On the night of November 2, 2019, a fashion show was held in the Holy Trinity Cathedral in the capital of Trinidad, Port of Spain. However, when light clothing models turned the aisles of the church into a catwalk, which began as an initiative to raise funds to repair the nearly 200-year-old premises that was damaged by the 2018 earthquake, it ended with heated discussions about respect and respectability policies.
Churches and fashion may be less opposed than they seem. Like most Caribbean countries, Trinidad and Tobago is very religious, and churches often act as congregational places in the community to carry out various activities that go beyond traditional religious services.
For example, in 2018 the carnival band K2K Alliance and Partners produced a visually stunning portrait called “Through dirty windows.” The launch of the presentation of the band was in the Anglican church Todos los Santos, a small chapel that surrounds the main green space of the city, and had tremendous success. A portion of the proceeds went to restore the church.
It seemed a good model to raise funds: reform a beautiful public space for a good cause, attract an audience that can pay for the performance and allocate the proceeds to preserve the architectural integrity of the church. There was only one problem: church officials who approved the parade did not foresee that the organizers would approve the costumes and swimsuits that were shown.
In a statement published on the cathedral's Facebook page, Anglican Bishop Claude Berkley apologized for the “misuse of a space consecrated in the Holy Trinity Cathedral, in a recent fashion show”:
The depiction of scantily clad models parading along the aisle of the Church offended individual and collective sensibilities locally and internationally. (…) Such a parade is completely out of order, inappropriate and it is strongly condemned. Our church has hosted fashion shows in the past and we have never come to this sad deterioration of respect and modesty. I am reliably informed that firm guidelines were in effect with the primary organizer, but that there was a deviation from the agreed guidelines. At the first sight of this deviation, the show should have been shut down. (…)
Even though the church might promote the positive aspects of the culture in which it witnesses, due care must be taken to ensure that participants do not cross the line into negativity and impropriety.
The representation of light models of clothes that paraded down the corridor of the church offended individual and collective sensibilities, locally and internationally. (…) Such a parade is completely out of place, it is inappropriate and we strongly condemn it. Our church has carried out fashion-related activities and we have never reached this sad deterioration of respect and decency. I am informed by reliable sources that there were firm guidelines with the main organizer, but there was a departure from the agreed guidelines. At the first sign of this departure, the parade was canceled. (…)
Although the Church can promote the positive aspects of culture (…) care must be taken to ensure that participants do not cross the line to negativity and indecency.
The parade spokesman praised the Anglican Church for its progressivism and rebuked critics, and suggested that those who were offended were “hypersensitive.” For his part, Christopher Nathan, creator of Style Week, quickly apologized and explained that, while respecting the need for artistic freedom, revealing attire had to be adjusted or omitted, taking into account the place of the parade.
Although many social media users were outraged by what they considered inappropriate and disrespectful, the discussion revolved around other issues.
He spent a lot of time assigning blame – first, to the designer, who for some sought “impact value”, then to the church itself for granting the authorization; for others, the media were complicit in publishing the images on all covers.
Terms such as “horror”, “blasphemy” and “end of days” were spread, which caused some social media users to raise the problem of pedophilia (in the Catholic Church) and that this fashion show “paled in comparison “
On Facebook, user Jude Persad suggested that the show was a comment on the wide culture of the carnival:
If they could jump carnival almost naked and go for ashes they could walk practically naked in the church.
If they could jump to the carnival almost naked and go for ash, they would walk practically naked in the church.
The annual celebrations of the Trinidad and Tobago carnival – a colorful holiday full of almost non-existent clothing – takes place the two days before Ash Wednesday, which indicates the beginning of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, Christians, of whom many would have participated in the national festival, go to Mass to receive ashes.
Before the statements of Bishop Berkley, some online commentators pointed out the differences between the Anglican and Catholic churches by way of explanation:
‘The Catholic Church acknowledges the presence of Christ at the altar while the Anglican Church doesn’t. Therefore the Anglican Church wouldn’t have an issue hosting a fashion show in the actual church building. There are actually a series of secular concerts in an Anglican Church in the UK (the home of the Church) this Christmas. ’(Original source of quotation unclear.)
The Catholic Church recognizes the presence of Christ on an altar, but it is not so in the Anglican Church. Therefore, it would not be a problem for the Anglican Church to organize a fashion show in a church. There will be various lay concerts in an Anglican faith church in the United Kingdom (home of this Church) this Christmas. (The original source of this quotation is not clear.)
It is interesting to note that Clifford Rawlins, minister of the Pentecostal faith, said on Facebook:
Christianity in T&T is influenced by Hinduism and Islam and many a time the value systems of all three religions crossthread and the generally ignorant and undiscerning public can hardly make out any differences and often assume that all religions preach the same things about dress and morals etc. (…) As the Guardian newspaper article quoted the fashion house in question, no one need be ashamed of the human body which is created in the image of God. Our ideas from Islam and Hinduism are that it should be covered up to prevent the ‘sin’ of lust and the all-dreaded sexual activity, and that it is a thing to be ashamed of, stemming too from Jewish thought. If people can wear swimsuits at the beach and, the whole Earth is the Lord's where nothing is hidden from him, then why not in a human-made church building used for a secular purpose? (…)
We ought not look at one through the eyes and lenses of another (…) things can become too confused in the crossthreading of value systems and many get lost in the all too ready hurl of social media obsecrations and deprecations.
Christianity in Trinidad and Tobago has influences from Hinduism and Islam, and many times, the value systems of the three religions intersect and the public, usually ignorant and without critical sense, can barely differentiate and usually assume that all religions preach the same about clothes and morals, etc. (…) As the Guardian article quoted the fashion house in question, no one should be ashamed of the human body, which was created in the image of God. Our ideas of Islam and Hinduism are that it must be covered (to the body) to avoid the “sin” of lust and undesirable sexual activity, and that it is something to be ashamed of, it also derives from Jewish thought. If people can wear swimsuits on the beach, and if the whole Earth belongs to the Lord and nothing is hidden, why not use the human construction of a church for lay purposes? (…)
We should not look at one with the eyes of another (…). Things can get very confused when crossing the value systems and many can get lost in the launch of pleas and pleas of social media.
As soon as the media took Rawlins's interpretation of the controversy, the Presbyterian Church of Trinidad and Tobago issued a statement in which it distanced itself from its comments:
The said ‘Reverend Rawlins’ is not a PCTT Minister and has no authority to speak on the PCTT’s behalf. (…)
The PCTT respects the sanctity of places of worship.
The aforementioned “Reverend Rawlins” is not a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Trinidad and Tobago and has no authority to speak on behalf of the Presbyterian Church of Trinidad and Tobago. (…)
The Presbyterian Church of Trinidad and Tobago respects the sanctity of places of worship.
However, apart from the religious discussion, the incident has raised questions about the idea of public spaces, how they should be adapted for different purposes and how that flexibility should be managed.