A few weeks ago I came into my office on what I thought would be a typical day. As I am apt to do, I began sorting through a flurry of blog posts that friends and fellow ministers were posting on Facebook and Twitter and I came across a posting from a Roman priest extolling the virtues of why he wears his Roman collar. (You can read the article here). I wrestled a bit with some of his sentiments (such as him deciding to put his collar on to walk into a coffee shop… which I get is a little problematic as I sit in The Roasterie writing this very blog wearing a collar), but for the most part I readily agreed with what he said, at least from a cognitive standpoint.
A few days later I was meeting a parishioner for coffee (in this very same coffee shop, I probably should buy stock) on Monday, my day off, because that was the only time he was available to meet. I had only met him once and I had completely forgotten what he looked like and I was reasonably sure that he’d forgotten what I looked like, so I decided to wear my collar so that he could identify me. I thought to myself “it’s not every Monday that someone walks in here dressed like an extra from a Nicki Minaj performance.” It worked. He identified me and we sat down and began our conversation.
At one point in the conversation, it got little awkward. He mentioned that priests wearing collars were off-putting because they placed the priest “over” the other people. He went on to talk about the ways in which the collar represents so much of what is negative in the Church.
While he spoke, I had an internal conversation with myself as I struggled not to respond defensively, but to respond pastorally by just listening. There are times in this vocation when the weight of the office becomes tangible. This was one of those times. When he finished expressing his sentiments about the collar, we moved on and continued our conversation.
I debated my decision to wear my collar the entire way home. For good or ill, the collar is a powerful symbol. But, as with all symbols, the meaning attached to them isn’t inherent; rather, meaning is made in community. Ask 100 priests and you will get 100 answers as to what the collar means. For some it’s a means of conveying authority and power. For others it’s a symbol of submission and service. Still for others it’s a symbol of set-apart-ness. When you add in the meanings stirred up by laity and non-Christians, you are left with a plethora of scattered meaning.
To me, wearing my Anglican collar is an amalgam of all of these reasons and more. It is a symbol of the office to which I have been called and duly ordained. Being young (27) and African-American, there is sometimes the need to physically embody the office of priest (that’s what vestments do). I’ve been told by several people (some jokingly and some very seriously) throughout my ordination process and ministry that they couldn’t call me “Father” because I’m young enough to be their son (or grandson in some instances). Wearing a collar in these situations may be necessary because it visually connects you to a ministry and a vocation that is far bigger than yourself, your age, or your race. While wearing the collar to convey the office to which I have been called is sometime necessary, it is even more necessary to have what my dear friend Father Joseph calls “the heart of the priest.” Power without heart is tyranny. Power with heart is compassion and world-changing.
The collar is also a symbol of my submission to God. One of my priest colleagues recently referred to the collar as “God’s dog collar and leash,” to which my rector and I responded with a hearty “Amen!” Wearing a collar is not comfortable, physically or otherwise. You are constantly reminded that you have submitted your will to a will that is far bigger than you are. You are constantly reminded that you are not your own, that as 1 Corinthians 6 says “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” But more importantly than looking submitted is living submitted. A submitted life speaks for itself. As Matthew’s Gospel tells us “you will know them by their fruits.”
The collar is also a powerful symbol of being “set apart.” Notice I said “set apart” not “set above.” A priest is not set above the community, but set apart from the community for holy use. Even that last part sounds awkward in this age of political correctness where too often unity is couched in conformity. As I recently told my Saturday congregation “There is no danger in difference. In fact, I believe there is divinity in difference.” I have to constantly remind myself that my collar, and my vocation, don’t make me a better Christian; rather, I have chosen to respond to my faith through a specific avenue, namely ordination.
The collar is all of these things, but at a foundation level, I wear my collar because it represents who I am – an often confused, misunderstood person who has been abused by life, but is still holding on the image of my best self as I strive to live into my calling and life a life that is pleasing to God. I wear my collar to because, through my life and ministry, I a seek to redeem a higher meaning for it even it it’s just for one person. I wear my collar because it represents me fully – striving to live a more excellent life. I feel all of that when I wear my collar… sometimes.
Other times I don’t wear it at all because I just want to drink coffee in solitude and peace. Even Jesus stepped away from the crowds.
Keep the faith, and make it colorful!