What I Wear

I’ll start with the easier of the two questions: When do I wear clerical garb, and why?

My current practice is to wear clericals when I’m exercising the ministry to which I was ordained — that is, when I’m serving in liturgical or educational ministries (or stand available so to do). In practice, that means I wear black on Sundays and on days that I teach, and other days if I’m leading worship (or exercising my teaching ministry in a non-classroom way).

The arguments against wearing clericals involve — insofar as I understand them — the implied claim that a clergyperson is someone special. Clerical attire signifies (on this account) privilege and power, a staked claim on a disproportionate share of heavenly goods. Someone dressed in clergywear can be seen to ask for special attention from the world: “Notice me, respect me, I’m holy.” That not only reflects poorly on the ordained person, but also disables lay ministry; if I, as a priest, am special and notable, then I can naturally be expected to exercise special and notable functions. A non-ordained observer plausibly concludes that she or he need not participate in leadership, in active outreach, in theological reflection, and so on; that, after all, is the special ministry of the ordained.

That’s what they call “clericalism.” It’s a Bad Thing, on even the most charitable account. Everything in the paragraph above contravenes the ideals expressed in Scripture and in the best and wisest of the church’s tradition.

At the same time, it’s more complicated than just that.

If it be granted that some clergy wear their clothes as a claim to privilege, my experience of wearing clericals differs. Often as not, my black clothes and funny collar make me a target for a variety of people’s off-kilter projections. I don’t expect anything different from people when I’m in black, but I wear my uniform since that’s part of a signifying system by which I’m marked as “available for help, spiritual counsel, listening to long explanations of why you don’t go to church any more,” and so on. If it’s a claim to privilege, these are privileges that don’t appeal much to me.

I wear clericals for a variety of reasons. For one, it’s the uniform. I don’t feel any imperative to conceal the fact that I’m a priest, nor to make a big deal about it. It’s my job, as the UPS carrier’s job is to carry packages, and she wears brown, and I wear black.

Should clergy wear uniforms? I can see arguments both ways. For the time being, I’m inclined to think it’s good that people can spot a priest if they feel the need. It’s worth signaling to the world that some people take this stuff seriously enough to make themselves answerable to the world’s outlandish expectations. It’s worth putting myself in the line of ideological fire. And plain clothes don’t ensure clerical innocence; clergy can certainly still manage to be self-important, manipulative, passive-aggressive, abusive rats even without black clothing. Humble is as humble does, in black or in blue jeans or in a natty suit.

If there’s a special-treatment factor, it’s much less a matter of something I expect, but something with which people can surprise me. If my being a priest gives others an occasion to be kinder or more generous than they would otherwise be, I suppose that’s good for them. If they’re extra kind to me one day, it might contribute to their being extra kind to someone else another day. That sort of generosity can be habit-forming.

Does my being visible disempower non-ordained people? Quite possibly so, if they already have a malformed idea of what a priest is. All the more reason, then, that they should see me and observe that I’m not trying to put something over on them, to order them around, to make them gofers for gratifying my self-indulgent whims. All the more reason for them to be able to know that I as a priest am encouraging them, exhorting them to exercise the fullness of their ministries.

People who want a priest can identify me as someone to ask for money, for prayers, for a hand, for directions, for advice. That’s what I volunteered to cope with eighteen years ago (almost nineteen now, making me feel very old). People who resent a priest’s wearing clericals can vent their frustrations at me.

At the end of the day — or more precisely, first thing in the morning, when I get dressed — it’s a matter of a signifying practice. I don’t control the signification of my attire, but I venture that sign because I’m committed to the best of what it signifies. I’m willing to be judged for the extent to which I comply with the pernicious significations (and I certainly don’t want to try to evade responsibility for those significations just by dressing differently). I’m a servant, of a particular kind, and I took on this service willingly; it’s the right thing for me to do. And I don’t mind if you can tell by looking, and I don’t mind if that irks you, and I’m sorry if you read my clothing in the light of poor examples of my colleagues (I try not to hold all police to blame for the bad ones). By wearing a black shirt and collar, I signify my willingness to deal with the complications of a clerical vocation head-on, the bad with the good, and to let you draw your conclusions about how that pans out.

20 thoughts on “What I Wear

  1. I think you are right about the humble is as humble does bit. As someone from a fairly explicitly anticlerical tradition, your clericals often seem more humble to me than the striped shirt, tie with fancy script, and suspenders ensemble. Many episcopalian bishops can’t pull this off in their pink shirts; on this score Jelinek, who seems to wear clerical less often than many seems more humble; he has also been more willing to talk to me when I’ve been around Seabury. But, I’ll say this, it’s hard to see how someone like the pope isn’t asking for special attention, and mutatis mutandis this creates a problem for people in clerical garb.

