Jan 11: Why Do Priests Wear Skirts?
I thought it was a good question.
Religion. It's a world of mysterious symbolism, of stained glass windows and candles, bells and crosses, pews and pulpits. A world of holy water, magic wafers and wine chalices, ritual blessings, processions, ceremonies, contradictory interpretations and repetitive chanting of meaningless songs.
A passive, unresponsive audience, perched on rows of uncomfortable seats whilst men wearing robes and dog collars deliver sermons that rarely make sense yet can never be questioned. An audience listening to selective readings from a collection of short stories that were written by primitive, misguided people during the bronze and iron ages. An audience kneeling in glorification of the non-existent, worshipping the invisible and believing the unbelievable. Brain-washing their children and obsessed with blood sacrifice, virgin birth and the promise of post-mortem survival from a man they say walked on water two millennia ago.
The world of religion is a world that is in stark contrast with what goes on outside the church walls, away from the influence of priests. Because I was brought up to believe in god, religion was of course part of the world I grew up in. Yet when I was told that I was in god's house I could never see her there, nor did I ever sense her presence. Whilst many would bow to the cross on the altar or make the sign of the cross, I could never bring myself to do that. Even as a believer I had worked out that those symbolic acts had no meaning. I did not realise it then but I had one foot deeply inside religion and the other foot out.
One of the first times I went to church with my Mum, Dad and Sister was when I was about three years old. It was Christmas Day, the church was packed and it was the only time I ever saw my Dad inside a church. He was holding me up whilst the vicar proceeded up the aisle past us at the start of the service. I asked, in a voice that all around could hear, “Daddy, why is that man wearing a skirt?”
I thought it was a good question. Even at the age of three I knew that only women wore skirts. However, I never did get an answer. Neither did I get answers to the other questions that came to mind in the ensuing twenty years as a member of that church, because I was taught that religion was not to be questioned. The environment I was in was one of godly belief, reinforced by daily prayers at school and weekly RE classes. I remained a believer but my mind recognised the dual nature of the life I had been born into. The religious world and the real world. I just compartmented religious belief in one half of my brain and got on with my daily life with the other half, without seriously questioning the inherent incompatibilities.
I became a Church 'Sidesman'. I liked the church community and I enjoyed singing hymns but my mind became listless during the terminally irrelevant weekly sermons. It was during these mind-numbing endurance tests that I taught myself how to wiggle my ears. (I have no idea what those behind me thought about it). I began doubting the symbolism and the ceremony and I unsuccessfully tried to decode the incomprehensible words of some of the prayers and hymns. I began to wonder why the bible readings were so selective and why the gory bits about god-slaughter that I had read at home were never uttered in church. Why did my Dad and so many of my neighbours not go to church? Why could no-one ask questions at the end of the vicar's sermon? I asked myself why there were so many other religions and sub-religions with different beliefs. They couldn't all be right, could they? Above all, it became blindingly obvious that there was no-one answering prayers.
All these inconsistencies were floating around on the surface in the religious section of my brain which became closed off once I got outside the building, so it was several years before I was able to sort them out using my ever-increasing non-religious brain compartment. I left home and felt no need to find a new church. Over a period of several years I began to realise that religion was wrong. The biblical stories did not add up. My religious brain compartment slowly shrank as the answers to my questions began to be revealed. Religion was looking like magic, sounding like myth and beginning to smell very fishy.
There was no brain-shattering moment of definition. I did not suddenly lose my belief in a superman in the sky who sent his angels to look after me. It was a gradual process and my interest in astronomy helped tremendously. It was giving me an understanding of the Universe that was incompatible with religion. Space probes were being sent on missions across the Solar System and astronomers were seeing objects at incomprehensible distances. Galaxies were so big and the Universe was immeasurably old and vast. We could see almost back to the Big Bang - yet no-one had ever seen angels through a telescope or detected where heaven is in the sky. I learnt that everything that occurred was due to natural causes and that if 'Adam and Eve', 'Noah's Ark' and the 'Star of Bethlehem' tales were complete rubbish, then the rest of the Bible was not to be trusted either. Eventually I had to sort out the incompatibilities between the magic of religion and the realities of the world using my own reasoning powers. I realised that the religious 'half' of my brain had shrunk so much that it had disappeared without trace.
I should be angry about being misled by my Mother, brain-washed by the church and lied to by school teachers – but I'm not. Although I had wasted a lot of time on religion, membership of the church youth group had introduced me to some very lovely girlfriends and I had at least mastered how to wiggle my ears
Reality won in the end but to this day, I am still waiting for an answer to my innocent childhood question. Why do priests wear skirts? I still think it is a good question.