Called or Collared

A new and interesting development locally is a monthly inter-faith coffee morning. A few of us from different faith traditions go and have coffee together in a local cafe. No agenda. Very relaxed. It is a meeting which includes RC, Presbyterian and Episcopal Christians, the local Immam and someone from a Tibetan Buddhist centre. We are in touch with someone from the local synagogue too, but so far I’ve not met him.

This week was a particularly good meeting. Someone had invited two liaison officers from the local police force – two individuals who work on diversity issues including race, gender, religion etc. One of the most interesting things to come out of the conversation on Tuesday was that of five of us sitting around a table, three of us had had trouble in the streets which had to do with wearing particular clothing associated with religion. In my case, the number of times I’ve had aggressive comments about my collar has meant that I now remove it before walking home.

It does not feel comfortable to have to modify one’s dress in the street in order to avoid trouble, and the police were very keen to point out to all of us that hassling someone because of the way they are dressed is a crime and should be reported every time. It was the fact that this is something that we had in common across faith boundaries which struck me most.

I’m aware of some people who think that the right thing to do is to carry on wearing clerical dress proudly at all times and to take one’s place in the streetscape. In theory I agree with this. In practise, I slip off my collar before I get past one of the local pubs, where there have been drinkers out on the street late at night since the smoking ban came in.

What would you do and what would you have a priest do?


  1. I wear my collar all the time. I’m a priest, and if that offends folk, then tough. I’ve had more slagging from my congregation here than I’ve had on the streets in Dumbarton, but most of my ministry was in Glasgow, and I coped with the ocassional jibe.

    I think it’s part of our witness, as priests, and I’ve had many an opportunity to talk about “church” and the Gospel simply because I WAS wearing my collar.

    When I go to Ibrox or Parkhead, before entering the Thistle Section, I keep my scarf in my pocket to save the hassle. It would be a shame if priests started to feel they had to put their “scarves in their pockets” when walking about the communities they serve.

  2. Bearing in mind I don’t face such issues, let alone in Glasgow, myself…

    `wearing clerical dress proudly at all times’

    Yes in principle. That’s a good ideal to hold; I well remember the Cope of Glory photo too.

    `crime and should be reported every time’

    TBQH I don’t see that working at all. Either the police do nothing and you’re seen as a nuisance, or they do something and you alienate the community.

    `one of the local pubs’

    I would maximize potential for rational conversation. That sadly includes assessing others’ abilities (impaired by ethanol as may be) and likelihood of aggression leading to jam-on-the-streetscape versus ability to keep Peace.

    On balance, maybe wise to allow a few `off’ moments. That’s understandable in some kind of extremis.

  3. Muriel Draper says

    I am sure no-one (well not many anyway!!) would want you to risk being set upon and roughed up while walking past a pub late at night. The only safe thing to do is to remove your collar in such circumstances. It is not cowardly,merely sensible.

    Ivan, when dressed in a similar fashion – mainly in the daytime it has to be said – has been lucky and up until now has been addressed in a friendly but somewhat drunken manner as “Hello Father” (this is slurred and comes out as one word). They may then want to shake his hand.

    As far as I know he has never been asked for money – but I have and both these incidents took place outside the Cathedral on a Sunday and Thursday morning.

  4. The point is that a black suit and clerical collar is, in some minds, a uniform associated particularly with wretched crime against children.

    It is not a question for me of pride. It is a question of safety.

    For the record, I don’t ever visit any of the local hostelries wearing the Cope of Glory.

    (at least, I haven’t yet).

  5. Elizabeth says

    By all means, be safe! I agree that in theory it would be good to ‘wear clerical dress proudly at all times’, but I think common sense and safety are important and I doubt you have shortage of opportunity for useful dialogue where the risks are not so high.

  6. Clerical dress has, of course, changed a great deal over the years. The dog collar is relatively recent.

    I was struck by the dress of the priest in the opera that I saw the other night. This was France at the time of the Revolution. Rather fine black velvet clerical knickerbockers, I thought.

    However, I suspect that they would get me just as much [unwanted] attention from the regulars at the pub.

  7. David |daveed| says

    Since Liturgy & Worship in seminary, it has often struck me as a bit comical that what is but the remnant of a frilly undershirt and the fact that Jesuits adopted a Mandarin collar on their cassocks while working in China, is now the symbol of ecclesial office.

    After the Mexican Revolution, which was actually a civil class war, the backlash against the church brought about anti-clerical laws making it illegal for priests and religious to wear religious garb on the street. This has since changed in my lifetime.

    I say do what you need to do to be safe.

