Wearing the Collar

By |2018-07-10T13:36:45+00:00October 23rd, 2015|Categories: Anglican Leadership|Tags: , , , |7 Comments

firstblessingsBannerIn my diocese there are no policies, no rubrics, no real guidelines on when and where a priest is to wear the clerical collar.  The decision is informed by a troika of local custom (what your fellow priests do), common sense (church services but not church picnics), and personal preference.  For a  new priest, there is a trial-and-error feel to it; show up at a gathering as the only priest with, or without, a collar and you won’t make that same mistake again.

I wear the collar whenever and wherever the services or the mere presence of a priest might reasonably be required or desired:  for all assemblies of the church for worship, prayer, study, and business; for home visits or hospital calls; for funerals or weddings of family members or friends outside the diocese and in other churches.  After much prayer, discernment with my spiritual director, and reflection, I decided not to wear the collar when I teach each day in a public high school, nor even to ask the director of schools if I could.  It is a legal gray area, though in the South there is probably more leeway granted for public expression of faith than in other regions of our country.  My colleagues and administrators know that I am a priest and I often take a clerical shirt to school to change afterward for an afternoon hospital visit.  It is my students that most concern me.  I fear that the collar might distance me from the very ones that need a priest, or simply a caring teacher, the most – those on the margins, those with no real adult presence or guidance, those who feel isolated and alone.  For them, I can best be a priest incognito.  My white shirt and tie are better suited for this than a black shirt and clerical collar.  I also don’t generally wear the collar when relaxing at home with my wife, though there is always a shirt pressed and ready in case of emergency call out.


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But all this still leaves large segments of my life unaccounted for.  As I write this, I am sitting outside at a local café early Saturday morning with a cup of coffee.  Collar on?  No, not today – not yet today; I haven’t decided about later, about after I mow and shower.  Will I wear the collar to the mall this afternoon when I take my daughter to purchase contacts or to the bookstore this afternoon for an hour or two of reading and family conversation over cafes au lait?  What will inform my decision?

Earlier this year I sat with my wife in the food court of an Orlando airport as my daughter and her male companion – I still can’t say boyfriend, though it’s true – browsed the shops awaiting his flight departure.  Some Orthodox clerics passed by across the concourse, very distinctive and noticeable with long beards and black cassocks.  There my wife and I sat, 600 miles from home, anonymous, in the company of hundreds of total strangers, and my heart leapt at the sight of these men.  My people!  These Orthodox priests, who would certainly consider me heterodox and perhaps even heretical, nevertheless brought me joy by their mere presence.  Though our communions are separated by history and suspicion and practice and theology, their presence proclaimed their love for our common Lord, proclaimed that they are my people:  one Lord, one faith, one baptism.  Their presence reminded me that the Lord is risen and is on the loose in the world, not least in and through his Spirit-filled people.  Their presence was silent proclamation of the Gospel.  I am certain there were many other faithful disciples of Christ in the Orlando airport that evening, but they were anonymous and unknown to me.  The cassock made the difference.  In my shorts and sandals – I was on vacation, after all – I made no one’s heart leap with joy for the risen Lord.  This will inform my decision about wearing the collar to the mall or the bookstore.

Yesterday afternoon – Thanks be to God it was Friday! – my wife and I were relaxing for a few minutes at Barnes and Noble.  We had just come from school and I was still dressed in my “teacher uniform” of shirt and tie.  I stood at the café counter awaiting our order, enjoying some friendly banter with the baristas when one of them said, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?  I’ve seen you in here with a collar on.  Are you some kind of pastor?”  I explained to her that I was an Anglican priest, and was pretty surprised that she knew what an Anglican is.  It seems her studies involve history and the history of religion, even though, as she acknowledged, she is not particularly religious.  We had an interesting, though brief talk, before my order came and she left for the evening.  (I had intended that discussion to be the topic of this post, but the writing went elsewhere, as it often does.  I will return to it later.)  But, I will see her again and often, and God only knows (truly) where this brief conversation might lead – all because of the collar.  How many conversations have I missed by not wearing the collar in pubic, I wonder.  The collar serves as an open and public invitation to strangers to strike up a conversation with me about important things, and I’ve seen it do this on several occasions.  This will inform my decision about wearing the collar this afternoon.

When I was in discernment for the priesthood – and even before formal discernment had begun – my spiritual director asked me wonderfully probing questions.  “Why do you feel a need for ordination?  What can you do with a collar that you can’t do without one?”  The answers are many and this is not the place to explore them.  But I do realize now, even if I didn’t fully then, that a priest is called in a unique way to be a public witness to the presence of Christ, not just in the parish, but in the world.  In a nominally Christian culture that is, in reality, increasingly secular or pagan, the simple wearing of a collar is a countercultural act of Gospel proclamation.  With no words necessary, the collar nonetheless testifies to the mystery of faith:  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  As a priest, I have this great opportunity; it is something I can do with the collar that I can’t do as easily without it.  This will inform my decision about wearing the collar this afternoon.

