by Jim Papile

Following up on the Café conversation, September 15-17, on the practice of calling one’s cleric Father, Mother, Reverend, etc., I have been thinking about the other public aspects of ordained ministry, like the clerical collar. Has the frequency of wearing, or the reasons for wearing a dog collar changed as the Church has/is changing?

After some quick research it seems that the practice of clergy of many denominations wearing white collars about 150 years old or so. In the Anglican world it was customary for men to wear a white tie, something like a cravat around their necks, look for the local vicar in a Jane Austin film. There is some evidence that Roman priests began to wear collars by protecting their necks from the rough edges of wool cassock collars by adding linen collarettes. Whatever the reason, practical or arcane, the practice stuck.

Being an ordained person in the Diocese of Virginia, I am aware that there are regional, and theological differences in the practice of wearing a strip of white material around one’s neck, an essentially uncomfortable practice, I have found. “Low Church,” ministers have long gone for non-clerical neckwear for men, the bow-tie is often jokingly referred to as the clerical neckwear of choice for male priests in Virginia. “High Church,” Anglo-Catholic types routinely choose the tab style, one inch of white plastic in a band of black shirt material. There seems to be a north, south thing going on too, but that may coincide with the church-personship aspects described above. Fewer collars in the South, more in the North.

There is also the considerations of who wears a collar when. Not withstanding the old joke that the curate wears a collar in the shower, some clergy wear collars at all public functions, say a school concert their child is participating in, some wear them to work every day, some wear them most work days, some only on Sunday. What about the demographics? Do women wear collars more often than men? Older priests, say over fifty more often than those under fifty?

I do a lot of my work outside of the church building these days. Book groups in coffee houses, theology discussions in restaurants, or just sitting in a local Starbucks working on a sermon. What are the pros and cons of wearing a collar in public places. I think over the years it’s been about fifty-fifty, wearing a collar on an airplane; some, always, some never. There is extensive evidence that the nature of the Christian/Post-Christian world is changing, rapidly. I wonder if attitudes about clergy attire is changing too? Are collars helpful or off-putting in seeking the un-churched? Do clergy use them as symbols of authority and power, or are they, like a wise friend once said, “great screens on which many put their projections.

Jim Papile is rector of St. Anne’s Reston Virginia. Originally from Boston, he is a proud member of Red Sox Nation.

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