In my diocese there are no policies, no rubrics, no real guidelines on when and where a priest is to wear the clerical collar. The decision is informed by a troika of local custom (what your fellow priests do), common sense (church services but not church picnics), and personal preference. For a new priest, there is a trial-and-error feel to it; show up at a gathering as the only priest with, or without, a collar and you won’t make that same mistake again.
I wear the collar whenever and wherever the services or the mere presence of a priest might reasonably be required or desired: for all assemblies of the church for worship, prayer, study, and business; for home visits or hospital calls; for funerals or weddings of family members or friends outside the diocese and in other churches. After much prayer, discernment with my spiritual director, and reflection, I decided not to wear the collar when I teach each day in a public high school, nor even to ask the director of schools if I could. It is a legal gray area, though in the South there is probably more leeway granted for public expression of faith than in other regions of our country. My colleagues and administrators know that I am a priest and I often take a clerical shirt to school to change afterward for an afternoon hospital visit. It is my students that most concern me. I fear that the collar might distance me from the very ones that need a priest, or simply a caring teacher, the most – those on the margins, those with no real adult presence or guidance, those who feel isolated and alone. For them, I can best be a priest incognito. My white shirt and tie are better suited for this than a black shirt and clerical collar. I also don’t generally wear the collar when relaxing at home with my wife, though there is always a shirt pressed and ready in case of emergency call out.
But all this still leaves large segments of my life unaccounted for. As I write this, I am sitting outside at a local café early Saturday morning with a cup of coffee. Collar on? No, not today – not yet today; I haven’t decided about later, about after I mow and shower. Will I wear the collar to the mall this afternoon when I take my daughter to purchase contacts or to the bookstore this afternoon for an hour or two of reading and family conversation over cafes au lait? What will inform my decision?
Earlier this year I sat with my wife in the food court of an Orlando airport as my daughter and her male companion – I still can’t say boyfriend, though it’s true – browsed the shops awaiting his flight departure. Some Orthodox clerics passed by across the concourse, very distinctive and noticeable with long beards and black cassocks. There my wife and I sat, 600 miles from home, anonymous, in the company of hundreds of total strangers, and my heart leapt at the sight of these men. My people! These Orthodox priests, who would certainly consider me heterodox and perhaps even heretical, nevertheless brought me joy by their mere presence. Though our communions are separated by history and suspicion and practice and theology, their presence proclaimed their love for our common Lord, proclaimed that they are my people: one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Their presence reminded me that the Lord is risen and is on the loose in the world, not least in and through his Spirit-filled people. Their presence was silent proclamation of the Gospel. I am certain there were many other faithful disciples of Christ in the Orlando airport that evening, but they were anonymous and unknown to me. The cassock made the difference. In my shorts and sandals – I was on vacation, after all – I made no one’s heart leap with joy for the risen Lord. This will inform my decision about wearing the collar to the mall or the bookstore.
Yesterday afternoon – Thanks be to God it was Friday! – my wife and I were relaxing for a few minutes at Barnes and Noble. We had just come from school and I was still dressed in my “teacher uniform” of shirt and tie. I stood at the café counter awaiting our order, enjoying some friendly banter with the baristas when one of them said, “Do you mind if I ask you a question? I’ve seen you in here with a collar on. Are you some kind of pastor?” I explained to her that I was an Anglican priest, and was pretty surprised that she knew what an Anglican is. It seems her studies involve history and the history of religion, even though, as she acknowledged, she is not particularly religious. We had an interesting, though brief talk, before my order came and she left for the evening. (I had intended that discussion to be the topic of this post, but the writing went elsewhere, as it often does. I will return to it later.) But, I will see her again and often, and God only knows (truly) where this brief conversation might lead – all because of the collar. How many conversations have I missed by not wearing the collar in pubic, I wonder. The collar serves as an open and public invitation to strangers to strike up a conversation with me about important things, and I’ve seen it do this on several occasions. This will inform my decision about wearing the collar this afternoon.
When I was in discernment for the priesthood – and even before formal discernment had begun – my spiritual director asked me wonderfully probing questions. “Why do you feel a need for ordination? What can you do with a collar that you can’t do without one?” The answers are many and this is not the place to explore them. But I do realize now, even if I didn’t fully then, that a priest is called in a unique way to be a public witness to the presence of Christ, not just in the parish, but in the world. In a nominally Christian culture that is, in reality, increasingly secular or pagan, the simple wearing of a collar is a countercultural act of Gospel proclamation. With no words necessary, the collar nonetheless testifies to the mystery of faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. As a priest, I have this great opportunity; it is something I can do with the collar that I can’t do as easily without it. This will inform my decision about wearing the collar this afternoon.
But, I also live in the South and this is summer when the temperature and humidity both hover in the nineties. Who chose black for a clerical shirt? When the sun beats down and the sticky air makes it hard to breathe, a black clerical shirt and collar are miserable. And though I’m ashamed to say it, this uncomfortable physical reality will also inform my decision about wearing a collar this afternoon.
In my diocese there are no policies, no rubrics, no real guidelines on when and where a priest is to wear the clerical collar. It is a personal and private decision – certainly adiaphora – and I honor the various choices of my fellow priests. But it is a decision I hope to make theologically and vocationally and not haphazardly or thoughtlessly. As trivial as it may sometimes seem – Certainly there are more important issues, aren’t there? – it is not unimportant.