Life in the Church: Of collars and clerics

The churches of which I am a member have a distinctive policy on the question of clerical dress. By this is not meant the traditional dress of clerics when participating in a religious service, but what a clergyman wears on those occasions when he is not in church, such as walking down the street or visiting those in need.

The tradition which I have inherited draws from that of the Liberal Catholic Church and others which maintain a non-stipendiary clergy who support themselves and the Church through secular (or in rare cases religious) paid work. Non-stipendiary emphatically does not mean “part-time”, since a vocation of necessity involves the person as a whole, but it reflects both the fact that these churches are generally small communities with relatively limited resources as well as that their character is to some extent formed by the voluntary nature of the endeavour that they attract, uncompromised so far as is possible by Mammon. They also have regard to the fact that their clergy may not be of the financial means necessary to afford expensive specialist clerical dress, which is generally priced much higher than equivalent non-clerical garments.

At the point when the Liberal Catholic Church formed in the years of the First World War, the time was well within living memory, at least in England, when there was no “everyday” clerical dress. The detachable clerical collar (“dog collar”) was invented in 1865 by the Rev. Donald McLeod, a Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) minister in Glasgow. Prior to this, from the 1840s, Anglican clergy sought a means of visually (and perhaps otherwise) separating themselves from the common run of men, initially with black coat and white necktie, and from the 1880s onwards, through adoption of the clerical collar. It may therefore be seen that distinctive clergy dress is a relatively modern invention.

It should also be pointed out that anyone of any religion (or indeed none) may wear a clerical collar; it is not a legally protected mode of dress nor is it associated with one or more Christian denominations exclusively. There are those who believe that wearing a clerical collar “on the street” is a form of ministry, and those who find in doing so a greater strength and purpose. There are also those who believe it serves no useful purpose and may indeed alienate some whose past experience with the clergy has not been positive. The churches to which I belong have always made this an optional matter, recognizing that there will be differing views as well as differing circumstances at issue.

As for me, I nowadays never wear a clerical collar except when performing a specific clerical function. I do not find it helpful to be visually set apart from those whom I serve, and nor is the erroneous assumption that I must be a clergyman of the Church of England one that I would wish to go uncorrected. In addition, I take the view that there is no need to broadcast that I am ordained through wearing clerical dress; that fact should be evident to others from my behaviour and discourse.

The question of what should be worn when I am a congregant in a church of which I am not a member (and when I have not been invited in my clerical capacity) also arises from time to time. In this I remember the answer of the late Bishop Leila Boyer of the Church of the Ascension, who maintained that clerical dress was wholly unnecessary in order to participate spiritually to the full on such occasions; such participation would take place entirely beyond the mundane world. I would also not want the clergy of the church in question to be unsettled by seeing someone in clerical dress in the congregation, perhaps thinking that they had been sent there in order to report in some way on them.

My preference instead is to wear a tie, and in doing so I am looking back to a tradition of decency and proper sartorial standards that should never have been let go in our society. I think above all of my grandfather, a painter and decorator by trade, who was never seen not to wear a tie even when he was in his own home. The tie is deprecated today, but not generally by people who share my outlook on life, and it remains nevertheless a discreet but effective means of the expression of taste and character.