A friend of mine once said: “we are really good in the church at creating professional clergy, but we aren’t very good at creating ministers of the gospel.” Hearing her words made me think of my own time in seminary and the different ways in which I was and was not prepared to be spreading the gospel. During my last year in seminary, the then dean, Joseph Britten, sat the senor class down one day and passed out a piece of paper. One of the topics for discussion that day was clerical dress. The dean began by saying that we could talk about the historical and cultural reasons for clergy to wear black, but that we would never have a better excuse than the words on this piece of paper. Printed on the paper were the lyrics to the Johnny Cash song “Man in Black”:
Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.
Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.
I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.
And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen’ that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen’ that we all were on their side.
Well, there’s things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin’ everywhere you go,
But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.
Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s OK,
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black.
If I learned nothing else in seminary, that day I began to grasp what it means to be a minister of the gospel and not just another specialized professional in a suit.
Those years in seminary were the days when I longed for the day when I could officially wear a clerical collar. It was a symbol of what I was working towards; it was a symbol of my burgeoning identity; and, yes, it was also a symbol of authority. I can remember the excitement of actually getting to wear a collar for the first time as an ordained person and the amount of pride that I took in dressing for the role of deacon and priest, but that was a long time ago.
In the eleven years since I was ordained, the clerical collar has lost the mystique that it once had. As a good Anglo-Catholic I still wear it the majority of the time when doing anything official (and yes, I only wear black), but I must admit feeling a great sense of relief at the end of the day when I take it off. I even find myself looking for reasons or excuses NOT to wear the collar sometimes. Quite a change from when I first put it on.
What many people do not understand is that wearing a clerical collar and dressing as a priest, very often changes the way people look at you and the way they treat you. Introverts (like me) can find all that extra attention exhausting, but even some of the most outgoing people I know can get tired of being seen as Father of Mother so and so ALL the time. I have found myself in recent years to be reluctant at times to wear my collar when going in to Manhattan (I live on Long Island). I find myself wanting to take it off or change my shirt, so that I can travel around like everyone else without the extra baggage that the clerical collar brings with it. Recently I was heading into Manhattan from my office and I paused for a moment thinking that I might take off my collar before I left, but for some reason (a still, small voice) I decided to leave it on.
When I walked up to the train platform I was stopped by a man who looked like he was waiting for a train in the opposite direction. Now my gut reaction whenever anyone stops me on the street or in public is to expect one of two things: 1) to be asked for money, or 2) to be asked a theological question that deserves a complex answer by someone that expects a simple answer usually agreeing with their own viewpoint (seriously, this happens). Call me cynical.
The man started by apologizing for taking up my time. He said that he was Jewish and not from my faith but respected what I did and recognized me as a person of prayer. He told me a story of how he had just been diagnosed with an inoperable cancer, was afraid of losing his vision and dying, and really wanted someone to stop and pray for him. That was it. He didn’t want money. He didn’t want to monopolize my time. He just wanted reassurance of God’s love from someone he recognized as a minister.
It took less than a minute of my time to give this gentleman everything that he wanted. After we said a brief prayer together there on the train platform he walked on. It was just a brief moment of grace punctuating a rather ordinary day, but I walked away from the encounter feeling quite different than I had just a few minutes before. He may have been the one who asked for prayer, but I may have been the one who was healed.
This whole encounter which changed my day, and undoubtedly changed his too would not have happened if I had taken that collar off as I had originally intended. I was wearing a symbol of my office and it was that symbol that helped to create the space where that encounter could happen. I realized that I had begun looking at the collar as a professional clergyperson; as a symbol of work that can at times be exhausting. What the collar became for me in that moment was a tool to be used in the ministry of the gospel, and that made all the difference in the world.
The signs and symbols we use in the church have great power, even to people who are completely outside our faith. Even people who never cross the threshold of the church can recognize a priest on the street. They may not understand me as an individual, but they know what I represent and that still means something.
We do damage to the ministry of the gospel by dismissing the tools that God has given us to spread it. By saying that “style doesn’t matter” or that something is “merely symbolic” we casually dismiss the powerful tools that we have to tell the world about Jesus Christ and the love he has for it. When we are more focused on the tools than we are on the mission, then we revert back to being professional clergypersons, but when we are using the tools to further our mission, then we become effective ministers of the gospel.
As an Anglo-Catholic I love the symbols of my faith. I love the bells and smells. I love the gothic architecture and the beauty of the language used in the King James Bible. I love all of those things and I use them, not because I am clinging to something I grew up with (I didn’t). I use them because I am convinced that they are still effective tools for taking the gospel into a world that still needs to hear it.
Hanging on the wall in the rectory bathroom are the framed lyrics to Johnny Cash’s song. I reread it often, because I find that I need to be reminded of the just how important the symbol I am wearing on my back or around my neck might be. It isn’t a fashion choice to be worn by a professional priest; it is a tool to be used by a minister of the gospel. I thank God for reminding me from time to time that there’s a reason for the things that I have on.