  2. A hospital chaplain once told me his backwards collar was a great comfort to patients who could “recognize” a priest even when they were having trouble recognizing family members. And, on an also-positive-but-weirder note, Mary Martin (who gloriously played Peter Pan on TV in the fifties) would even in her fifties and sixties be approached by strangers saying, “Peter, it’s you! I knew , I always knew you’d come back for me.”

  3. My pastor wears his collar on occasion as well. He wears it when he visits our weekly “Bread of Life” activity (that is, feeding the hungry in downtown San Diego). He’s told me on a couple occasions that the dynamics of wearing the collar are very different when he’s downtown, as opposed to in other areas, namely, areas similar to the suburbs. While in the suburbs other other areas of higher economic strata, he tends to get a lot of dirty looks and people keeping their distance (surely, they don’t need a pastor/priest!), but while he’s downtown among the hungry, more people tend to come up to him in appreciation and need. Of course, this isn’t always the case, but it’s definitely something he notices and finds very interesting.

  4. Curious to learn the degree to which control of this particular signifying practice is intended/ignored: e.g., clerical garb is itself somewhat blunt as a signifier – unless one is attuned to the intricacies of color-coded cards at the Vatican. To most people, the collar and black say “priest” but do not specify “catholic” or “episcopal,” or other. Such coding could, one supposes, have been incorporated into the uniform – giving readers additional information – but to my knowledge it is not. Why wear a signifier that is ambiguous when it need not be? Is this deliberate?

  5. I wear a collar at work most days. There are some practical applications involved. I cannot deny it. Many are more quick to reveal their spiritual/religious pains when I do. It also inhibits other kinds relationship. I find it more difficult to “pal around” with the medical residents. They only want to talk about Jesus and not the Cubs. Though, this eventually goes away and we can speak of both happily.

    And then there is the reality that I simply like wearing it. It is a purposeful garb. The signification is no small thing. It is an enormous responsibility and honor. Like with Samuel, it must be claimed. We must submit like brother Paul. We submit to the collar, not it to us.

  6. Excellent thoughts; excellent post.

    Being a lay leader, I ran into a related question the first time I officiated at a wedding. I don’t have clerical garb to wear (and, indeed, I won’t even someday when I am ordained, deus volent, because my tradition doesn’t use it) but I wanted to look appropriately clerical, especially because I thought there might be concern on the part of the assembled congregation about whether I was qualified to do what I was doing. I spent some hours at the nearest sizeable shopping mall with my best friend, hunting. In the end I settled on a smart black suit — long skirt, long jacket — with my prayer shawl over my shoulders. I’ve worn the suit now for other occasions, but I can’t help thinking of it as my “marrying clothes”! 🙂

  7. Rather than just dismissing those who wear clericals in their daily life as suffering from clericalism, perhaps you should consider the possibility that they wear them as daily wear because they want every moment to potentially be one of ministry.

    Naaah. I don’t believe it either.

  8. I think you hit it just about right. Maybe there are occasions on either end of the spectrum where it would be poorly received on the one hand, or vital on the other, but I like your overall approach. I like to think of clerical garb as being somewhat sacramental – an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace (the church).

    Sure, some people mess that up, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing in principle.

  9. This is all very interesting. I have always found it puzzeling that clerical clothing is connected with clericalism. Perhaps this is in part because outside church circles for my whole life, being a priest or pastor wasn’t an automatic good thing.
    When I did my CPE though most Covenant Pastors don’t wear collars, I wore one. I did so partialy for me: the beige chaplain lab coat signified boring to me and I need a reminder of why I was walking the halls of the hospital and simply poping into stranger’s room. I also did it so that people knew where I was coming from, I was there as a Christian chaplain. There was at times the confusion, “Are you a Priest” ie. Roman Cahtholic. Or people would call me “Father”. Once it kept me from a hosptial room. I had barely darkened the door when I was told to leave. They wanted a Rabbi, a Christian priest was not welcome. But then it was perhaps best, If I had come in with tie and beige lab coat eventually they would have figured out that I was Christian, and would have sent me away anyway. Best that they knew what they were getting.
    I don’t wear a collar now but I do wear a russian style cassock on sundays (without shirt or pants underneath) and from time to time outside. Mostly I get odd glances. Only once have I been asked if I were a priest.
    I find thought that the cassock is as much a reminder to me of my call as a sign for others. I would hope that other priests wear clericals for the same reason.
    And as to ambiguity: as far as I understand there aren’t any signs without ambiguity. It is only a matter of degree. For me given my tradition the ambiguity is greater when I wear clericals of any kind. But that keeps signification lively.

