NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — The quaint term “Sunday best” is still in current use in this East African country to refer to the choice of attire worn to church. At church on Sundays — and at mosques at Friday prayer — a well-fitting dress, a well-pressed shirt or the hijab is common among worshippers.
But in practice, dressing up to attend worship has become controversial, with some religious leaders in the predominantly Christian country demanding their followers abide by dress codes as others campaign for more choice.
While some analysts say “freedom of dress” is critical, especially in keeping the youth on the pews, religious leaders and scholars explain that the highest kind of reverence is needed in places of worship, and that how people choose their clothes should represent their religious beliefs.
The Rev. Stephen Njure, a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Eldoret, in Kenya’s west, said attendees’ dress should reflect the “image and likeness of God.” The priest, a Catholic Church historian, said that dress is instead affected by competing loyalties, including husbands who determine what their wives wear and vice versa. But Njure said worshippers must be loyal to themselves and to the church.
There are also practical considerations, said Njure. “One needs to be properly dressed so that they are not a distraction to other worshippers who want to focus on their creator,” he said.
That includes the worship leader. Pastor Nyabuto Marube of the evangelical Christian Church of Christ in Kayole, a suburb east of Nairobi, said churches allowing people to come for worship wearing whatever they choose resulted in unwelcome amounts of exposed skin or transparent fabrics.
“Preachers and pastors go through a lot when preaching in front of congregations,” he said, explaining that intervention is necessary when worshippers in miniskirts sit carefree in the front pews. He would prefer that “people going to church chose decent dress similar to what they wear in offices.”
Some church leaders are boldly instructing parishioners in what to wear. In December, the Rev. Felix Ongaka, the priest-in-charge at St. Monica Catholic Church in Kitengela, a southern suburb of Nairobi, hoisted a conspicuous banner on a church wall with pictures showing forbidden attire. He justified his action, saying, “Faith and morals are intertwined.”
The banner told male parishioners to shun ragged jeans, shorts, sweatpants and sleeveless shirts. Female worshippers are required to arrive in dresses or skirts below the knee. Those in miniskirts, skirts or dresses with slits, transparent dresses or high-heeled shoes risk being sent away. Chains, bangles and certain hairstyles are also banned.
Kenya Methodist University, meanwhile, has banned miniskits and dresses with slits above the knee, among other offending attire. Male students are not allowed to wear dreadlocks, plait their hair or wear earrings.
Dress codes have come up as an issue with Muslims as well, after Kenya’s defense secretary, Aden Duale, said in December that Muslim women should wear the hijab in public as part of their culture.
“Anywhere the government requires the Muslims to sit during public holidays, we will respect the Islamic culture and we will make sure our girls wear hijab,” said Duale.
Abdullah Kheir, a senior lecturer in religion at several Kenyan universities, said the concerns about how to dress at worship services are a reaction to the encroachment of Western mores about sex, and especially homosexuality, which are raising eyebrows among Africans, Muslim and Christian.
“We do not feel comfortable with the Western culture,” said Kheir. “Nakedness — moving without covering the body as a human being — is the steppingstone to abominations and evils,” he said.
While some Kenyan millennials have argued that dress can be both fashionable and modest, clergy say that they won’t be intimidated by the threat of losing younger Kenyans who insist “it’s my dress, it’s my choice,” said Njure.
“That doesn’t mean your indecent dressing will not distract someone and become a barrier to those who want to be in communion with God,” he said.