Thursday, February 18, 2010

In Uniform

Today is Ash Wednesday, and I spent the day in my uniform.

I have been a Methodist minister for the past 30 years. And I very seldom dress in official clergy garb. When I first began this ministry, I had no wish to be like the senior ministers in this church: they dressed in black, and many wore their clerical collars permanently. They did not connect with the rock music culture that shaped me - a culture of blue jeans, t-shirts and informality. I wanted to be the kind of minister who was approachable; one who young people could talk to; one who stood alongside people who were marginalised by the formality and the rigidity of the “professional clergyman.”

Later in my ministry I found myself amongst poor, working-class people. These were people who worked under supervisors and foremen in factories and on shop floors. They translated this into their church life and wanted me to be their religious “boss” / supervisor / foreman. And I resisted this by refusing to dress in a way that reinforced the power of the clergy. For the ten years that I was their minister, I never once dressed in any clerical uniform. I wanted to underline the fact that that we were a team of people – each bringing different gifts and abilities to serve the common good, but no one more powerful than any other.

And so I have spent most of my life dressing down, dressing like my congregation, dressing in ways that speak of being a team rather than emphasising status. But I am gradually discovering space for “Clergy Clothes”: there are moments when it is necessary to be clearly identified as clergy – like when I officiate at a funeral of people who are strangers to me and my church… it simplifies matters when the mourners can immediately identify who the minister is. There have also been other moments – such as walking into a busy city hospital, or participating in a political protest – when being instantly recognisable has been useful.

I am now finding it helpful to dress as a clergyperson for sacramental moments: Baptism and Holy Communion are becoming increasingly strange to the society we live in. People in my congregation are no longer schooled in my church tradition. Many have come from little or no church tradition at all. So I need to find ways of indicating moments of special significance. It is therefore helpful to put on a uniform to indicate to those who come to church that this is a special event.

Today I wore clergy uniform…..Because it is Ash Wednesday.
And I wanted to mark this as a significant day in our Christian journey.
Perhaps I will wear my clergy shirt tomorrow as well - to mark this journey of Lent.

...... I will let you know.


David Barbour said...

I have often noticed how some folk speak to me in a strange manner and it leaves me puzzled. Later on I work out that they were feeling guilty about something and talking to 'a man of God' made them feel uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable with the unease and the lack of informality but I realized that for them it was an important moment of recognizing God' prevenient grace through me the minister. A God prompt so to speak. A symbol of God in their midst. The collar provokes this instantly in those who don't know us. But I do not wear it on a day to day basis and amongst those who know me. God strength

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Thanks Pete, I find this helpful - not being a great fan of clerical clothes myself.

Dion Forster said...

Thanks Pete - once again you have a wonderful way of expressing feelings that I've had about clerical dress as well.

Since I am now working in a corporate environment I don't wear a clerical shirt for most of my ministry (simply because I seldom preach to groups during the week. Most of my time is spent working with individuals, in smaller prayer groups, giving input in meetings, etc.)

However, I have taken to wearing a clerical shirt when I attend some national and international gatherings. The reason is that many of these gatherings have predominantly 'charismatic' preachers and evangelists (I have noticed that the new 'clerical' dress of this group - which I also see among some of our ministers - is very pointy white leather and snake skin shoes, very smart suits etc.) I don't identify with that and don't want to be identified with it! I am thankful that I come from a rich liturgical tradition, so among other ministers and pastors I am happy to be approached as a mainline Church minister!

So, among my 'congregation' I dress down to break down barriers (I am trying to teach and model the notion that EVERY person is a minister in the marketplace Col 3.24). However, among the 'professionals' that try to set themselves aside I like to wear a clerical shirt (which of course was brought into the Church to give anonymity) the first clerical dress was intended to make every minister look humble and the same! I have a great document on the theological history and intention of vestments that Tim Attwell prepared for DEWCOM.

Thanks for this Pete! As always, you're a gift!


Anonymous said...

It’s funny. I grew up as the son of an Anglican pastor. As I remember back I think my dad always looked kind of smart in his dog collar. Of course he did sported a trendier colour than religious black ;). Pale blue. I always thought it gave him an allure of sorts.