Several months ago I bumped into a member of St. John's, the parish I serve, in a grocery store. I gave her a hug and she said, "I don't think I've ever seen you without a clerical collar."
That's one reason for not wearing clerical garb--the black shirt and wide, circular band of white collar--you don't have to...people see you in it anyway. The truth is I haven't worn a collar for five or six years now but there was no way I could convince that devoted member of the parish. "You wear one every Sunday," she said. And I believed that's what she saw every Sunday.
I didn't stop all at once. It was more like attrition. I lost all my collar buttons at some point and being naturally abscent minded, forgot to order more. Collar buttons come in several styles--most of which don't work. I always used the ones that went through the little holes in the black shirt and opened like a toggle switch to hold the collar in place. All the other styles--in my experience--find a way to edge through the hole in the shirt on the front or back or slip out of the "Clericool" collar. That's what the kind of collar I wore was called, believe it or not, since it was made of some material that doesn't exist in nature and probably never decomposes and had little holes in it to circulate air next to your skin. I kept wearing collars after I lost all my buttons by attaching them to my shirt with small paper clips, bobby pins or twist ties I'd take from loaves of bread. The twist ties worked best, but like they do when holding bread wrappers shut, they tended to get twisted the wrong way and I'd have to seek help getting them undone.
So, a second reason not to wear a collar is how hard it is to keep up with the buttons. When dropped on the floor they were designed to be invisible until you stepped on them with your bare feet, bruising the soles of your feet and making you walk funny for a day or two. I once was holding the button I was going to attach to the back--you have to attach the front one first unless you wear a collar 4 or 5 inches too large...which some priests do, I've noticed--and swallowed it by accident. Well, it was like an accident--certainly not on purpose--I laughed at something when I had it in my mouth and down it went. Since collar buttons are not cheap, I watched for it for a few days but decided that was sick. I hope it came out and isn't discovered in my next colonoscopy. That would be really embarrassing, it seems to me.
Finally, one of the twist ties I was using broke the hole in the collar because I had worn all the paper off it and the twist tie was like a scalpel at that point. That was my last collar and since I hadn't gotten around to ordering buttons I was equally negligent in ordering collars. After that I wore black shirts without collars for a while, pretending I had on a collar, but people would say, "did you forget your collar?" a lot and I got tired of making up humorous responses.
I could, I suppose, have worn those clergy shirts that have what's called a "Roman collar" or a "tab collar"--a little piece of plastic that looks like a tongue depressor--but I've noticed most priests who wear those carry the tab in their chest pocket, like a fountain pen, rather than wearing it. The collars I always wore are called "Anglican collars" and I really didn't want to be mistaken for a Roman Catholic priest. It was bad enough being mistaken for an Episcopal priest.
Another reason for not wearing a collar is that it is a 'fun stopper'. You can walk into a really great bar at Friday happy hour in a collar and practically close the place down. Everyone is suddenly siezed by childhood infused guilt, stops cursing, takes their hands off people they aren't married to and decides they've had enough to drink. I was once at a picnic on a hot August day and an acquaintence of mine who is also an Episcopal priest, showed up in a summer weight black suit and a collar. I said to him, "did you have a funeral this morning?" He seemed confused and went on to tell me he and his family were going horseback riding after the picnic. I'd never ride a horse with someone in a collar and I really didn't enjoy the picnic with him slinking around looking clerical.
I only rode an airplane once in a collar. Airplanes and collars do not mix since whoever you are sitting with either wants to confess sins you don't want to hear or turns out to be a religious nut. A friend of mine who I suspects has PJ's with a collar on them told me that he flew from LA to Chicago in his collar and had a sensible conversation with the stranger beside him until they were landing at O'Hare. Then the man said, "what do you Do?" My friend looked down at his black shirt and felt to make sure he still had on his collar (the buttons could have slipped out over Idaho and disappeared on the floor of the plane, after all). "I'm a priest," my friend said. The man replied, "oh, I know what you Are. I want to know what you Do...."
I've used that story in several sermons at ordination services. I use it to tell the person being ordained that 'being a priest' is more about 'being' than 'doing' and you don't need a uniform.
Just last week I told the wife of a priest that I didn't own any clericals. She was somewhere between shocked and outraged. "But don't you ever want to 'be in uniform'?" she asked. I probably said I preferred being a 'plain clothes' priest, sort of an ecclesiastical detective. And the truth is, I've never much liked uniforms of any kind. People in uniform are proclaiming that they 'do' something--direct traffic, drive buses, conduct trains, fight wars, put out fires, etc. Uniforms are designed to separate out the people wearing them from everybody else. They announce for all the world to know, "I am DOING something here--give me room to do it". A priest, unless a religious service is going on--and we have these really hot 'uniforms' for those--isn't 'doing' much of anything that needs space and room to perform. So, no, I don't want to be in uniform.
