Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The ‘Why’ of Wearing Clerical Attire

A Brother of the Order of Corpus Christi writes: “When I was in Cleveland, I was wearing my collar in the lobby of the Marriot where the national offices of the United Church of Christ are located.  A woman in the lobby had been crying very hard, and came up to me and asked me if I was a priest.  I told her that I was not Roman Catholic, but that I was a pastor.  She asked to sit down with me and she discussed an issue that had just occurred between her and her boyfriend.  After about 45 minutes, she seemed to be calmer and had by then formulated a plan of action.   All this came about in a room full of clergy.  I was the only one who was dressed like a pastor.  One person I was with said, ‘That’s why I don’t wear a collar.’  To which I responded, ‘That’s exactly why I do!’”

Recently, a Sister of the Order demurred in the wearing clerical attire at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ out of fear of ridicule and scorn from others.  I understand her reluctance from my own experience at General Synod several years ago, when a pastor attempted to tear the collar from my shirt angry, as he raged, with, “Something that is not part of our tradition.”  Unfortunately, this attitude and behavior is not exclusive to the United Church of Christ.   Similar incidents have been related from those in other Reformed and Lutheran traditions.

I adopted clerical attire at the beginning of my ministry as a daily practice because it identifies my vocation, and that I am engaged in some form of ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ.  In my early days serving in New England, I was referred to as “the Parson.”  In Colonial days, the New England Parson was one of the most visible men in the community, not only as a spiritual leader, but one who was involved in civic matters as well, often serving as Moderator of the Town Meeting, and his word carried considerable weight in matters of civil governance.  Hence, the phrase, “The Parson in the Person.”

The Person of the Parson has gone with history but the image and expectation remain.  In 45 years of ministry, I have been approached in medical facilities, airports, train and bus stations, on the streets, in restaurants, markets, retail malls, automobile service stations, the locations seem endless.  The people who have approached are of all ages and conditions, but with the same purpose – they are in need.  They seek help for their circumstances and the presence of the clerical collar holds out a promise of hope and concern.  

These approaches are sometimes inopportune, and frankly, occasionally annoying.  Nonetheless, I always respond because it is part of the responsibility of the office of Pastor to do so.  Sometimes I discover that I am involved in a circumstance that is beyond my ability, but more often that not, a short conversation, simple counsel, purchase of a meal, information regarding assistance, or a prayer is sufficient.

However, many clergy avoid clerical attire because they do not want the attention.  “I don’t have time to respond to people’s requests.”  “It puts a barrier between me and my people.”  I don’t’ want to be mistaken for a Roman Catholic priest.”  These are but a few of the poor excuses for not wearing clerical attire.  It is shameful when clergy are not willing to respond to strangers because they don’t want to be bothered.  Even worse, is the reluctance to recognized as a spiritual leader, a parson, pastor, or priest.  This reluctance evidences the long-growing attitude among clergy that ministry is a profession one seeks for personal reasons rather than a vocation to which one is called by God.

When I served in a working class, poor, rundown, crime ridden neighborhood in Philadelphia, I spent a considerable amount of time walking the streets, talking with neighbors, local merchants, police, social workers, youth and aged, drug dealers, ex convicts, prostitutes, and homeless.  My identity was obvious and many a time there was street counseling and pastoral care given and accepted from “The Father.”  The attire meant that something good and helpful had come their way, and that the spirit of God was real and in their midst with words of hope and possibility.    Some colleagues thought this a waste of time from the real work of running a church for “the good people.”  Others, however, offered a variety of support from their own time and the resources of their church.  My own congregation served in a number of small but significant ways out of their meager resources.

Our lives as Christians are replete with symbols, which remind and recall to our minds, hearts, and spirits the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  For clergy, one of the most primary reasons for the necessity of clerical attire is that it is a constant reminder of who we are, of whose we are, and what we are called to do.

I have, for the past 14 years, served as the spiritual leader and chief shepherd of the Order of Corpus Christi, first as Prior and now as Abbot (from “abba” meaning “father”).  It is my responsibility to be “Father in the faith” to the Sisters and Brothers of the Order.  It is a position of significant authority, tempered by the humbling discipline of a daily office of prayer, and the generosity and forbearance of the Brothers and Sisters.  The primary symbol of the Abbot is not the ring and pectoral cross of office, but the shepherd’s staff which is carried by the Abbot at all times of worship and ceremony.  It is a sign of my responsibility to take care of this community, to be humble before God, and to protect this flock of Christ from the evil of contention and discord, as well as the temptations of false doctrine and irregular practices.  The shepherd’s staff is a constant reminder to me that it is God’s Spirit who leads, in the right way, and that humble and faithful service is what is asked of each of us.

St Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”  (1 4:1)  This is the vocation of the ministry, to which we are called by Christ, to be shepherds of the flock.  It is therefore, necessary, that clergy wear the attire of the shepherd which reminds of our servanthood and our stewardship, and also keeps us humble before God, for without that humility we cannot faithfully serve Christ and his Church. 

Richard Hammond Price, OCC  ©July 2011

See http://www.orderofcoruschristi.org

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