One of the big debates in theological college that faculty and students liked to rehearse was “clergy dress”. I don’t want to rake up the pros and cons now, exactly, but I just want to offer some observations that I have made since wearing one “full time”, as it were. I have to say that I’ve never had a problem with clerical dress myself, so I’ve not really had to struggle with wearing my collar. But nonetheless, my eyes have been opened to a whole new world, which I’m going to try to explain now:
So the collar is:
I realised quite soon into this new phase of my ministry that I would have to get used to wearing a collar not just around the parish, but also if I had to pop into a shop or supermarket or bank etc. So, I decided to wear my collar when I had to go and get a few bits. I went into three shops: Home Bargains, Argos, and Pets at Home. On my journey to and from each shop (and inside it), there were some who stared at me as if I had just fallen out the sky. I’m assuming that the reason was because of my collar rather than anything else! It was up to me to decide on how to react when I caught someone in the act. My response was to give a good smile, say hello and that I hope they’d have a nice day. It worked a treat. So much so that whilst I was paying for my various items at the till, a conversation was initiated every time; not by me, but by the cashier, with other customers listening in and contributing. What a blessing to be able to be so open about your faith in the public sphere and for all the enquiring to come from others rather than worrying about how to evangelise!
Not literally, but certainly metaphorically. Over the last few weeks I’ve really noticed a rise in people coming to me in a place of openness and transparency; to listen, encourage, reassure and to pray with. The collar emphasises to clergy the privilege and blessing of the weight of office and role in parish but also in the community. It is a weight which we need to be sure is backed up by lots of personal prayer and support from mentors, friends and family. And whilst this weight is too much to bear on occasion, which drives us to that place of prayer and communion with Jesus, nevertheless it is sharing in the ministry of Jesus.
I have heard stories of clergy who think that because they have a dog collar on, they can go anywhere, anytime, no questions asked. My wife, who is a registered nurse, often remarked at how she had witnessed clergy with this type of attitude coming onto a ward in the hospital. This clearly is not a good thing! However, when used properly (and not abused) the clerical collar has been a wonderful passport to gain entrance into some amazing missional, evangelistic and pastoral opportunities. Only this morning was I in a school being introduced to the children at assembly. I came out invited to their end of year play. I’m really looking forward to building friendships over the next few years. My first assembly is booked in September when the children return. I’ve been invited to community events, to serve on charity boards and invited by strangers into their lives on a regular basis, on top of the stereotypical parish work such as baptisms, weddings ,funerals and visiting.
A point of conversation
I’ve been used to working in churches for quite a few years now, but not with a collar on. I’m very familiar with the fact that people who aren’t used to church (and by extension talking to vicars) can be uncomfortable and lost for words. Yet, in conversation, I can often use my collar (in conjunction with other things) to create conversation. So, for example, I wore a blue clergy shirt with collar the other day. Someone asked me why I was wearing blue and not black, which I explained and also said I was still getting used to the collar. “Why are you still getting used to it?” – “Because I have only been a vicar for a very short time!” – “So how did you come to be a vicar then?” – and there we have it. Another opportunity.
We still live in the wake of Christendom, and the majority of people, certainly in this country, expect vicars and ministers to look a certain way. The collar is part of it. It’s not a bad thing to live up to people’s expectations sometimes, and I think wearing the collar is one of them. It can make people uncomfortable, but it can also make people at ease. I think it’s more about the face above the collar than the collar itself! But there are practical things that I am working out as I get to grips with the collar. For one, I will not wear a black clergy shirt when I do schools work. I’m tall and a man, and wearing black only adds to my scariness. However I will always wear black for very official services, funerals and associated visits. Common sense really…
This is linked to my first point, I suppose. But I thought it should warrant a specific description. The collar shows the world that Christianity is alive, people still believe, and that they’re present in society, doing the same sorts of things as them, and ever there to give an account for the hope that they have. Therefore, we are a flare of light in the world – people see a collar and immediately, they know that the Church is still alive, still kicking, even if we have a lot of work to do on ourselves!
These are just some thoughts off the top of my head about the clergy collar. I may have a rose tinted view of it as I’m so new and fresh faced in ordained ministry. There have been times, even in this short period, where I wish I hadn’t worn my collar, and I will almost certainly add to my little rules as time goes on about appropriate and inappropriate times to wear one. But on the whole, I see this piece of plastic as a very good thing to engage people, to be open to conversation and ultimately, to introduce people to Jesus… hopefully with a smile!