But, I also live in the South and this is summer when the temperature and humidity both hover in the nineties.  Who chose black for a clerical shirt?  When the sun beats down and the sticky air makes it hard to breathe, a black clerical shirt and collar are miserable.  And though I’m ashamed to say it, this uncomfortable physical reality will also inform my decision about wearing a collar this afternoon.

In my diocese there are no policies, no rubrics, no real guidelines on when and where a priest is to wear the clerical collar.  It is a personal and private decision – certainly adiaphora – and I honor the various choices of my fellow priests.  But it is a decision I hope to make theologically and vocationally and not haphazardly or thoughtlessly.  As trivial as it may sometimes seem – Certainly there are more important issues, aren’t there? – it is not unimportant.


Photo:  Public Domain.

John is a Knoxville, Tennessee native and was a third generation member of the Christian Church, where he served as deacon, elder, and teacher. He and his wife, Clare, were drawn to the Anglican Church by the rhythm of the daily office, the richness of liturgy, and the presence of a sacramental worldview. John was ordained to the priesthood in May 2015. He looks forward to continued ministry at Apostles Anglican Church. John and Clare have one daughter who is currently in college studying secondary science education.


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  2. Tim DeGraff October 23, 2015 at 4:38 pm - Reply

    What are your various priestly views about Permanent Deaconswearing the collar?

  3. Paul Hogan October 24, 2015 at 7:02 am - Reply

    Thank you, there is a debate raging loudly in my head. I will prayerfully consider dress when I leave the house. I have been told that in Georgia it is a turn off. But each time I am in public, outside of a church function, someone acknowledges or asks a question. Isn’t it about the one each day?

    • Aimee Roberts October 24, 2015 at 12:24 pm - Reply

      Paul, I have also heard that it could be a turn off, but perhaps that is because it is unfamiliar. I love it when my husband is stopped in public, especially when a stranger sits beside him to talk. The collar is a sign to them that they can talk to him about the things that deeply matter to them.

  4. David Beckmann November 4, 2015 at 11:49 am - Reply

    Great post on the collar, John. When I am in public without a collar, I often regret it. When I do wear it, it is not uncommon to be glad I did. Maybe we should not worry about what “they” say about it bothering people in someway in the South and trust the Lord to use it – as He seems to do, in unanticipated ways. Besides, people who are turned off by it need to have some lines drawn in their lives anyhow. The colour in the summer…. hm. Black is classic, for sure. How about light gray in the summer? That should help, I would think. Finally, one of my biggest problems is cost! It’s hard to afford to have enough of them to wear all the time. Thanks again!

  5. The Rev. Dr. Jon C. Jenkins December 10, 2015 at 11:18 pm - Reply

    Having been a full time clergyman for eight years, and part-time the last two, and also a teacher and professor for Catholic schools and institutions where I am not recognized as a priest formally, but have the respect of my students and colleagues, I resonate with your concerns about when is an appropriate time to make the switch. I certainly don’t wear my collar to run errands, mow the lawn, or to make dinner for my wife as we lounge at home. When I was full time, I lived in clericals because I was full time, and I never even considered changing to go to dinner, or before going to the store my way home.

    However, I’ve noticed that posts like these don’t address those times when we gather as clergy, or even recent posts on Facebook by those who are among the top leadership of our church in particular, who frequently go to church in different parishes in the area without a collar, or who represent our church at our most important gatherings without a collar. Without presuming to proclaim why this is the case, I will speculate that there is an underlying discomfort and perhaps shame with the very idea of the collar. Would that they posited as deeply as this article, or had the brevity to wear it to church (of all places) and to have those thousands of little encounters such as you experienced at Barnes and Noble.

    While some of my colleagues have far more snippy things to say about such clergy, I merely lament. I lament the loss of opportunities to change someone’s life when they come to you as a stranger and leave as a healed child of God, or at least closer to it than before. I lament the time they’ve had to read in a B&N without interruption to counsel someone who walks up to you because you’re the first clergy person they’ve ever met in public, and they really need some advice. Even my Roman Catholic colleagues are scarcely in clericals those days outside of the church, and there seems to be some stigma of what might happen.

    In the (going on) ten years I’ve been in a collar, no one has ever come and attacked me, or asked a question I was unprepared to answer. No one who has asked, “Are you a priest/pastor/preacher?” Has ever followed with a negative comment. Rather I’ve heard more confessions in bars than in church, by a long shot. I’ve counseled people though things as simple as “What do you think of the new Pope?” to “I came home yesterday afternoon to discover my roommate had blown his head off with a shotgun.” While sitting at the airport last fall, I was asked to bless busload after busload of new soldiers coming through ATL to be sent off to a local army base, simply because I was there, waiting for a stranger at the airport.

    I was present, and they asked. That is the formula.

    This I lament on your behalf, because our Lord has ordained you to be his priest in this world, and when you remain anonymous,, their pain remains silent, their anxieties only grow, and you don’t gain this valuable experience in the hardest trenches in this battlefield: the public. This is your loss, and I lament it for you. I hope this influences your decision tomorrow afternoon.

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