Who are Men of the Cloth?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Today, when we hear the term "men of the cloth," it almost always refers to members of the clergy, who can be distinguished by the special clothing they wear all the time, or merely during the performance of church services. Actually, the origin of the term was not specific to priests; special clothing worn only for a job meant a worker was a man of the cloth and bore no especial reference to clergymen. Anyone who wore a uniform while working, like a chef’s coat, or a servant’s livery, could be described with this term through the 16th century.

Today, the term "men of the cloth" typically refers to members of the clergy.
Today, the term "men of the cloth" typically refers to members of the clergy.

In the 17th century, language changed, as it frequently does, to make the term "men of the cloth" apply exclusively to members of the clergy. No longer was a servant or a page with a uniform included. Further, the priesthood in general may be called "the cloth."

Catholic priests use the term "men of the cloth" most often, as there are no female priests.
Catholic priests use the term "men of the cloth" most often, as there are no female priests.

Some also reference the collar as an essential part of the men of the cloth uniform. In fact, several ministers who were also poets wrote about the collar. The 17th century poet, George Herbert, used the collar as a metaphor for the restrictive but also inspirational nature of the ministry. The poem, “The Collar” refers several times to the word suit. He queries that even if he escaped the priesthood, “Shall I be still in suit?” Later in the poem Herbert states: “He that forbears / To suit and serve his need, / Deserves his load.” The collar and all clothing associated with the ministry becomes the symbol of service, which at once restricts and restores with the ending lines of Herbert’s poem:

Leading prayer services is one responsibility of men of the cloth.
Leading prayer services is one responsibility of men of the cloth.

But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde,
At every word,
Me thoughts I heard one calling, Childe:
And I reply’d, My Lord.

Clearly, the collar at first antagonizes and then suits this man of the cloth. It’s likely Herbert would have described himself as one of the men of the cloth since he lived in the 17th century, when such usage became common.

Today you may still hear the term, but it is fast becoming an archaism. Most often, Catholic priests use it since no female priests exist.

One must be male and unmarried to become a  priest.
One must be male and unmarried to become a priest.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

Othilia

I think all such terms should disappear into the annals of history. Women too are now priests, and it is time for this archaic term to make the way of others- like fireman, policeman, and repairman.

Women have fought very hard over many generations for the right to hold positions once only held by men. I think any term or reference that contains the word *man* should be done away with.

bmuse

My very Catholic grandmother used to tell everyone that my uncle, her son, was a man of the cloth. She said it so proudly.

The truth was that he sold big and tall men's clothing. She figured she'd found a way to impress all her friends without actually lying!

Hannah77

I know many terms come and go, but in our family we still refer to priests and other clergy as men of the cloth.

I can understand how the term may fall into obscurity with the rise in women priests, since it specifically refers to men's clothing, but we still use it.

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