The Lincoln College Chaplain, Rev. Dr Melanie Marshall, is—in a word—effulgent. When I curl up to her rooms on a chilly Sunday afternoon, I unhesitatingly self-congratulate that this interview is the “best idea I’ve ever had.” And as Mel appears, my previously sceptical photographer immediately understands. Effulgent, remember?
Mel grew up on the north coast of Aberdeen, studied for three degrees at Oxford, trained to be a priest in Cambridge, and, somewhere along the way, became a bastion of wisdom and comfort, a harbinger not so much of advice, but of encouraging self-discovery. As a chaplain, she both reinforces and defies what I thought I knew to be true about the Church, emanating an openness and a passion that, amazingly, square easily with the traditions and rituals that she enacts.
She welcomes us into her rooms and presents a wardrobe full of vestments (the special clothes she wears when she conducts a service). With grace and excitement, she explains how she dresses, the differences between a cassock (every day clerical attire) and a chasuble (circular garment), and the entirety of the clerical colour spectrum (red, for example, is the colour of martyrdom). She never hesitates to elaborate or to demonstrate, consistently and consciously revealing knowledge wholly spiritual in its depth.
She soon settles comfortably into her armchair and crosses her feet, answering my inquiries with serious contemplation. The resulting interview makes visible the rituals of the Church, the blurring and divorce of clerical and individual identities, that the practical so often serves a mediator for something much greater. Sometimes clothes turn you into another person or transport you to another place—but most important, often, are the intangible beliefs and associations that we unknowingly carry. Clerical attire, it turns out, is not just about religion. It is about engagement, public visibility—and responsibility for one individual to represent an entire institution.
To start, what, practically, do these clothes feel like? Are they comfortable?
So, the stuff I wear to say the mass in is quite physically comfortable because they’re not fitted. What they are is big baggy garments that you pin together using a belt. And they’re designed to fit anyone. The idea is that when you’re wearing them, you’re a priest, you’re not yourself. And that’s what’s visible. So they’re not uncomfortable, but they’re not comfortable in an emotional sense.
When you go on a date, they say that you should wear the thing you feel comfortable in, meaning the thing in which you feel uncomplicatedly yourself. I do feel uncomplicatedly myself when I am vested—which is what we call all that clobber—but I feel uncomplicatedly myself in role. For a very specific role, which is a sacramental role.
Then there are the things I wear day by day, like this dress. That I found really hard to adapt to. You’re wearing it outside of a sacramental context, every minute of every day. That stuff, like a lot of women, I was used to using that to express my personality. Then you get ordained and you can’t do that anymore because even when you’re not vested, it’s really important that you are dressed distinctively as a priest. Over the first few months, I started to get the hang of it. I realized there is a way that I can dress and still feel absolutely like myself.
Do you feel like any part of your identity has changed because of it?
Definitely, definitely. You become a priest partly because you’re already living life in a way that seems priest-like. Maybe you are naturally someone who enjoys the rhythm of the church and a life of prayer, or you’re naturally someone who people turn to with your problems. Nonetheless, when you actually become a priest, it’s really different. Because all of those aspects of you that are expressed in priesthood are floodlit by the dogcollar. And that can be the first and only thing that people notice about you. Also they make a lot of assumptions, only some of which are accurate.
Do you remember the first time you put on your clericals?
Yeah, I actually have a picture. Because you mail-order them, in whatever size, and they arrived a couple days before I was ordained. I tried them on, and I was in my little study at theological college, and I rolled my head back laughing. I remember it really clearly.
How do people engage with you when you’re wearing your clericals?
It varies hugely. When you first get ordained, one of the first things I noticed is how often people stop you on the street. People would say things like, “Are you really a lady vicar? Or have you come from a party?” To which I answered, “Both.” [laughs]
You have to forget about being in a hurry. I remember one lady stopping me to pour out all these really complicated, difficult things she was dealing with. Sometimes people want to pick a fight with you and tell you all about their views. I have had people try to engage me in their homophobia, because I am visibly Christian. Which was really offensive.
People often wonder, when the majority of the people who speak to you are not Christian or are not practicing Christians, whether it can be off-putting, and you can’t know. I would say that it’s highly visible. Even though most people in the world are good people who will talk to you if you’re upset, a priest is guaranteed to do it. So to me, it’s really important to dress distinctively. So that if you’ve never been introduced to me and you don’t know my name, you can still see that’s the person whose job it is to treat you with gentleness and help you if you need help.
What do you wear when you’re not wearing clericals?
