A Missive on Clericals

A reflection from a few years back on clerical collars:

In my time as Pastor of this congregation, the members of Saint John have learned that I almost always wear a clerical collar - I can even sometimes make through the grocery store unrecognized if I am not in a collar. Yet within our community of Brenham, the use of clericals varies widely among the town's clergy. The origins of the collar are pretty uninteresting and banal - it largely is a product of men's fashion, and was simply the collar used by most educated men at one point. As to the black shirt; in an age before chemical dyes, black was the most expensive color to produce, and was reserved for the educated professions: professors, lawyers, and clergy (it is no accident that the two slowest institutions to adopt change - the church and the courts - retain the black attire).

Certainly the origins of the clerical collar are fairly uninteresting - but far more important is the historical significance of the collar, and how that can be understood today. Let me run down, briefly, what I think is the significance of clerics dressed in ... clerics.

  1. The collar connects today's clergy to the "great cloud of witnesses" who have come before us and to the church catholic. Ordained persons do not serve for their own personal gain, nor ultimately do they serve only for the good of the local congregation. Rather, persons are ordained for the sake of the Church. The collar serves as a reminder of that responsibility, and also of how that affects authority ...
  2. The collar points to the authority of the office. The authority of clergy is not a personal authority - that is, it is not a result of who they are or anything they have done. Instead, any authority granted to a pastor/priest is because of the office, not the person. In an age when it seems that many churches are driven by the personal authority of a charismatic pastor, the collar serves to remind both clergy and others that the authority of the office is much more important.
  3. The collar is a symbol for the faithful. To members of the church, the collar helps mark the clergy as being set apart for the function of administering the sacraments and preaching the word. Certainly we all know who our pastor is, but this visual distinction helps to remind us of the function and role of our selected and called leaders. It also helps us to identify those from outside of our congregation who serve the same function.
  4. The collar is a symbol for the world. Wearing the collar in public can be an interesting exercise for new clergy. You very quickly learn that, whether you intend it or not, when wearing the collar you represent the church to the world. Of course, this may mean that there are certain things that it may not be appropriate for you to do in public - but it also gives to the world a witness and a reminder of the church. Further, it makes it easier for persons to come to you with a need - because you are easily identifiable as a person who can help.
In short, think of the clerical collar as a uniform. If you were in need of help, would you be more likely to approach the police officer in uniform, or the plain clothes cop? So too with clericals. Both to the faithful and to the world, the collar serves as a symbol of our office and function - and also of the presence of the church in and among the world.