Back when I was 'in uniform' I noticed that I could wander around hospitals with great impunity. I once found myself one door away from an operating theatre in what was surely a sterile area because I was lost and not one of the dozen hospital employees I'd passed since breaking through into a place I shouldn't have been had called me to account about why I didn't have on a mask and gloves and those neat little booties people wear in such places. That's really nuts, to have a guy soaked in germs wandering free in a supposedly germ free space because he had on a collar. I don't like the deference people give me when I'm 'in uniform'. I AM, after all, a priest and can inform anyone of that if they ask. But wearing the uniform forms a shield of invulnerability and provides a cloak of invisibility to a priest that I'm not sure is a good idea, especially not a step away from open heart surgery, or most anything.
(This next paragraph contains graphic language that most people thing people who wear...or could wear...collars should never write. I didn't say them, but I will write them. The faint of heart should scroll down quickly lest they be offended....)
I was coming back from lunch at a downtown restaurant a few years ago with a priest friend. He was in clericals and I had on jeans and a second-hand sports coat. I noticed how people separated to let us pass--good people, bad people, people of all shapes and sizes and colors...all except the little old Italian ladies who wanted to kiss his hand. (Not having strangers kiss my hand is another reason I don't wear a collar!) Then we met up with this crazy guy who I knew who always asked me for money. He knew I was a priest in my tee-shirt and said, drugged half-out of his mind, "Fa-der, give me two dol-lers." I said 'no', quietly and firmly and kept walking. Then he started yelling at me: "Fa-der, ya are a muther-fucker! Fad-er, Ya don't care if I go ta hell...." And kept yelling it louder and louder. I stepped a step or two away from my friend and all the people on the street looked at him like he was spitting on the cross for not helping that poor man. One of the little old Italian ladies screwed up her courage and said to my friend, "you're shameful..." I just walked along, smiling, out of uniform.
Finally, I am so liberated by not wearing a collar because of my neck. Or, more accurately, my 'no neck'. I am a man whose head rests on his shoulders. If I look up, you can see my neck, but it is really a 'no neck'. Clerical collars were designed for people with long, gazelle-like necks. They look fabulous on people with real necks. Angelina Jolee would look great in a collar. In fact she would look very seductive in clericals....Well, let's don't go there. Suffice it to say, collars were made for men and women with necks. They look like a kind of necklace on some people. On me, a collar looks like a hangman's noose and is about that comfortable.
A dear priest friend of mine had spent all morning laboriously boning the Thanksgiving turkey and was planning to come home after he did a noon Eucharist and stuff it in an elaborate way. As luck would have it, he was distracted and didn't get home until 3, after his wife had returned from work. He looked in the refrigerator and found his fully boned turkey (a feat of no mean merit!) gone. When he asked his wife where it was she told him something terrible had happened and the turkey had collapsed so she threw it out. My friend was so distraught (being naturally prone to histrionics) he began, in the good old Old Testament way, to 'rend his clothing'. He tore most all his clothes into shreds, his wife told me later, but his collar wouldn't come undone. He must have had toggle switch buttons or twist ties holding it on. So she left him writhing on the kitchen floor, choking himself with his Anglican collar.
That's a final reason not to wear one--it ruins such dramatics....
There really is no moral to this story. I wore collars faithfully for over 25 years, in spite of the discomfort and how no one really 'looks' at you on the street and how collars make some people nervous and brings out the neurosis in normal folks on airplanes. It was simply fortunate for me that I swallowed that collar button (this is the first time I've revealed that event, by the way) and cut my last collar with a twist tie. I just never got around to ordering new ones and everyone who knows me knows I'm a priest and I am perfectly happy that those who don't know me don't know that about me. And I'm lots more comfortable. Besides, I don't think the woman in the super market is the only one who sees it when it's not there!
(Just so you don't believe I am ultimately frivolous about this, two stories.
Years ago I was at a meeting with a bishop from Africa who came from a nation where Christians were being horribly persecuted. When some asked, "Bishop, what can we give you to help?" he thought a moment and said, "clerical collars so that when the people are being dragged away to prison and torture they can see their priests are being dragged away as well...."
Back after 9/11, I went several times with a group from St. John's to Ground Zero to work at St. Paul's church, serving food, praying with rescue workers, just listening to people. We clergy were asked to wear collars so people could recognize that we were there for more than giving them lunch and a bottle of water. In that case I was humbled to wear a collar.
Should such needs arise, I would put a collar on even if I had to use duct tape to hold it on....)
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