  8. ” … Rather fine black velvet clerical knickerbockers …….. I suspect that they would get me just as much [unwanted] attention from the regulars at the pub. “

    And indeed some might say also from some regulars in the Cathedral! I wouldn’t say that, of course, but some might.

    Hold on though, I’m just going to poke out my mind’s eye. Thanks for that image Kelvin!

  9. Growing up, I could always distinguish ministers from RC priests by the choice of black shirts with dog-collars, as opposed to the blue of ministers. Perhaps another colour could be used to distinguish episcopal priests (or does your black shoe rule extend to clerical shirts)? There is also the problem that, if clergy wear the collar, then they are obviously constantly “on-call” for spiritual problems even if they are en route to a pub or whatever. Safety first 🙂

  10. David |daveed| says

    Also, could someone kindly point me to the Cope of Glory? I assume it is an inside joke and I am curious.

  11. David, the Cope of Glory to which people refer is the gold and blue cope that goes with my job. I tend to wear it more on an evening than in the morning. I tend to wear it for weddings, wedding shows and when I’m out and about preaching elsewhere.

    There is a pic here which either shows me doing my first lesbian wedding, or walking on a catwalk with some gorgeous models. You must choose for yourself which explanation seems most plausible.

  12. Kelvin – It is most disappointing that you have ”had aggressive comments about my collar” on your walk home. It is a sad reflection of society that you recieved this reaction.

  13. I’m not sure that the churches have been entirely blameless institutions in society Stewart.

    There is no doubt that society has changed and that deference is dead. Although there may be times when I regret the lived reality of that, I would not turn the clock back.

    Respect now tends to be awarded more by merit and an ability to communicate a message than by social position. I think that this probably applies to other professions too.

  14. Is it perhaps the whole uniform which is associated with certain behaviours? Maybe it’s the “black crow”look – so what about keeping the collar but lightening the rest of the gear a bit? I’d say if you’re a priest you stay visible – if it’s only bad-mouthing then it can be ignored. Most women will have had to put up with this sort of thing in the same situations – plenty of men see women as an acceptable target for all sorts of nastiness. Again , if it’s only verbal abuse …

  15. agatha says

    Since lesbian weddings are neither legal nor permitted in church you must be with some catwalk models, despite the implausability!

  16. I agree that bad mouthing against anyone is horrible Chris and I’m aware that women are often on the receiving end of it.

    It isn’t quite the same as what I get. There are some differences though – such bad behaviour against women does not tend to be because they are presumed to be perpetrators of particular crimes.

    Victimising and threatening anyone in the street is unacceptable.

    With regards to lightening the look, I have been known to wear a black suit with a slight grey stripe. This seemed to be a terrible slipping of standards at the time and is as far as I’m ever likely to go.

    There is only one colour, as I think we have established on other posts in the past.

  17. “lesbian weddings are neither legal nor permitted in church” does not really convey the whole truth. It is certainly true that no legal ceremony can be held for same-sex couples in church, but that hardly exhausts the options.

    Ceremonies to bless gay couples and lesbian couples are most certainly allowed in certain circumstances in Episcopal churches in Scotland. What such ceremonies should most appropriately be called is a discussion that probably deserves a post on its own.

  18. Rosemary says

    I doubt it is worth getting beaten up over, but …

    There is, I think, very little point in wearing a clerical collar in circumstances where everybody already knows your rank and station in the clergy anyhow – which would seem to limit its usefulness to situations like hospital chaplaincy.

  19. I was going to avoid this thread since I simultaneously:
    think we should ware clergy shirts and hate wearing them.
    think clergy shirts should be black and hate endless black.

    but I have to take up Rosemary’s point.
    There are times when I will meet members of the congregation ‘out of uniform’. Usually if meeting them in a public place, but wanting privacy; or occasionally if working from home with a group of people I see a lot of, like the lay team.

    But when I (more often) wear clergy collar when meeting the congregation, it is not (often!) to assert rank and station, but to remind them and me that we are called to be more than we are. It is a reminder that when the church gathers, this is not just a group of friends meeting up, but a group of Christians trying to grow in Christ.

    So I wear the wretched collar most of the time. And cast it off recklessly if the temperature goes so high that I can’t bear it. How anyone survives ordained ministry in less temperate climates, I do not know.

  20. Rosemary says

    Um, with the greatest respect, and due sympathy for the aspiration, I really am not totally convinced that sight of a clergy collar makes me think that we are all called to be priests and kings to God.

    It is jolly useful if you are lying on a hospital bed wondering who to unburden your mind to, or if you are at a wedding where you only know half the guests and are trying to place the nice person with the freindly smile and the smart suit, or some such.