  10. There’s something about putting on the clericals that serves as a wake-up call to me: “Hey, be attentive to who you are and what you do–something greater than just your personal reputation is on the line. Your actions today will reflect on the Church, for better or worse…so make it ‘better.'”

  11. So, Derek, it’s a bit like having a fish symbol on your car?

    “Man, I better drive nice or people will think all Christians are jerks – oops, too late…”

  12. Strange to pick up on this conversation thread, having just returned from another with my colleague on the same subject!
    (NB. Was directed here from Maggi Dawn’s weblog, which I read often – may call in here more often, now i’ve spotted this site!)
    I am an Anglican Curate, a little under two years into parish ministry, here in Essex, England. I come along a Christian journey which has not had a great deal of truck with special clergy dress, yet now serve a parish and church family where it does. I stick pretty hard to wearing the black and suit/jacket get-up – I find it a mission challenge, as the original blog has said. It is not just me – personlity-oddness and all – it is the office I bear and my preparedness to always act as a signifier for the Gospel. Sometimes that leads to conflict and projection and transference of others’ anxieties and angers – that’s OK, ‘cos that’s part of the deal in following Jesus in this particular way, it seems to me. More often, though, it is the ‘permission’ the clothes give to share and open up from others – always a huge privilege, though no less daunting.

    And, on my day off each week, I’m delighted to be back in my oldest jeans and a T-shirt!….

  13. I’ll just throw in that I find it ironic that in the conservative baptist tradition of my youth, clerical garb is not used (I won’t speculate on particular reasons since I never heard it discussed), despite having perhaps the highest degree of perceived pastoral authority. I think it could be said that baptists are at least as submissive to their pastors as any part of american christendom.

    In my current presby church they don’t use garb other than suit and tie. However, the senior pastor is one of the best known men in Durham, due entirely to his gregariousness. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve told people what church I go to and they say, “oh, yeah, I know your pastor.”

  14. It’s interesting that uniforms, in our society, generally signify low status. The burger flippers and grocery clerks and so on wear them, but their managers don’t. The church, the military and the judiciary are the only organizations I can think of where you can’t get promoted out of a uniform (you just get promoted into a different uniform).

  15. For me the question of whether or not to wear the collar or garb is simple: growing up Roman Catholic, I have always appreciated the uniformed style of our priests. I find the thought comforting [on a religious level] that I can pick a priest or pastor out of a crowd if needed. After thinking about your post, I realized that it is similar to seeing a (wo)man in uniform as a police officer, military officer, etc. I guess I like traditions, too. I know the thought goes deeper, but suffice it to say, I am comforted by the garb when I see it. It reminds me that even in a heavily secular world, we can still hold religious beliefs without feeling like a complete outcast.

  16. I would think it would be required to be out and about in clericals. Very embarassing to find yourself in wealth bondage with a priest and not know it. Full disclosure all around. Priests no more than the rest of us should not pass for something they are not. Leave working under cover for the police.

  17. Among confessional Lutheran pastors wearing clerical garb is a standard practice. I wear a black tunic and either a Roman or Anglican collar six days a week. It is a uniform to identify the wearer’s vocation. It identifies holiness (hagios in Greek) in its original meaning: set apart, not as better than others but as a servant of Christ’s servants. Why black? Because that color symbolizes sin. We understand our uniform to be a confession that the wearer is a sinner who serves Christ the Righteous. When serving in disaster relief we wear clerical black over BDU military pants and combat boots. On Sunday, we wear clericals under an alb, stole and chasuble, and sweat like a horse even in the dead of winter. As a practical matter, an ecclesiastical uniform makes me more approachable. On one occasion a stranger, a first time airline passenger, approached me to pray with him. In hospitals the medical staff will sometimes flag me down to pray with a frightened patient even though I am not the staff chaplain. I also wear a pectoral crucifix, not an ambiguous naked cross, just to irritate you Baptists (joke!)

    1. I suppose it depends on the post. I sometimes wore my collar when teaching at the University of Glasgow, if I needed to go directly to (or come directly from) a church obligation; likewise when I taught at Northwestern in the USA. On the whole, though, my own practice is to distinguish the work I’m doing by the attire appropriate to it — church work in clericals, general academic work in civvies.

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