love of God and neighbor will be so self-forgetful that their outward appearance becomes subsumed by the beauty of holiness. We cannot do this apart from the daily empowerment that comes through God’s grace. At the end of the day, Jesus does not find our sexualities and identities, however exotic they may be, all that interesting. He has something so much more to offer.
In this season of pruning, let’s search own hearts about God’s call to live a baptized life “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). In this, we are helped by drag queen clergy who confront each of us with how we have each caked worldly ornaments onto our human flesh… and pronounced ourselves fabulous. As the Vinedresser continues his work, may we rediscover the simple, irreplaceable beauty of holiness.