    IOW, I think it works fine where you need an identifying badge, or you need a badge of rank, some to that (‘Now listen up, and listen good, because I, me, have trained for dummany years, and have the authority of the church…’) and all of these things are truly necessary at times.

    It even works if you feel you WANT to attract public attention outside the pub or in the market. If that is your vocation, and it most definitely IS the vocation of some, then the collar is a good and useful thing.

    But, but, but, we are ALL called to be transformed, as all here know, not just some of us. And there is a huge danger in allowing anybody to think it is, perhaps, more the job of some than others.

  21. David |daveed| says

    How anyone survives ordained ministry in less temperate climates, I do not know.

    These shirts are popular.

  22. No, no, no, David. I stand by my point. But it’s good to know that some men’s clergy shirts are as bizarre as the women’s shirts they try to sell us.

    (does anything good come out of Almy?)

  23. Roddy says

    It’s not just the clergy that has problems. I am a TA officer (RAMC) and wear uniform which clearly identifies what I am in public. The supportive/critical ratio I experience is more towards the supportive. The critics usually tend to be the ignorant and loudmouthed who are easily ignored or dismissed. If I faced any physical threat I would not hesitate to call the police and I certainly would not stop wearing uniform. Mind you, walking to George Square on Remembrance Sunday in Service Dress with medals and sword in the company of 3 or 4 others similarly dressed tends to put lippy dickheads off…

    There are more people that benefit from seeing a person whose dress indicates their role than those who are critical. It will be a sad day when we cannot promote what we are and what we stand for (personal safety notwithstanding) because of the actions of a minority.

  24. I used to be an avid 24/6 wearer of the dog collar, Kelvin, but have only worn it two or three times in the context of the school this academic year – and always when we were having a significant number of guests. My thought is that everyone here in this pretty enclosed community knows who I am and what I am and so issues of identification and witness etc are not really relevant. In the end it’s all about context – and so is the issue of personal safety. But it always has to be black for me.

  25. agatha says

    I find this a strange blog – sometimes I wonder if it isn’t put together by Trinny & Susannah with its obsession with black!
    Didn’t someone quite famous once say that we weren’t supposed to worry about clothes and something about lilies?

  26. Moyra says

    For me the question of whether or not I wear my habit in public is also dictated by context and safety issues.

    I feel safer wearing my habit in the very diverse multi-cultural multi- faith environment in which I’m currently living than I did in the three years I lived in Glasgow. The nuances of which brand of Christianity I belong to matter little here, and what most people I’ve spoken to like is the fact they know I’m a person who takes my faith seriously, and will also respect their faith.

  27. Agatha, I have long wondered what Trinny and Susannah would do faced with the requirement of black clergy shirts.

    You are quite right that we are not to worry about what we wear. But I think we are allowed to laugh about it, and at ourselves in the midst of daily decisions.

  28. agatha says

    Sorry – the humour had passed me by….

  29. and of course, my last comment was a bit frivolous. There are many serious points being made here about discrimination, violence, and how and when it is worth taking a stand and when it is best to pass by quietly.

  30. Well, if you will wear a clerical collar…

  31. Off topic, but I just discovered that St.Mary’s was featured in the ship of fools “mystery worshipper” section, and received 9 out of 10 in arguably the most important criteria:

  32. agatha says

    “received 9 out of 10 in arguably the most important criteria”
    – shoe colour, presumably.

  33. I’m too distracted to comment on collars and shirt colour because I’m still stymied by the notion that Glasgow would rather have people boozing it up on the streets than smoking in the pubs…

    Well, almost too distracted. I say go for the collar and take the verbal abuse. (If it comes to physical, then call every cop in town.) For many years priests accepted unearned respect and honour. (In this corner of the world they got free movie tickets, in order to vet potentially offencive or immoral films, a practise my wife and I are trying to see restarted…not for morality’s sake, but because we’re dirt poor.) We still do, in many quarters, get better treatment than secular professionals. Overall, though, it’s our lot to be priests in a time when respect for the church is low. Sometimes the church deserves low respect, even if we don’t. Sucks to be us, but that’s the reality.

    Plus, I find that the collar has been a signal to people in trouble or pain. I’ve had more spontaneous counselling, prayers and genuine connection wearing it than I ever had with a naked neck. If it means getting a snide comment as I pass the pub or a suspicious look from parents with small children (really, people, we’re not ALL paedophiles and the ones who are don’t snatch children off the street in broad daylight in front of their parents) that’s a small price to pay.

    All of this is moot, of course, if the attacks are threatening and there’s a real chance of you getting a thrashing.

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