Amazing things! My favorite shops are Toast and Zara and Jaeger and Cos. Cos is my favorite. I love Max Mara when I’m feeling very flush, and I like Whistles. And I always think I like Jigsaw, but I never end up buying anything.
I also knit, but the big thing I do when it’s my day off is I wear colors. Between about 18 and 32, I only wore black, red, and grey—those were the only colors I had in my wardrobe. It made dressing really easy, and I looked quite chic, but then, as I got closer to getting ordained, I thought “I’m going to be trapped” in black forever. So then I kind of went crazy and bought clothes in every color I could think of.
Depending on what you’re wearing, does it change the way you navigate spaces?
I am much more conscious of my physical presence and movements when I’m wearing vestments. I’m really conscious of being in role and how visible I am because I’m so distinctive and of moving in a way that’s ceremonial. There are, of course, particular movements, manual actions that go with saying the mass. The interesting thing about the vestments is that you don’t wear them except in church, so you don’t have a public persona in that attire. Because that is strictly for inside the church building, when you’re celebrating the mysteries. Clerical stuff I feel more conspicuous in than out of it. Sometimes on my day off, I slightly enjoy the anonymity that, if I put my feet on the seats, it’s not going to be held against every Christian everywhere (I don’t put my feet on the seats).
I’m aware of a certain kind of deference that people notice and then whether or not their reaction is positive or negative. When I’m out in public, I’m really aware of the need not to take up too much space and to occupy space as someone who has a calling to always be considerate to others. I can’t slop around. And that definitely affects the way you walk and talk and stand and interact with other people.
And do you think that is something that is consistent across all genders?
I think males in general are raised to experience themselves as people who are entitled to take up space. And females, perhaps less so. And I never got the gender memo. Physically and in terms of my personality and so in some ways, that’s difficult because people are happy with a man who projects certain kinds of authority and symbolizes certain kinds of things. I think, by and large, they are less comfortable with women who dress in a way that says, “I am a figure of a certain kind of authority.” I’ve never been a man, but I would guess that some of the issues are the same.
Do you feel like your gender is ever emphasized or that you have to suppress it in any way?
When I was first ordained, I struggled to feel distinctively female, so I felt neutered by it. As soon as I’m in this attire I have stepped outside of the normal signification of maleness and femaleness. I don’t know if you know this, but in old-fashioned English manners, clergy are neuter for the table setting. Where a table would be man woman man woman man woman, clergy can go anywhere. It’s actually massively liberating, even though I dress in a way that is quite distinctively female as a cleric (lots of female priests don’t). I think that’s why I find it hard to get dressed when I’m not in clericals. Because suddenly I have to start performing whatever version of those binaries is an accurate expression of myself.
Does this feel like a uniform to you?
It’s important to say that it’s not a uniform. In British schools, teachers will always say, “if you’re wearing a uniform, don’t try to make it not uniform. Just wear it as a uniform and save your expressions of individuality for outside.” Clericals aren’t quite that. In this sense, in that it’s not the case that you’re a priest when you’re wearing them and you’re not when you’re not. Unlike a supermarket clerk who takes off their uniform to fulfill a different role, you’re a priest 24h a day for the whole of the rest of your life.
On the other hand, it has some of the advantages that a uniform does: recognizability. The point is to project priestness, not to project Mel or personality. The really weird thing is that I’ve stopped missing those other markers of self because this seems to me to be an adequate marker of self now. I am astonished to hear myself say it, but it is one hundred percent true.
I’m interested in what you said about the clerks in the supermarket—are there any other professions for which you feel particular empathy?
I think it gives me empathy in two ways: one, quite straightforwardly, with people who have to wear a uniform to work. Do they have the joy of being able to identify with what they do strongly enough that it is a pleasure to them to always be visibly the thing they are? Or do they have a different relationship? It is possible to see it as depersonalizing. Sometimes it’s just practical. But you put on your work and you put off your work which priests don’t quite do.
The other way it gives you empathy is in being a visible public figure, so once people know you as the doctor or the policeman, people are still aware of who you are. People apologize when they swear in front of me (which they did not do before), even when I’m not wearing my clerical attire. I empathize with those who have roles with expectations they cannot escape.
Do you think that your role could be the same without all of the clericals and vestments?
No. Absolutely not. I do not come to work in Lincoln without clerical attire on. I do not go about on university business without clerical attire on. I am happy to be seen and known as this person. I can manage my persona through my clothes as long as I’m in clerical wear. As soon as I’m not, that persona is less easy to control. I would feel much more self-conscious. And I would worry that people wouldn’t ask me to do the things I am here to do.