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Florida's casual style proves popular at churches in summer

From the pure white of baptismal robes to the scarves that veiled female heads, garments worn for worship have for centuries been steeped in symbolism and tradition.

That's still the case today, of course. But during oppressive summers in Florida, you can see another trend emerging.

Formal dresses with stockings and suits, ties and long-sleeved shirts are giving way to more casual wear. Some people are coming to church in shorts and sandals, according to a decidedly unscientific survey of area churches.

Parishioners have a variety of viewpoints on the summer look. Religious leaders seem to be more interested in getting their flock to church rather than monitoring how they are dressed while there.

"I am the kind of person, I want you in church. I really don't care what you wear as long as you are there," said the Rev. Chris Thompson of St. Thomas' Episcopal Church at 1200 Snell Isle Blvd. NE. "We can't be a church without people."

A similar sentiment is shared by the Rev. John Gill of King of Peace Metropolitan Community Church at 3150 Fifth Ave. N, where many members dress informally. "One of the things we try to emphasize is not what you wear to church, but the spirit you bring to church to worship."

Gill added that many members of his church, which has a special outreach to the gay and lesbian community, found that with other religious traditions "dress was the focus of the worship experience rather than God. . . . At the same time, people felt unwelcome or less than someone else because they didn't have the money to dress as they did."

"We want people to come in and have a real spiritual experience rather than to be concerned that they aren't dressed appropriately," said the Rev. Joan Pinkston of the St. Petersburg Church of Religious Science, Center For Positive Living at 5200 29th Ave. N.

As for shorts, she said, it's certainly not disrespectful to wear them to church, since the church is just a building.

Traditionalists like Ogden Bower "O.B." Richardson, 74, and his wife, Mary, 71, disagree.

"I think that it is very important that a person dresses decently for church," said Mrs. Richardson, who worships with her husband at the Suncoast Cathedral Assembly of God at 2300 62nd Ave. N. The Richardsons, who have been married for 48 years, appear in coordinated outfits every Sunday.

"If I have on a pink dress, he wears a pink shirt," Mrs. Richardson said. "In the summer, he has a white suit and I have a white suit and we dress it up with different colors."

Added the Sunday school teacher, "I always wear a hat on Sundays. I feel that I am going to the King's house.

"I am totally against anyone wearing shorts to church," Mrs. Richardson said. "I think that it is totally sacrilegious."

The Rev. Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church, 1045 16th St. S, said there's a generational difference in the dress code.

"The young people are more casual," said Sykes, who added that most parishoners dress up for church. About thirty percent of the women wear hats, he said. "The older more traditional men believe you don't go to church without a suit."

As at Suncoast Cathedral, the dress at St. Thomas' ranges from formal to casual. The preferences are distinct at each of the three Sunday services, Father Thompson said. "What's interesting to me is that the 8 o'clock group is still a formal group. No shorts. They wear coats and ties. At 10 o'clock, there is more of a mixture. The 6 o'clock group is the sandals and shorts group. They come very relaxed and casual and just ready to enjoy the worship service. They have no constraints at all."

While the clergy might welcome churchgoers regardless of what they wear, they themselves are conformists. Certainly they make adjustments for warm temperatures by wearing lightweight liturgical vestments or summer weight suits and dresses. For the most part, however, they present a formal appearance to their congregations.

At First Presbyterian Church, 701 Beach Drive NE, ministers wear suits for the first service and black robes for the second, associate executive pastor Chris Curvin said.

Robes, he explained, originally were worn by monks and priests to keep them warm in drafty cathedrals. Today, Rev. Curvin said, they help the congregation "concentrate on what is being said, not what is being worn."

Pastor Gloria Fussell of Suncoast Cathedral, which draws its 1,500-member congregation primarily from Pinellas Park and central St. Petersburg, dresses casually for Wednesday night services, when she might choose a jeans-type dress.

Sundays are different. "I usually wear Sunday dress," said the minister in charge of the over-50 singles group. "As the lady pastor, I try to stay a little dressier. I guess it is just the feminine part of me."

And Pinkston, who was a real estate broker for 10 years, dresses as she did in her former profession. "I've continued to do that because that is me. I don't usually wear pantsuits or slacks on the platform. . . . There is a certain role and responsibility that comes with the profession."

Do lay people have a similar responsibility when they enter a house of worship?

There might be two answers to that question, according to Curvin. For the first, he referred to Annie Dillard, author of Teaching a Stone to Talk. She believes Christians have become too familiar with things that are holy.

"At the Christian holy sites in Israel, which are also the holy sites of other traditions, there are dress codes for those places. If you walk up to the Wailing Wall, you must wear the yarmulke as a sign of respect and reverence," Rev. Curvin said. "People often come to church to show their best to God, to show their best face."

Perhaps the danger of being too casual, he added, is that people can become overly casual about matters divine. On the other hand, their dress likely reflects their effort to approach God on a more personal level.

In the end, none of this might really matter. "Like it or not, God sees us as we are. All of us come to God in the same way," Rev. Curvin said. "The fanciest clothes or the most casual dress has nothing to do with one's relationship to God."